From this month Iraqi citizens are forbidden from contacting Israeli officials on social media, attending gatherings organised by or even “tied to” the Jewish state or setting foot in any Israeli embassy worldwide.
The Iraqi parliament’s expansion of a law criminalising relations with Israel, its first significant decision eight months after a general election, has generated outrage from Israel and other countries. Under the widening of the 1969 law, the worst offenders face life in prison or a death sentence.
The new law not only puts Iraq at odds with neighbours in the Arab world that have built diplomatic and economic ties with Israel in recent years but also makes clear the longstanding influence of neighbouring Iran in Iraqi politics, analysts said.
Iraq, citing its support for the Palestinian cause, has not recognised Israel since its founding in 1948. The 1969 law levied the death penalty on anyone who encouraged normalising relations with Israel. But the new legislation includes much broader definitions, prohibiting establishing “diplomatic, political, military, economic, cultural or any form of ties” with Israel, whether directly or indirectly. It applies to all state and any independent institutions, and to Iraqis in or outside Iraq. It is not yet clear how the law will be implemented.
Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shia cleric who commands the largest bloc in parliament, was behind the move. The law, which was passed unanimously in parliament, reflects in part the struggle by Sadr to form a majority government in a fragmented system that typically depends on coalition building between competing factions.
The expansion of the law was aimed at neutralising criticism by Sadr’s Tehran-backed rivals who have questioned the nationalist credentials of the mercurial cleric and his Sunni and Kurdish allies.
“Sadr has been unable to form a majority government. With this law, he is showing people both that he has a parliamentary majority that can govern and he is preventing his opponents from questioning his [commitment to the] ‘resistance’,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq initiative director at Chatham House.
An earlier draft threatened to expel and seize the assets of foreign companies working in Iraq who were found to violate the law. This clause was removed but the law could still carry risks for foreign companies, an Iraqi government official said.
Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s foreign affairs ministry, said the law “puts Iraq and the Iraqi people on the wrong side of history and disconnected from reality” and that peace and normalisation agreements between Israel and Arab states were “the future of the Middle East”.
It has been roundly condemned by the UK, Israel and the US, which said it was “deeply disturbed” by the law’s passage. Iran and its regional proxies, who vehemently oppose Israel and the US, celebrated it.
But the west’s criticism bolsters Sadr’s position, Iraqi analysts say. The law was intended to quieten rumours that his Kurdish and Sunni allies — who voted in favour of the law — were too close with Israel, Gulf Arab countries and the US.
“A lot of conspiracy theories have been following Sadr and his allies, about the degree to which Gulf Arab states and Turkey have been meddling,” said Lahib Higel, senior Iraq analyst at Crisis Group. “And there’s a real worry by Iran and the so-called pro-Iran resistance axis in the region of a greater plan to lure other countries into normalisation.”
Although not publicly acknowledged, the government of the Kurdistan region in Iraq is known to have friendly ties with Israel. In March, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard justified a rocket attack it carried out near a US compound in Erbil, the Kurdish capital which is largely controlled by Sadr’s allies, for being “the strategic centre of Zionist conspiracy”.
Sadr “used this vote to show that he is more of a nationalist than they [his Iran-backed rivals] are. He is saying ‘I am the resistance: I was the first to resist the US occupation and I am still resisting,” Higel said.
But whether he can parlay any of this into effective governance is in doubt, said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq-based fellow at The Century Foundation. “Can Sadr govern by stealth and carry on running the show, even if there is no new government in place? Can he use parliament as a way to . . . dominate government without one being in place? This is an attempt, that is what he is trying to do here. I don’t know if he’ll make a great success of it.”
For many Iraqis, the law is a distraction. Although parliament passed an emergency bill on Wednesday to meet urgent needs for food security, Iraqis are restless.
“We have no electricity, no water and my bread has tripled in price this year,” said Ahmed Youssef, a 35-year-old barber in Baghdad. “But our amazing politicians care more about banning us from travelling to Israel. Who is even thinking about Israel right now?”
Additional reporting by James Shotter in Jerusalem