Iraq aims to be ‘meeting point’ for regional rivals

Observers said US sanctions on Iran as well as Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iraq are likely to benefit Baghdad.
Sunday 21/04/2019
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in Riyadh, April 17. (Saudi Royal Court)
Deeper ties. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in Riyadh, April 17. (Saudi Royal Court)

LONDON - Iraq aims to maintain good relations with its neighbours and even mediate between them, said Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who recently concluded visits to regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“This visit (to Saudi Arabia) is like an earlier visit to Egypt and the Islamic Republic (of Iran). They are important visits that reflect how Iraq works with its neighbours and with its environment in the Arab and Islamic world. Iraq wants to be a meeting point for everyone,” Abdul-Mahdi said before flying to Riyadh.

Abdul-Mahdi led a high-level delegation of ministers and senior government officials, as well as businessmen, April 17-18 to Saudi Arabia, where the two sides signed agreements to boost bilateral trade ties.

The two countries agreed to cooperate on security and intelligence issues. Saudi Arabia promised to increase the quota of Iraqi haj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. During the visit, the Iraqi prime minister carried out the umra visit to Mecca.

Abdul-Mahdi met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

“The two leaders [Abdul-Mahdi and King Salman] later oversaw the signing of 13 bilateral agreements… covering a wide range of areas, including political, energy and cultural cooperation as well as the promotion and protection of investment,” a statement from the Iraqi prime minister’s office said.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry quoted King Salman telling his Iraqi guests: “Dear brothers, what connects us to Iraq is not just geography and common interests but blood ties, history and common destiny.”

Abdul-Mahdi also met with Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Yousef al-Othaimeen, secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

“He (Abdul-Mahdi) stressed that the Gulf Cooperation Council is important to Iraq… and pointed out that Iraq is keen to work with its Arab and Islamic surrounding and to have balanced relations that serve the interests of the people of the region,” said a statement from the Iraqi prime minister’s office.

“It is important that our region be stable and prosperous. We have a lot of common ground that unites us, from which we can build trust, surpass differences and find new environments for cooperation,” the statement added.

It quoted Zayani as being “comfortable” with the direction of the Iraqi government, which is dealing with challenges with “responsibility and wisdom.”

In his meeting with Othaimeen, Abdul-Mahdi reiterated Iraq’s wish to maintain good ties with its Arab and Muslim neighbouring states.

In line with its stated wish to play regional mediation role, Iraq hosted heads of parliament from neighbouring countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Abdul-Mahdi’s visit to Saudi Arabia was soon after a trip by the Iraqi prime minister to Iran, where he was also accompanied by a trade delegation.

In Iran, Abdul-Mahdi reiterated Iraq’s position of “being open to all its neighbours in order to build a stable region,” while rejecting to join a particular axis or take part in the sanctions against Tehran.

Despite the diplomatic pleasantries, Iran appears to be concerned by US pressure on Iraq to abide by sanctions against Tehran once Washington’s waiver allowing Baghdad to deal with Iran on energy purchases expires this summer.

Reports said Abdul-Mahdi requested inserting a clause that release Iraq from a trade deal with Iran should it become apparent that it would be flouting US sanctions against Tehran.

The two countries appear to be at odds over how to repay Iraqi debts to Iran. Baghdad wants to pay in Iraqi dinars while Tehran insists on receiving euros because using the US dollar is out of question following sanctions.

Observers said US sanctions on Iran as well as Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iraq are likely to benefit Baghdad because Iraq would be less reliant on Tehran for energy and other imports.

“Saudi Arabia is seriously trying to expand its ties with Iraq with the aim of limiting Iran’s influence in Iraq, with at least a counterbalance to it. Of course, the United States has also contributed to this strengthening of relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, especially as the United States, like Saudi Arabia, wants to reduce Iran’s influence in the region. But the point is that all this competition will be beneficial for Iraq,” wrote Omid Shokri Kalehsar for the Institute for Strategic Analysis (strati.az) think-tank.

Despite potential benefits for Baghdad and setbacks for Tehran, Iran yields strong influence in Iraq, analysts said.

“Those who want to remain in power in Iraq need to have the acceptance of Iran,” Ayad al-Khalaf al-Anbar, professor of political science in Kufa University, told al-Sharqiya TV.

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