Iraq’s confused diplomacy could complicate Saudi-Iran overtures

Iraq is facing serious challenges in pressing ahead with its mediation efforts, in view of the escalating pressure by Iran-aligned Shia militias on the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Friday 09/07/2021
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif elbow bumps his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in Baghdad, Iraq April 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif elbow bumps his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in Baghdad, Iraq April 26, 2021. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD – Saudi Arabia still views Iran with a lot of caution despite a rapprochement drive between the two countries through the mediation of Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, longtime foes, began direct talks in April to contain tensions at the same time that global powers have been embroiled in nuclear negotiations in Vienna.

Neither Iran nor Gulf Arabs wants a return to tensions of 2019 which saw attacks on tankers in Gulf waters and on Saudi oil installations, then the 2020 US killing, under former President Donald Trump, of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

A perception that Washington was now disengaging militarily from the area under US President Joe Biden has prompted a more pragmatic Gulf approach, analysts said.

Nevertheless, Biden has demanded Iran rein in its missile programme and end its support for proxies in the region including in Yemen, which are key demands of Gulf Arab nations.

Saudi-Iran talks have focused mainly on Yemen, where a military campaign led by Riyadh against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement for over six years no longer has US backing.

Iraq, however, is facing serious challenges in pressing ahead with its mediation efforts, in view of the escalating pressure by Iran-aligned Shia militias on the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Riyadh had earlier spoken of an “exploratory phase” in talks with Tehran, but questions are growing about Iraq’s ability to achieve a rapprochement between the two countries. Not only is Baghdad unable to reign in the chaos of the militias, but Iraqi diplomacy makes the matter more complicated, in view of its weakness and confused approach.

Over the last few months, Baghdad has been trumpeting the success of its diplomacy in achieving talks between Tehran and Riyadh, stressing that the initial round of talks that took place last April was positive.

Observers, however, believe that Iran-Saudi rapprochement “is such a thorny issue that weak and confused diplomatic capabilities, like those of Iraq, cannot deal with.”

The observers also point to Tehran’s failure to take practical steps in what would be a goodwill gesture towards Riyadh, which has demanded an end to Iran’s support to militias and chaos across the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

Iraq says that its efforts and its good relations with the two countries led to direct talks last April between Saudi and Iranian officials for the first time since relations were severed in January 2016.

Ihsan al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thinking, says “efforts by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to bridge the gap between Saudi-Iranian conflicting views constitute an advanced step.”

Observers believe that Baghdad’s success in bringing the two regional rivals to the negotiating table could eventually serve Iraq, by easing tensions across the region and inside the country, where powerful Iran-backed militias have been wreaking havoc.

“Kadhimi succeeded in transforming Iraq into a mediator instead of transmitting messages between the two countries, as previous governments did in the past,” Shammari said.

“Iraq is playing the role of mediator in order to achieve stability at home. In fact, the two countries wield a great influence inside Iraq,” he added, noting that stability “will benefit Baghdad amid continued threats by armed factions to target Riyadh from Iraqi territory.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry had earlier said that Tehran looks positively on talks with Saudi Arabia and that it “always welcomes talks”. However, Riyadh is still assessing Tehran’s moves and gestures to determine the extent of the Iranian regime’s seriousness when it comes to rapprochement.

Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, usually accuse Iran of having a Shia expansionist agenda in the region and of interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries, including Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, accusations that Tehran denies.

Iranian intransigence, however, reduces the chances for the success of any talks, especially in the absence of any change when it comes to the approach of the Iranian foreign policy.

For years, Baghdad officials have been relaying messages between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two neighbours of Iraq and regional powers.

Adnan al-Sarraj, head of the Iraqi Centre for Media Development, believes that “dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran could bring peace to the region,” noting that “any political conflict between the two countries would eventually complicate the general situation in Iraq.”

“Holding such a dialogue could prove a boon for Iraq by opening the door to economic cooperation at a time when the country is facing an acute economic crisis, exacerbated by the decline in oil prices and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic,” he added.

Relations between Riyadh and Baghdad are currently going through their best time compared to years ago, but the detrimental role of the Iran-backed militias has disrupted much of this rapprochement.

Iraqi parliamentarian of the Iran-backed Al-Fateh Alliance, Muhammad Al-Baldawi, says that “Iraq has completed all preparations for holding a round of direct and public talks between the two parties and is in the process of putting the final touches to set the date,” noting that his country is able to play the role of mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However, Saudi Arabia has expressed the view on several occasions that it is in Iran’s interest to work with its neighbours in a positive way that may guarantee security and stability, stressing at the same time that rapprochement with Iran is still at an “early stage.”

There are real concerns about Ibrahim Raisi’s accession to the Iranian presidency and these fears have been voiced by some Iraqi leaders, who warned against the collapse of talks with Saudi Arabia and the impact of such a collapse on the countries of the region.

Despite his political fluctuations, the leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr, voiced his concern on June 21 about Raisi’s  presidency and said that “Raisi taking power in Iran shall not eclipse the region with extremism and escalation.”

“We hope that he will use reason, Sharia and dialogue to end political and sectarian conflicts in the region which would strengthen Islam, Shiism and Arabism and weaken the common enemy in general and Israel in particular, which have exploited those conflicts for a long time to spread their webs,” Sadr also said in a statement posted on Twitter.

He called on Saudi Arabia and Iran to solve their problems on the one hand and keep Iraq out of their conflict as well as not interfere in its affairs, especially as Iraq is on the verge of parliamentary elections, which are an internal affair.

He stressed  the continuation of good neighbourliness and the development of “equal” relations between his country, Saudi Arabia and Iran, adding that the main foundations of good neighbourliness are “non-interference in the country’s internal affairs and cooperation in overcoming common difficulties.”

Riyadh views negotiations with Tehran as a necessity to reach a solution in Yemen in light of Iran’s unlimited support for the Houthi militias in their battle against the legitimate government, backed by the Arab coalition and Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian regime is currently hoping to make gains from the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Geneva, but the countries of the region, led by Saudi Arabia, oppose any deal with Iran that would not address Tehran’s missile programme, the Iranian behaviour in the region and the ongoing interference by the Iranian regime in Arab internal affairs.