Can Iraq help Iran mend fences with Saudi Arabia?

Can Iran rely on Iraq to mend fences with Saudi Arabia?

5 min read
26 Mar, 2019
Comment: Iran's influence in Iraq could help defuse some of the high tension in the region, writes Maysam Behravesh.
Rouhani's latest official trip to Iraq was primarily aimed at boosting bilateral economic cooperation [AFP]
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's government has been trying hard to find a way for to resolve its differences with Saudi Arabia and to restore diplomatic ties. 

The effort is partly driven by grave concerns about an emerging alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, against Iran.

At the same time President Rouhani is making repeated public
appeals to Arab rulers, the Islamic Republic seems to be increasingly relying on Iraq and its Sunni leaders in particular for a regional rapprochement. These efforts, however, are bound to fail unless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the kingdom's de facto ruler, feels powerful and secure enough to stop drawing on "threat inflation" and demonisation of Iran for consolidating his leadership position at home.

In his latest official trip to Iraq, which was primarily aimed at boosting bilateral economic cooperation to offset US sanctions, Rouhani highlighted the "very important role" Baghdad could play in furthering regional security and facilitating "close relations" between Middle Eastern nations.

"We want to be allies with Iraq, but not allies against others. [In fact] we want other countries of the region in our alliance as well," he
said in a joint news conference with his counterpart, President Barham Salih, a Kurd.

Along these lines, and in what might be considered as a shift from explicitly sectarian policies of the past, Tehran has made
unprecedented overtures to Iraq's Sunni Muslims to broaden its support base in the heterogeneous Iraqi society.

The change of approach includes regular invitations of Sunni politicians and policymakers to various events in Tehran and arrangement of meetings with visiting Iranian officials.
This new atmosphere qualifies Iraq to play a positive role as a bridge among the rival regional powers, and not a field for conflict. And Iran realises that

In early March, the Sunni speaker of Iraq's parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi,
visited Iran for talks with President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani on "issues of mutual interest" from trade ties to the fight against "terrorism".

Similarly, Iraqi Minister of Culture Abdulameer al-Hamdani was in Tehran to discuss joint work on archaeological projects.

These efforts are driven by a desire to extend Iran's reach and influence within Iraq, but are also meant to set the stage for the de-escalation of tensions with regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

As Iraqi Sunni and Shia Muslims are increasingly integrating into the national fabric following the defeat of the Islamic State group, "the regional states are competing to have the best relations with Iraq", Mohammed Radhi, head of the foreign relations office of Iraq's National Hikmah Movement and a professor of political science at al-Nahrain University, told
The New Arab.

"This new atmosphere qualifies Iraq to play a positive role as a bridge among the rival regional powers, and not a field for conflict. And Iran realises that," he added.       

The extent to which these endeavours and overtures may succeed depends in an important part on Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman's willingness to reciprocate and take similar steps towards a negotiated settlement of differences.

So far the opposite seems to have been the case.

Ever since his widely publicised interview in May 2017 - in which MbS spoke of Saudi efforts to take the fight inside Iran - Riyadh has not only been dismissive of Tehran's attempts at a detente, but it is also believed to have backed extremist or separatist groups and their militant activities across the country.

From the Islamic State group's terror
attacks of June 2017 to the Ahvaz shooting assault in September 2018 to the suicide car-bomb attack against a Revolutionary Guards convoy in February 2019, Iranian authorities have invariably pointed the finger of suspicion at Saudis.  

Even in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi's murder in early October 2018 and amid the international outcry over bin Salman's complicity, Tehran curiously
restrained itself, hoping to soften the Saudi attitude towards bilateral relations - which were severed in January 2016 after Riyadh executed dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and a group of hardline protesters set the Saudi embassy in Tehran ablaze in retaliation.
I do not know of a worse state in the region and perhaps in the whole world than the Saudi government

The Islamic Republic's
expedient restraint was met with a decision by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on 23 October to put the Revolutionary Guards on their blacklist of "terrorist organisations".

It was partly in response to this obsessive persistence with hostility that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reserved some of his harshest words of criticism for Saudi rulers in his Persian New Year speech on 21 March.

"I do not know of a worse state in the region and perhaps in the whole world than the Saudi government," he said,
adding "it is both despotic, dictatorial, corrupt, oppressive, and dependent".

This escalating spiral of enmity does not obviously bode well for peace and stability in the region, even if such influential actors as Iraq try to facilitate an Iranian-Saudi rapprochement. Khamenei also dismissed fears about the US nuclear technology transfer to Saudi Arabia, vowing that "if they do build  [a nuclear capability], it will fall into the hands of Islamic combatants in the not-so-distant era".

The prediction seems to indicate that Tehran might bolster support for Yemen's Houthi rebels if tensions and hostilities persist unabated or Riyadh adopt a game-changing policy to tilt the regional balance of power in its favour.   

With increasing polarisation of politics in the Middle East, fueled by hardliners on both sides of the Gulf, the middle ground between peace and war is rapidly fading. This might pose the greatest security risk to regional nations in the near future.

Maysam Behravesh is a multimedia journalist and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Lund University in Sweden. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.