Prime Minister Shia’ al-Sudani discusses Iraq-U.S. relations, Iraq’s foreign policy priorities, and geopolitical and security trends in the region.
MOHYELDIN: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Ayman Mohyeldin, and I’m the host of Ayman on MSNBC.
It is my distinct honor and privilege and pleasure to be presiding over today’s conversation with His Excellency the Prime Minister of Iraq Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani. It is a great privilege for us to have him here in New York, as well as at the Council.
It is—is it working? Do we know what channel it should be on? F. Yeah, it’s on F. Can you hear me? Testing, one, two, three. Yeah. I think we’re going to—
Can you hear me? Is this better? Is that working now? All right. There we go.
If you’re hearing me in English, that’s because I’m speaking in English, I’ll just say. (Laughter.) Just I heard some people say yes. I wasn’t speaking to you guys. (Laughs.) Speaking to the Iraqis here. Great. (Laughs.) Great. So it should be on channel F for everyone who’s trying to figure it out. Great.
E? OK. So it was E. Great. E. I’m not going to—I’m going to stop talking. This is—(laughter)—do not trust a cable news host to tell you information. (Laughter.)
Yeah. Great. I think we’re—I think it’s working now. The Arabic is not working. OK. Testing, one, two, three, four.
MOHYELDIN: So I think we’re able to get started. Perfect. Thank you so much. I apologize for that technical difficulty, but perhaps a small symbol of Iraq’s journey that we will get there in the end despite these challenges in the beginning.
So it is great to have everyone here. As I said, my name is Ayman Mohyeldin. I’m going to be presiding over this conversation with our members both virtually as well as in the room here. And then we will open up the floor after about thirty minutes to questions from the members.
Mr. Prime Minister, it’s once again a pleasure to have you here. I know that we are meeting at a very important time in Iraq’s transition and its journey. You have been on the job for almost one year and you are here in New York for the first time speaking at the United Nations tomorrow. There are a lot of things that we are going to discuss, but since it is the twentieth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq I just wanted to get your thoughts—perhaps an overview—of what you think Iraq is facing in terms of challenges and opportunities right now.
(Note: Minister al-Sudani’s remarks are made through an interpreter.)
AL-SUDANI: At the outset, I’d like to extend my gratitude for hosting us and making this event possible.
Twenty years after the major change in Iraq, we certainly have major changes and major events that took place. Our political opinions and convictions have also changed. There were people who opposed that political process. There were those who opposed the political process. Some of them used arms. Some of them were armed opposition. We went through a very painful experience in countering the regime starting with al-Qaida and ending with ISIS/Daesh.
After we accomplished victory over Daesh, I think we have started a new stage. The battle against Daesh unified all Iraqi citizens with all the components and affiliations. Therefore, we bypassed the sectarian discourse and the ethnic discourse which once divided the Iraqis. Now competition in the political process goes according to constitutional mechanisms. Even when we disagree, everyone uses democratic—everyone uses democratic mechanisms. Some people would resort to the federal court, others would go to elections, which is a good sign of stability of the political regime.
MOHYELDIN: You mentioned the constitution, and that’s one of the things I wanted to start to discuss with you. There has been—there has been some discussion that part of the fragmentation—the political fragmentation that has crippled Iraq over the last twenty years has been because of the constitution. And some are calling for a reform of the constitution to change Iraq from a parliamentary system perhaps to a presidential system or a semi-presidential system where leaders and executives would be directly elected by the people. What do you think of that?
INTERPRETER: Ah, OK. He’s telling me that the other interpreter is going from Arabic to English so there’s no need for me. So, OK.
MOHYELDIN: OK. Great. Just the Arabic to English, then. OK.
AL-SUDANI: (In Arabic, not interpreted.)
MOHYELDIN: Would you be concerned that if Iraq returned to a presidential system that we could see the return of authoritarian rule or perhaps a strongman ruler?
AL-SUDANI: (In Arabic, not interpreted.)
MOHYELDIN: As I mentioned, it’s also gone through six transitions of power, relatively peaceful. The constitution has been voted on by the people. But there is a growing concern that the political factions in Iraq are sometimes more interested in the external forces contributing to them as opposed to the people electing them.
AL-SUDANI: (In Arabic, not interpreted.)
MOHYELDIN: The question is, are you concerned that there are more external forces shaping Iraq’s politics than the Iraqi people themselves?
AL-SUDANI: (In Arabic, not interpreted.)
(Interpretation begins)—that can reach intrusion.
MOHYELDIN: There has, as you very well know—violations of Iraqi sovereignty. Iran has carried out strikes in the northern part, Turkey as well; even the United States carried out an attack on Baghdad International Airport when it struck the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. What do you say to your partners in the region who are violating your sovereignty but at the same time exploiting the vacuum in some of these areas, or making these decisions unilaterally, like the way that the U.S. did?
AL-SUDANI: To start, any intrusion to Iraq is unacceptable by any party in these countries. The neighboring nations or friendly nations, including United States, if they wish for Iraq to be connected—to be connected with Iraq in a bilateral relation, a positive, bilateral relation, they have to respect—is autonomy and that respect the will of its nation, of the people. Iraq cannot be a scene to—for conflict or to get even. Iraq is different. It is Iraq’s fate to be a focal point for the interests of the countries of the region. The stability of Iraq is the stability of the region and the stability for the whole world. And when Daesh aggressed a big area in Iraq and the whole area was—all the nations in the world were destabilized and the idea of the extremists ideals from Daesh, all the nations have to respect the privacy of the situation in Iraq and to have to leave the Iraqis to manage their matters and their nation for their political system and for their constitution. And according to the good relationships that have been ongoing for many years, Iraq is a diverse country. It has many components, it has many denominations and many religions, and since a long time they have been living in that cohabitation and that tolerance. To intrude on this fabric for the interests of a party or a different party will not promote the stability of Iraq or the neighboring countries.
MOHYELDIN: Let me ask you about the economics over the past twenty years, and we all know that Iraq is a resource-rich country. In 2003 the country’s population was about 25 million; now it is about 42 million; by 2050 it is expected to be 80 million, a rapid population growth. What are the economic challenges that Iraq is facing right now? Because I think a lot of Iraqis over the past twenty years thought by now the economic situation would have been better, but it’s currently crippled by corruption, it’s still a very oil-dependent economy, and as we saw from some of the youth protests, jobs are still very much controlled by the state, where it is the largest employer of Iraqis.
AL-SUDANI: Indeed, that is one of the challenges, important challenges that the Iraqi nation faces, the importance of reforming the economical environment. By diversifying the economy and not counting on monopoly in—or to count on one thing, and I mean by that the oil. Today the revenues of the oil is high but, however, in the future we have—we need to count on the revenues of the oil to cover the needs of the Iraqi people, which increases with the increase of the number of the population, which it affects the Middle East. Therefore, our government—the economic reform as one of the main priorities, and we have a vision regarding that aspect. We work on investing the wasted resources, whether corruption or the lack of vision or the bad management during a period of time.
Also, there was a waste of natural resources. Unfortunately, that was not invested. For example, the gas, the flared gas with the—produced oil—Iraq produces about 4,562,000 barrel and it has an associated gas that is flared and it is valued for the statistics of the ministry of the oil—1,800 million square—which equals millions. Right now the gas that is imported for Iran, it’s at 1,100 million square meter, which is wasted about four billion—the waste equals $4 billion. We have to put a priority for investing this flared gas as part of the reform of the economy and to lessen the expenses. Instead of wasting 8 (billion dollars) to $9 billion yearly, we can direct it towards other sectors to invest. And this is what we did through the agreement with the company Total and with the fifth cycle for—companies from the UAE and other Chinese companies that invest that flared gas.
At the same time, we have announced a few fields in Anbar, Najaf, and Nineveh to invest the gas, the natural gas that was not invested even during the old regime. Especially Iraq has a high amount of reserve.
Today we work on investing the profits that we get from the oil and in the future from the gas and we plan on directing them to other sectors—agriculture industry, commerce, and tourism. Iraq has a lot of natural resources that would enable it to be an important nation and to raise its economy. Also, propose the project—one of the most important paths—which is the shortest and the best and most cost-effective to transport merchandise between Asia and Europe through Turkey. Now we look for the establishment of the Port Faw and it’s one of the most important ports in the area and in the world. These are big strategic projects that will change Iraq and will create a new Iraq with a diverse economy.
MOHYELDIN: There’s no doubt, as you mentioned, Iraq is one of the most consequential countries in the region for the reasons that you just outlined. But you also outlined the dependence of Iraq on fossil fuels, as you just mentioned as well the ability to capture natural gas into—use that economically for Iraq’s advantage. But it’s also coming at a time that Iraq is suffering greatly environmentally. Desertification has put Iraq on a very dangerous course. I believe 7 million Iraqis are affected by drought. Fifty-four percent of the land is no longer arable or farmable. How do you reconcile an economic vision dependent on fossil fuels that is also negatively hurting your country and your people?
AL-SUDANI: The projects mentioned is a solution and a remedy for the problems—environmental problems. Today, when we invest the gas—the associated gas, we are going to stop the gas effect, the green(house) gas emissions. These projects for the investment of the gas and to turn it into energy for the electrical stations, but however it does—it stops the flaring of the gas and all the negative impacts.
Also, there was another agreement with Total to include four contracts. These contracts, one of them includes solar energy, and that’s a new transformation. We have three agreements—one with Total and another with an Iraqi company, and a company from the United Arab Emirates, and the fourth will be with a Chinese company—to have about 2,500 megawatts of solar energy. That’s a change, a transfer.
And also, soon we’re going to have a contract with one of the important company for the desalination of water in Basra and in the Gulf. All these—all these are remedy for all the issues that we face and the scarcity of water right now. We study a project—a strategic project for the management of the water, and it’s going to be implemented for the first time in the history of Iraq. It’s going to be a solution for the scarcity of the water and for the best use of the water that’s there.
MOHYELDIN: Let me ask you one final question before we allow the members to join the conversation. It’s, as I mentioned at the beginning, twenty years since the invasion. You now have a generation of young Iraqis born postwar. They did not know Saddam Hussein. Sure, they know about him, but they didn’t live the experience. They didn’t live the war. And now they are becoming full citizens in the sense that they can vote, they’re getting jobs, they’re working in the private sector and public sector. And they were the driving force behind the Tishreeni movement that wanted to see real political change. That part of the population in Iraq today is growing increasingly frustrated. How worried are you that the young generation of Iraq is not adequately being represented, is not adequately having a say in the future of their country because of the old guard, if you will?
AL-SUDANI: That’s an important question because the challenge—the first challenge in front of the political operation that the government and Iraq face, the difficulty that there’s a big amount of number of Iraqi young citizen, the young population; about 60 percent. And like you mentioned, they did not live during the period of time—they did not live during the Saddam regime or the Baath Party and the tyrant or repressive systems. They expect from the political system job opportunities, stability, a homeland in which to live with dignity. And these are their rights, and we have to accommodate. That’s what we work on.
Our priorities that we put are priorities based on the work and the ambitions of that sector of the population. We have composed a high committee for the young citizens under a ministry and we studied with a big amount of people who—young men through the social media who proposed sixty ideas and suggestion, and we proposed all these to the ministerial committee, and we hosted them. Many of them went in the council for the first time and the meeting was dedicated to them. We took their suggestions and we passed them on to the ministries, and we took a majority of these suggestions and started implementing them.
The voting law, elections law after 2016 was amended to twenty-eight years now. The minimum age for the parliament is twenty-eight years now. And now we have young leadership from—some of whom were part of the protests in the Tishreeni.
Also, two month from now we’re going to have elections for the local committees. And there’s more than 290 party that are recorded for the elections, most of which are new parties, not the traditional parties that lived through the opposition time or the establishing of the political operation. All of those are convinced that the change starts in the constitutional institutions and through the—well, I—this is a healthy sign for the political system in Iraq.
MOHYELDIN: Prime Minister, thank you so much.
I’d like to open the floor now to our members, both online as well. And if there’s anyone that has a question, please stand up, identify yourself, and go. This gentleman right here. Sir.
Q: Thank you. Chris Isham.
Could you—just before you were sworn in, there was a major heist at the Bank Rafidain in Baghdad to the tune of about $2.5 billion. I think it was probably the largest bank heist in history anywhere. Could you tell us what the status of that investigation is? And to what degree do you think former officials, government officials, were implicated in that?
AL-SUDANI: That larceny that was titled the larceny of the decade in Iraq because it was one of the biggest armed burglary, the theft on the institutions of the government through corrupt people—imposed through corrupt authorities who defrauded through official documents many parties. That, unfortunately, took place. There was an implication of high post—people of high post and then there was a court rules against them. They were sentenced. That file right now is being looked at by the Iraqi judiciary and investigations have been conducted with many of those implicated.
No, we’re—we have defined the names of those who are involved directly and the perpetrators who facilitated the death and given approvals directly or indirectly. And the judiciary has issued warrants of arrests, some of whom are outside of Iraq and some of whom are here in United States. They carry multiple nationalities, whether British or American. And here comes the role of these countries to help Iraq in surrendering those perpetrators. The Iraqi people look at this closely and evaluate the relationship with other countries by their response in surrendering those who are wanted, who stole the Iraqi money. Us, as a government, we are going to continue to prosecute them no matter where they are, no matter what their names are, no matter what their posts are.
As for the internal level, the judiciary has started procedures to retrieve the money that did not leave Iraq. We’re talking about over 3,700 million dinar. This is a huge amount of money. Over the past month all that money was stolen in front of the government—front of the government at the highest level. Unfortunately, the big amount of this—amount of money has left Iraq, and the rest that remains in Iraq the chair is working on retrieving an amount—an amount that exceeds 500 million dinar, which is about $300 million. But most of that amount is—remains in banks outside of Iraq. And those were wanted remain wanted by the Interpol and by the security. And we wish there’s going to be help and aid from all the friendly nations in surrendering them.
MOHYELDIN: This gentleman back here in the middle.
Q: Jeff Laurenti.
Thank you very much, Mr. Prime Minister, for taking time to speak with us this evening. I wonder if you could share with us your thoughts about those three neighbors of Iraq. Turkey, which still remains obsessed about Kurds and the Kurdish autonomy that exists in Iraq that it feels is a threat to its own integrity. Iran, which seems to view itself as the champion of Shi’ite interests everywhere and therefore exerts a large—or, would like to exert a larger role in Iraq. And then next door in Syria, where the regime has not consolidated complete control yet but has certainly had a good deal of back and forth, not favorable, with Iraq. So if you could just tell us where these three neighbors are, what degree of respect you all get for your sovereignty from them. And just as a footnote, you had mentioned tourism is the future. Is it safe for tourists to go to Iraq right now?
AL-SUDANI: Iraq has several connections with these nations with Turkey and with Iran. And there are many things in common, whether religious, cultural, or social. We do not hide that there are of course problems and there are challenges. The Iraqi nation, with all its authorities, and even with the political power in this political operation and area, we use dialogue, discourse, communication away from violence.
Now, I could say how confidently that decision of Iraq is a national decision. It will not execute the desires of any party or any country, not Iran, not Turkey, and not the United States. The decision is Iraqi, that counts on the best interest of Iraq and the best interest of the Iraqi people. We will look positively towards all the nations of the region and we think Iraq is a point of connection of all the nations in the region and in the world. And this is the best interest of everyone, the stability of Iraq, and the stability of the whole region.
As for Syria, we are concerned about the situation in in Iraq. And we do have a realistic read. In Syria, there is terrorism and there is areas that are outside the control of the regime, and there’s a lot of foreign powers. The instability of Syria challenges the stability of the whole region. Right now, we’re not even just worried about the entrance of the terrorists from Syria, but also the drugs, the drug smuggling, because of areas that are outside of the control of the government. Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf nations struggle with that. And this is why we call for the importance of the stability of Syria, because that anything other than that is difficult.
Also, as an indication, Iraq has tourist attractions, religious or historical. After the visit of the Pope to Iraq, we now have delegate—a lot of tourism in Dhi Qar, in Baghdad, and other governorates, even in Nineveh and Mosul. In addition to the religious tourism, we also have about 3,750 delegates from all nations of the world. And this is one of the things that government is interested in in order to stimulate economy.
MOHYELDIN: We’re going to take a question virtually now if we can, please.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Kenneth Pollock.
Q: Thank you very much, Ayman. Thank you very much, Mr. Prime Minister. It’s wonderful to see you again. And I apologize that I can’t be there in person to ask you this question.
My question for you is you’ve been having a lot of conversations with the U.S. government, and particularly you’ve talked about wanting to energize and activate the Strategic Framework Agreements. Obviously, the Strategic Framework Agreement covers a huge area of different activities. What are your priorities from the United States government? What are the specific areas that you’d like the U.S. government to prioritize in terms of assisting Iraq?
AL-SUDANI: Strategic Framework Agreement was signed in 2008. But it has not taken any—it has not taken any practical steps. And there is the—one of them said that they read the agreement and they found mistakes in it in the language. I said, this is an indication that no one has even reviewed that agreement during that whole period of time. We need to implement that agreement. The relationship between Iraq and the United States should not only be security focused, despite importance of that, and we have a vision for the cooperation that we suggested through the common committee that was formed recently. But there are other important sectors today. The energy sector the American companies, known with their expertise, their experience, and their technology, they could find solutions for many of the problems that Iraq faces regarding different sectors, not just the energy, also an industry, services, construction, and infrastructure.
Today I had a meeting in the commerce chambers with thirty-one American companies. Some of these companies currently work inside Iraq, and many would wish to work in Iraq. And we agreed on mechanism for communication. We have hosted a number of them in Baghdad during this last summer. And during the first—and we expect in the beginning of 2024 to host a good number of them. We suggest that to them all the necessary procedures to facilitate a safe environment for their investment. What we care in our dialogue with our friends in the United States of America that we implement these aspects and the Strategic Framework Agreement, especially in economy and in technology, and in energy.
MOHYELDIN: Mr. Prime Minister, can I follow up on that question about the companies that you met with today? It’s clear, and as I understand, your government is seeking investment, foreign direct investment, into Iraq. How do you convince American companies that an investment in Iraq now is worth the return when there is so much trouble with corruption?
Al-SUDANI: The corruption? The corruption, yes, including the corruption. Specifically, the corruption. Of course, we do not deny that the corruption is one of the main challenges that faces—that stops and hurdles the investment. And this is something that we are aware of in the government. We put it among the first five priorities in the government program. We cannot have a better economy without fighting corruption. It should not—for the first time in three years there is a budget for more that exceeds $150 billion every year with fighting corruption. But every side that looks at the output of the governmental institutions, there has to be a decision. There is a decision to fight corruption, and that is important.
Iraq not need laws or institutions. We have plenty of laws and institutions enough to stop that phenomenon. However, there was not a decision, there was not a will, and there was not also a remediation professionally or legally before. I say that clearly. In this government, there is bold remedies and bold decisions to combat corruption. And this gives a positive indication that this challenge will not hurdle investments.
MOHYELDIN: I’ll go back to the audience, if we have any questions. This gentleman right here.
Q: Hello. My name is Sunny Jha. I’m a physician. I’m an anesthesiologist.
And I’ve traveled to the Kurdish region, to Duhok and Erbil a couple of times to help with the healthcare reconstruction. My question to you is, how do you—what do you—where do you see the relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government going? And particularly as it relates to the sharing of resources so that area can also thrive and be—and lead to a more safe and secure Iraq? Thank you.
MOHYELDIN: OK, sure. This gentleman right here. Yes, please.
Q: Hi. Douglas Ollivant with Mantid International. Thank you, Ayman. Mr. Prime Minister, great to see you again. And particularly good to see you in the United States.
You talked earlier a lot about gas but, as you well know, equally important is water. And I didn’t hear—you alluded to water, but didn’t speak directly about it. We know that there’s less rainfall in Iraq and we know that your upstream neighbors are letting less water come down the river. You just have to look at the Tigris to see that it flows much, much lower. And the marshlands, one of Iraq’s great heritage sites, are drying up. And those people are having to find other places to go. And it’s entirely possible that that way of life will go extinct. What are you doing, both internally in Iraq and in conversations with your neighbors, to fix your water situation?
MOHYELDIN: OK, go ahead. I’ll tell you the second question again. The relationship with the Kurdish government.
AL-SUDANI: The political power in the region of Kurdistan is important—is an important part of the political operation. And they are present together with the management—with the government which constituted this government. And there are also certain areas that has commitments with the government and commitments with the parliament. The government is committed to implement these pledges. Lately we face some problems and some challenges. We still have a—it’s not a political between Baghdad, but our political—there are legal problem that we’re trying to solve through discourse and dialogue. We want to ensure our—the rights of our people in the region of Kurdistan. We also want to—like we care for the rest of the Iraqi people in all governorates. And I think the relationship is good and it’s going in the right path, especially that is built on trust and on national best—on the national best interest of all the Iraqi people. Kurdistan is an important part, and it’s active in the political operation. It’s also an important part of our economic project that brings profit and benefit to all Iraq.
As for the desalination of the water. indeed, it is a challenge in Iraq. And despite the fact that it’s also a global problem that’s not just in Iraq. But this crisis with the—with the upstream countries which affected the water of the water stream, we work closely with the neighboring nation regarding that. And also we create—we are working on a working plan to manage the water correctly. There is a clear effect for the water in Tigris and Euphrates. And also about the rainfall which constitutes the—today we are thinking about desalination in the water of the Gulf in the area of Faw in order to have good drinking water for Basra and for the south governorates. We face that problem through various procedures, and we are going to be able to have the right solutions that will mitigate the impact of this problem on the people in general.
MOHYELDIN: Mr. Prime Minister, on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations I want to thank you so much for your time. I’m going to ask everyone to please remain seated until the delegation and the prime minister have left. So, sir, thank you so much for your time. (Applause.)