(Speaker of the Saudi Shura Council Abdullah Ibrahim Al Al-Sheikh being received by Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, April 20, 2019)
To be sure, the conference of speakers of parliament in Baghdad on April 20 was an extraordinary event invested with heavy symbolism both in terms of Iraq’s role in hosting the event as well as in terms of the invitees being limited to Iraq’s six neighbours — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and Turkey.
Notionally restricted to Iraq’s neighbours, though, the striking thing is that the conference brings together regional states that do not get along otherwise or have complicated relationships — Iran and Saudi Arabia; Saudi Arabia on the one one hand and Iran, Syria, Turkey and Kuwait on the other hand; and Turkey on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Syria on the other hand.
In sum, it brought together Saudi Arabia with its neighbours with many of whom it has problematic relationships. Quite obviously, Saudi-Iraqi relations have normalised to a point that Riyadh recognised Baghdad’s credentials to host the conference. This is obvious from the fact that the Speaker of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council Sheikh Dr. Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al-Sheikh attended the conference.
Iran’s speaker Ali Larijani deputed a senior political figure Ala’eddin Broujerdi to represent him. Tehran would have some uneasiness that the newly-elected government in Baghdad is carefully navigating a way out of the Iranian orbit by diversifying its external relations and nuanced regional policies and is steadily shifting to the middle ground in the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran,. The crux of the matter is that the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who recently visited both Iran and Saudi Arabia, seeks close, friendly relations with both countries as well as with the United States.
Baghdad is walking a fine line. Iran’s help is invaluable for Iraq’s rehabilitation and reconstruction, and for even the day-to-day survival of the economy Iran is almost irreplaceable as partner. But that cannot mean any erosion in Iraq’s strategic autonomy. Again, Baghdad has been supportive of the Syrian regime and Adel Abdul-Mahdi has backed a bid for Damascus to return to the Arab League following its 2011 expulsion. Baghdad allows Iran to transit via Iraqi territory to Syria and Lebanon but also has need of continued US military presence on Iraqi soils as guarantee against any return of the ISIS.
On the other hand, Baghdad will not accept any US hegemony and in principle, does not permit any American bases on Iraqi territory. Nor does Iraq accept the US sanctions against Iran, leave alone the latest move by Washington to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. The IRGC’s contribution to the defeat of the ISIS in Iraq is living memory.
Having said that, Iraq is also greatly interested in receiving assistance from Saudis for its reconstruction. Recently, Saudis promised help in excess of 1 billion dollars. The Saudi-Iranian tensions come in the way of Baghdad optimally taking advantage of help from these powerful neighbours for its development. Of course, any spill-over of Saudi-Iranian rivalries onto Iraqi soil will be detrimental.
Suffice to say, Baghdad is eager to facilitate any process leading to Saudi-Iranian normalisation. The irreducible minimum would be that with the ISIS largely eradicated, Iraq’s political landscape should not become a highly-contested battleground for a regional proxy war of influence being waged by Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the conference in Baghdad concluded with a final declaration stressing Iraq’s unity. It said, “The stability of Iraq is necessary for the stability of the region and contributes its return with all its political and economic weight and creative human resources to its Arab and regional environment.”
For sure, Iran will continue to wield enormous, unmatched influence over Baghdad. Importantly, Iraq has joined Iran and Syria in shoring up trilateral relations in a format that has frustrated the US. Tehran recently signed economic agreements with Baghdad and Damascus, and all the military chiefs of the three countries met in Damascus last month to chart out plans to coordinate closely on security issues.
Having said that, the conference in Baghdad on Saturday cannot but be seen as marking a subtle shift in the Iraqi regional policies. The point is, Iraq is assuming the role of a mediator against the regional backdrop of the US-led anti-Iran coalition of Gulf states. Interestingly, the influential Shi’ite cleric with long association with Iran who heads the National Wisdom Movement of Iraq, Seyyed Ammar Hakim said on Saturday to the visiting envoy of Iran’s Majlis Broujerdi that Iraq has adopted policy of open doors with the regional and international countries. “Iraq is trying to establish balanced ties with all on the basis of mutual interests,” he said.
The Iraqi parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi said in his opening remarks at the conference, “Today, Iraq is building a promising strategic partnership with all neighbouring countries without any reservations or favouring any party.”
Equally, the conference in Baghdad was a major diplomatic event for Syria insofar as it took part in an exclusive regional gathering that included Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two regional states with which it has no relations. However, the salience of the event lies in Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Baghdad conference, and it grates against the US-led plans to form an anti-Iran alliance non as the Middle East Strategic Alliance or MESA (dubbed as “Arab NATO”) . Coming so soon after Egypt’s reported withdrawal from the Arab NATO, the Saudi attendance of the Baghdad conference harping on regional amity and cooperation, spells doom for the US-led anti-Iran alliance.
Meanwhile there are other straws in the wind, too. Last week, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have jointly sent 95 tonnes of relief supplies to Iran in ‘following the directives of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as part of the joint efforts between the UAE and Saudi Arabia to ease the suffering of Iranian citizens in the flood-stricken areas.’ Again, Iran has welcomed Egypt’s decision to disengage from the Arab NATO. An easing of tensions with Iran may suit Saudi Arabia at this point when it is looking for a way to end the war in Yemen. Interestingly, a commentary by Iran’s official news agency IRNA in the weekend highlighted that Saudi Arabia is looking for a way out of the war in Yemen against the backdrop of the US Senate resolution recently calling on the Trump administration to cut back military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.