Within the political crisis of war-scarred Iraq, it is often really difficult for lawmakers to have a consensus. However, on May 26, 2022, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously to pass a bill that criminalizes normalization and any communication or cooperation with Israel. This bill was proposed by the Shiaa cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, the leader whose party gained 73 of the 329 parliamentary seats in the October 2021 elections. The law emerged in a very strange time within a turmoil of failing negotiations amongst the political factions to form the new government since the October elections.
This harsh law criminalizes and prohibits “diplomatic, political, military, economic, cultural, and any other types of relations” with Israel. Actions that are considered illegal and punishable by this law involve: traveling to or from Israel; visiting any of its embassies or organizations worldwide; establishing any relations with Israel; normalization with Israel; promoting any ‘Zionist’ ideas publicly or privately through participation in conferences, social media, or other means; affiliation with any Zionist organizations or assisting them; or accepting any assistance or funds from Israel. Such conduct is punishable by imprisonment or death sentencing. This antisemitic legislation represents the demagogic rhetoric the Iraqi government has reached.
Aligned with Iran’s agenda to isolate and dominate Iraq, this law comes in a time where other Arab countries have joined the Abraham Accords (including the U.A.E., Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco), and showed promising diplomatic and economic benefits.
The nature of this law is indicative of a much larger problem: the effects of autocracy in Iraq and the rise of the era of authoritarian states. Evidently, Iraq has shifted from a purportedly democratic state, as envisioned in the post-2003 war context, to an autocracy that represses any opposition (as witnessed in the governmental reactions to the peaceful protests of October 2019 and afterwards). More lately, a new transition to authoritarianism or dictatorship is occurring, exemplified by the targeting, assassination, and persecution of activists for seeking to exercise their right to freedom of expression. With this anti-normalization legislation in particular, oppression is intensifying. Who gives the government the authority to prosecute individuals based on their opinions? This form of oppression was typical of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
Iraqi activists, such as the Iraqi Kurdish political analyst Hiwa Osman, say that there has been a pattern of government policies and acts aimed at silencing free speech. Osman endorses the recent June 3rd movement to defend free speech in a statement that warns of ”the gradual transition towards the traditions of tyranny, dictatorship, and oppression.” In parallel, a gradual control of the judiciary by the legislative and executive branches has occurred, which poses a threat to justice. Instead of an independent judiciary, the political system, controlled by Iran, is dominating the Iraqi supreme judicial council. The Iranian agenda is actually being implemented by the council, and its president, Chief Justice Faiq Zaidan. Consequently, the same pre-war laws from the previous dictator’s rule are being used to criminalize political opponents, journalists, and anti-government activists. According to Osman, Iraq is approaching another era of dictatorship. The constitution, which is supposed to safeguard freedom of expression, is being disregarded, and the necessary separation between the legislative and judicial institutions has been eroded; both branches now serve the political Iran-backed political agenda.
In reading the anti-normalization law, freedom of speech is scrutinized, and expressing any Iraqi-Israeli peace-supporting views is prohibited. However, the law contradicts the Iraqi constitution, and its articles are being violated, including its second article: (b) “no law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy”, and (c) “no law may be enacted that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this constitution.” Importantly, this anti-normalization law explicitly contradicts Article 38, which states that “the State shall guarantee in a way that does not violate public order and morality: (1) freedom of expression using all means; (2) freedom of press, printing, advertisement, media and publication.”
The danger of this legislation is that it can be instrumentalized to accuse any government-opponents of normalization ties, particularly with a corrupt judiciary, making it a tool to silence opposing voices and to instill fear among activists, journalists, and reformers. This was the case of confronting the 2019-2021 protests, where the peaceful demonstrators were faced with various forms of persecution, including killing, detaining, torture, and unfair trials and sentencing. Another repercussion of this law is the impact on Iraq’s diplomatic relations with the six Arab countries that have a peace agreement with Israel. Also, the law will allow Iran to extend its anti-Israel attacks such as the recent targeting of ‘Israeli-related centers’ in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran has launched a series of missile attacks, including the March 13th attack near a new U.S. consulate (and an Israeli strategic center), and the May 5th attack of six missiles on a refinery near Erbil.
So, with all the rejection of the Iraqi citizens of Iran, represented in the past years’ protests, and the increased general public’s awareness of the harm caused by Iran, what are the reasons behind the Iranian domination of the apparatus of the Iraqi state in the past 19 years? In fact, despite the supposedly differences in the Shia entities, with some parties directly aligned with Iran and the Al-Sadr party that claims a more Iraqi-served agenda, Iran’s hegemony is in continuation. According to Mr. Ranj Aladdin, a researcher in the Center for Middle East Policy, one reason is that “both the Sadrists and Iran-aligned militias operate under an ideological outlook that is underscored by Shia supremacism and combating Western imperialism.” With the Shia majority, and the sectarian ruling, it is difficult to imagine Iran’s control diminishing.
The reaction of the Department of State to this law, as was published in the press statement on May 26th, was important. Yet, as Mr. Joseph Braude, president of the Center for Peace Communications, states, there needs to be American support for local advocates of peace and an effort to resist such a law and contain the present treats to liberty in Iraq. Mr. Braude asserts that “… the law also claims jurisdiction over Iraqis globally, more than 100,000 Iraqi-Americans and their assets are potential targets, plus Americans who assist in peace efforts on Iraqi soil”. When the law is implemented, even a slight contact with an Israeli citizen will render the Iraqi subject to death. Unfortunately, this anti-human rights law is harming peace initiatives in the Middle East.
In the current political scene in Iraq, there seems to be no silver lining. While countries like the U.A.E. are witnessing progress and developments in all spheres, Iraq has plunged into a mafia/militia state, with deteriorating human rights, worsening infrastructure, and anti-constitution legislation. As an Iraqi diaspora who demands reformation and supports peace with Israel, this law is unfortunately a dangerous backward move in Iraqi politics.