Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdulmehdi (R) hold a joint press conference following their meeting at the Iraqi Prime Ministry Palace in Baghdad, Iraq on March 11, 2019. (Photo by Iranian Presidency - Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Controversy Surrounds Proposal To Amend Iraq’s Citizenship Law

Some see the government-sanctioned move as an effort to change the country’s demographics, while others suspect it’s a way to help Iran sidestep US sanctions

The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahidi has proposed a controversial amendment that would allow foreigners who legally enter and reside in the country for at least a year to apply for citizenship.

Current law stipulates a residency requirement of at least 10 years, and the sharp reduction called for in the proposal led many legislators to reject the idea, although a spokesman for the speaker of parliament said there would likely be a vote to return it to the government for review.

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The proposal came as a surprise to the Iraqi public, which set social media ablaze. Many took to Twitter to express their displeasure, citing fears of significant changes in demographics and suspicions of foreign influence. Adding fuel to the fire were various media outlets that incorrectly reported the amendment as having become law.

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Supporters claim that the proposed amendment would bring justice to thousands of Kurds who were stripped of their citizenship and uprooted by Saddam Hussein in 1980. Opponents argue that it would make the country an Iranian puppet.

“I do not think a demographic change is the aim of the [proposed] law, which would require tens of years of work – an amount of time that no Iraqi party has,” Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Tel Aviv-based Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Media Line.

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Bilal Wahab, the Nathan and Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurred, adding that the bill itself states that the granting of citizenship is not geared towards altering the demographics of the country.

“That’s the key political point here,” Wahab related to The Media Line. “Iranian influence is a more realistic threat than demographic change.”

Against the backdrop of the proposed modification is Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which has lacked a fulltime minister since elections last summer.

Disagreements between two major political blocs – the nationalist-populist Islah, headed by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the reform-reconstructionist al-Binaa, headed by Iran-backed militia leader Hadi al-Amiri – have prevented a nomination. The post, being filled on an interim basis by Mahidi, is considered a highly coveted position, given that it oversees policing, border control and local governates, as well as matters concerning citizenship.

“Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are likely to benefit from the new law,” Sagnic said.

He explained that “thousands of foreign militia members are currently in Iraq” and that while they “cannot make a demographic change,” they are sufficient in number “to further strengthen [Shiite fighters] in the Iraqi security apparatus once they become naturalized citizens, hold government positions at mid-level institutions and receive legalized payments.”

Wahab, however, feels there is an economic side to the proposal that could benefit Iran, which has again fallen under crippling sanctions since the Trump Administration withdrew last year from a multilateral nuclear deal aimed at containing the Islamic Republic’s atomic program.

“Rumor has it in Iraqi circles that Iran is interested in getting its agents in Iraq citizenship to serve…Iranian interests,” he explained. “As Iran tries to make its economy more resilient by opening Iraqi businesses and bank accounts, [these agents] will be able to send money to their accounts in Iran.”

Earlier this month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made his first official visit to Iraq. The three-day trip was aimed at expanding economic ties with Baghdad, an effort viewed by experts as being aimed at mitigating the effect of the renewed sanctions. The visit is also seen as a message from Tehran to Washington that the Iran-Iraq relationship remains strong.

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