Remarks of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran Victoria Tylor at MERI Forum
REMARKS AT MERI FORUM
October 11, 2023
MR PALANI: Good afternoon everybody. I totally understand starting a panel after lunch can be quite a challenge. We are convened here for the 10th session on the second day of the forum. My name is Kamaran Palani. I’m a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute. It’s a great honor for me to welcome you to this insightful discussion and session. We will be discussing the U.S. policy in Iraq and the broader region, and I eagerly anticipate engaging in a thoughtful, insightful discussion.
Without further delay, let me introduce my distinguished speaker, Ms. Victoria Taylor. She is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and Iraq (sic) in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. State Department.
Ms. Victoria, thank you for your time, for being with us. I will start with a bit of a personal observation. I’ve been to many workshops and roundtables over the past two years, as well as I’m a member of many WhatsApp groups where we have been discussing the affairs in the region. One of the common topics has been a question, actually, whether the U.S. has abandoned the region, has withdrawn its engagement and support from Iraq and the wider region. Is there truth to this? Have you abandoned it, as – and the region?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, that’s a great question. And it’s one that we hear a lot. And obviously, that’s something that the United States would not agree with.
We remain intensely engaged and focused on the region, and the Biden administration has been particularly focused on efforts to resolve conflicts, looking at how we can promote elections in Libya, how we can resolve the conflict in Yemen, and also working to promote regional integration. And so I think, obviously, the Abraham Accords and the efforts to promote normalization between many countries in the Middle East and Israel has been a key part of this. But we remain intensely engaged in those efforts.
And I guess I would just say briefly, I think the tragic events in Israel, the attack in Israel, is just another reminder of how important it is for the United States to remain engaged in the Middle East. Our president and our secretary remain – they are working the phones every day, calling leaders in the region, ensuring that we’re doing whatever we can to prevent an escalation of this conflict, encouraging Hamas to back down, and urging any actor, bad actor that – to not try to take advantage of the current situation.
And I think another thing I would say is we’ve also been very focused on de-escalation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and looking at ways to resolve the conflict over the past six months, as well, including efforts in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh. And I think the events of the past week show how important those continued efforts are.
I think I would also say the U.S. remains intensely focused on Iraq. Iraq is really a cornerstone to stability in the Middle East. And we believe that this longstanding strategic partnership is really critical to U.S. interests and to Iraqi interests, as well. And so we are focused on really building on what has always been a very strong security partnership and looking at how we can build this 360-degree partnership that includes greater cooperation on economic issues, on energy issues, greater exchange between our peoples, and also, I think, looking at new opportunities to cooperate on issues involving the climate, such as water.
MR PALANI: Thank you so much. So last year at that time a new government in Iraq formed. Like, my academic background usually tries to complicate affairs and development. So the current government in Baghdad is arguably the most stable government since 2003. But there are types of stability that we should be worried about them as much as we should be worried about instability. How does your administration, the Biden administration, view the current government in Iraq? Do you see it’s different from the previous ones? How do you look at the government in Baghdad?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: So I guess I would say the U.S.-Iraqi partnership is really built on shared goals, and I think we’ve seen, as well, from Prime Minister Sudani that there are a lot of shared goals that we can continue to work on. We recently had a meeting between the Secretary of State and Prime Minister Sudani in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly, and I think it really showcased the breadth of the relationship and the ways that we can continue to partner with his government.
Prime Minister Sudani has really focused on encouraging increased U.S. investment and economic ties between our two countries, and we see a lot of interest from U.S. companies, and also exploring both opportunities in federal Iraq as well as the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
I think on energy issues we also see a lot of opportunities to cooperate. The Prime Minister has said he’s interested in ensuring that Iraq is energy independent. That’s a goal that we share, and we think that’s something that really strengthens Iraqi sovereignty. So we were pleased when the Prime Minister signed this very large deal with Total, and think that projects such as this and efforts to work with countries in the GCC and Jordan to develop energy interconnections, those are projects that are important towards that goal of energy independence.
And I think on the security front, of course, we’ve had really critical cooperation, particularly in the fight against ISIS. And so that cooperation is ongoing. We hosted a military dialogue in August that really showcased the ongoing security cooperation that we do have with the Iraqi Security Forces, and I think also paves the way for a strengthened security partnership, as well.
MR PALANI: Yeah. Usually when we discuss among ourselves about how should we look at the broader Iraqi power structure and political system, do you integrate this part, half of the population not happy with the system, into your engagement and into your relations with the Iraqi authorities?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, I guess maybe I would start by saying I just am coming from Baghdad, and this is actually my first trip to Iraq, and I’m thrilled to be here and also to have an opportunity to come to Erbil.
While I was in Baghdad I had an opportunity to visit the American University in Baghdad and to talk with a group of students. And I came away just really impressed. They were extremely engaged. They were articulate, and they were asking very difficult questions that were about the future of Iraq. They were asking me about health care, and really emphasizing the importance of developing the health care sector in Iraq. They were talking about education, and how important it is to continue to develop higher education opportunities for Iraqi youth. And they were even talking about climate and water. And we know that young people throughout the world are really focused on environmental issues in a way that the older generations maybe have not been, understanding the real impact on their own futures.
And so I would say, with such a large youth population in Iraq, it’s critical for the Iraqi Government to really focus on how to meet their needs, and it’s also critical for the United States to think about how we can continue to build a relationship with the Iraqi youth. And so that’s certainly something we think about, as well.
Part of our engagement is focused on the educational sector. We have a large number of programs that are focused on English language training. We look at ways that we can continue to bring young people to the United States to give them an opportunity to really learn about the U.S. and our culture, and also there’s programs that we have for longer-term academic training to make sure that they are having a real opportunity for advanced educational experience in the United States.
And so I think these things are all part of our own effort to develop a stronger partnership between our two peoples, but I think recognizing the importance of Iraqi youth to the future of Iraq.
MR PALANI: Yeah, I think we need to have a new avenue for policy discussions about youth and foreign policy engagements across Iraq.
One thing that I’ve been able to observe on the ground is that there is less support among youth across the populations in cities and communities, there is less support for ethnosectarian grievances and demands. There is a very limited audience for that. Their demands are related to governance, socioeconomic opportunity. I think this is an opportunity, when we engage with the Iraqi authorities, how the support for governance and the less support for ethnosectarian divisions can be integrated into policy engagements with the Iraqi authorities, as well as activities and programs.
But if you – oh, sorry.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, I guess one other thing I would say – and I know this is a trend throughout the broader region – is really high employment, unemployment among youth.
MR PALANI: Yeah, yeah.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: And so that’s something that the Iraqi Government will need to address. And I think the way that you do that is by focusing on really developing the economy, improving the investment climate, reducing opportunities for corruption, ensuring that this is an environment where U.S. investors feel that they can invest safely and have a good opportunity to make a profit. And I think the growth of the economy and providing economic opportunities for youth will remain a really critical element to bringing Iraqi youth into the system and making sure that they feel engaged politically, as well.
MR PALANI: Yeah, yeah. There are also other parts of the population besides youth, such as IDPs, families of ISIS returning from al-Hol. So these are the components of the society groups in the society. We really are – I feel that we have ignored them in our discussions. We do not anymore talk about IDPs. We do not talk about the return of families, as we are busy with broader security and political issues.
So my question is that: How can we bring all of these, like, elements of IDPs, the Yazidis, minorities, other groups into broader policy engagements and discussions?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, certainly we have been heavily engaged, as well, on issues related to IDPs, Yazidis. And you’re right, I think that this is an important area particularly where the international community can continue to provide a lot of support. There’s a large number of people in this country who remain displaced.
And so the more that we can work with governments throughout Iraq, whether they are displaced people in the Iraqi Kurdistan region or in federal Iraq, to try to find ways to provide stable housing solutions. That’s really important, and then to work to provide livelihoods. And I think the work that NGOs and civil society can play in supporting these efforts is going to be really critical to helping bring these people out of IDP camps and into communities.
MR PALANI: Yeah. If you will allow me, I will bring the questions of Kurdistan into the discussions. I think this is the question many of us are waiting for.
So Kurdistan is – I was born 5 years before the uprising of 1991. I think I’ve never felt that Kurdistan is under such existential financial security and governance challenges as I’m feeling now. Kurdistan is facing pressures from different parties in Baghdad, neighboring powers, neighboring countries, and military activities deep inside the Kurdistan region.
And again I will talk about WhatsApp chats and discussions. People raise this question that – they argue U.S. is not playing its role. It’s not visible while Kurdistan is facing deep internal as well as external challenges.
What do you think? I’m very interested in your stance regarding your relations with Kurdistan, taking into consideration all of the challenges the region is facing.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Sure. Well, I would just say there’s no stronger supporter of the Iraqi Kurdistan region than the United States. And we remain strongly supportive of a strong, resilient Iraqi Kurdistan region within federal Iraq. We think this is not only in the best interests of the IKR, but this is in Iraq’s best interest, as well.
And I think a core challenge right now we’re aware of is the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil. And I think it is critical that conversations continue, that dialogue continues to ensure that some of the outstanding issues are resolved. We know the budget issue is a critical one. The hydrocarbons law and developing an agreement on revenue sharing will be important to the future of the region.
And I think one thing I would say, as a great friend of the KRG, is that divisions within the KRG really undermine the discussions with Baghdad. And we’ve seen the KRG be more effective in negotiations and discussions with Baghdad when they come with a united front. And so we would encourage our good friends in the KRG to find ways to work through these divisions so that these important issues are addressed.
MR PALANI: Yeah. We usually – we Kurds – blame external partners and friends or enemies for our own problems. But part of the blame should be also on us, like internal political actors. But at the moment, as we had the previous panel, there is a hope that there will be a new space for internal discussions among different powers in the Kurdistan region.
So the U.S., — you mentioned that no one is supporting Kurdistan more than the U.S., but also no one is welcomed in the region by the leadership than the U.S. So you can be really more visible. You can be – you can communicate to the population, to different parts of the society. You can – I’m not in a position to recommend you to – a list of recommendations, but I believe more visibility will help the opportunities that we are seeing on the ground to unite different parties. What do you think? What is your view?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, I guess I would say we’re still here, we still care, and we’re still engaged.
MR PALANI: Yeah.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: And so I know that’s – that there is a perception that the U.S. doesn’t care about the Middle East anymore, and I just go back to what I said at the beginning. The Middle East is still critical to U.S. interests. We are still actively engaged, and we’re going to remain engaged. And so whether that’s engaging in Baghdad and engaging in Erbil, a strong, stable, secure Iraq is in U.S. interests, and ensuring a strong and resilient IKR is very clearly in our interest, as well. And so the United States will remain focused on achieving both of those goals, in partnership with our friends here in Erbil and also in Baghdad.
MR PALANI: Yeah. When we try to analyze the U.S.-Kurdistan relations, where the –in which sectors there is engagement, we often look at the security sector. It’s where the U.S. is providing support to the Peshmerga forces. And we have been extensively discussing, I believe, bilaterally, multilaterally about the issues and challenges.
But can you tell us, like, the challenges, the barriers to your support to the unification and institutionalization of Peshmerga? I believe – I’m not sure, but I think this is unique in terms of your security partnership with such types of security forces in the region.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Yeah, this is an important area of focus, and it’s something that we continue to discuss with the KRG, and it’s something we hope to work together on to make additional progress.
We do think having a more unified security force is in the interest of the KRG, and towards ensuring greater security and stability.
MR PALANI: Yeah, thank you. Not because I’m originally from disputed territories – that’s why I want to bring into the discussion, but I’m sure you are aware of the recent events in Kirkuk, et cetera.
So all the way from Sinjar to Jalawla and Diyala there are militias and armed organizations with different affiliations with a specific regional neighbor and power. So the – often I believe, when we look at the challenges Kurdistan is facing, and where the U.S. should be more supportive, providing more support and visibility, it’s the – this question of disputed territories because, like, all the way – like, as I mentioned, from Sinjar to the region is under the control or is under the influence of certain armed organizations not responding to the Iraqi Government.
Do you think, like with the recent events in Kirkuk, with the recent complexities in Erbil-Baghdad relations, we also need to revise our approach to the challenges in the disputed territories?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, that’s a difficult question. I guess I would say we will continue to engage both with the KRG and with Baghdad on a range of security issues, and we’re ready to provide support where we can be helpful. And I think a key to improving security and stability is the efforts that we’ve made together to confront and combat ISIS, to strengthen the capacity of security forces both in the IKR and in Iraq more broadly. And I think those efforts are really critical to ensuring greater stability in Iraq.
MR PALANI: Yeah, thank you. My last question to you is there are everyday attacks coming from Turkey, coming from Iran, problems between Iran and Kurdish opposition party based here. The same thing with Turkey. It’s a – I think it’s a security challenge that the Kurdistan – the government here in Erbil doesn’t have many solutions. It’s – I think it’s another area we need clarity from your views about how Kurdistan, as your partner on the ground, can address these challenges. It’s where – what is the role that you need to play in addressing this broader – I think it’s beyond the capacity of the government in Erbil.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, so I think the bottom line is that the United States supports Iraq’s sovereignty.
MR PALANI: Yeah.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: And we’ve seen the government in Baghdad and government in Erbil work cooperatively, and also addressing some of the issues with Iran. And we think the more the KRG and Baghdad can continue to work jointly, this is important towards ensuring greater stability and addressing many security issues. All of these things are very complicated.
You mentioned Turkey and, of course, it’s important that there’s direct engagement with Turkey, as well, to address some of these very complicated challenges.
MR PALANI: Yeah. If I give you the last few minutes as reassuring to the public, to the stakeholders here about re-emphasizing your commitment, your support to the region, what will be your message?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Well, I guess I feel like a broken record, but I guess I would just say there is no greater supporter and no bigger champion for the Iraqi Kurdistan region than the United States. And we’re still here. We’re going to remain engaged, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to expand our partnership. And we think there’s a lot of great opportunities for us to do that.
MR PALANI: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. On behalf of my institute, as well as my colleagues, we thank you for your insights and for your time.
And I apologize for the public because of the – some commitments we have for the forum as well as for the schedule, we won’t have time for discussions and questions. We hope that through other platforms we will address some of your questions. Thank you again for your time, and also thank you for your patience. (Applause.)
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.