Iraq

Iraq’s Diplomatic Mediations: Strong on Symbolism but Short on Substance

Over the last two years, Iraq has been overwhelmed with protests, internal instability, US-Iran confrontation on Iraqi soil, political stalemate, and intra-Shia power rivalries. However, against all odds, Iraq has also witnessed an unprecedented diplomatic push, with attempts to integrate the country into the regional political and economic map and establish itself as a player and bridge. The Iraqi government began to organise conferences focused on the wider region, such as a tripartite summit in Baghdad between Iraq, Jordan and Egypt on 26th June, 2021,[i] and the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership on 28th August of the same year.[ii] Though the ability to bring various regional powers, international players, and rivals to the table in Baghdad is an end in itself, Iraq’s desire to achieve greater regional and economic integration will be a long processrequiring time, consistency and sustained interest.

The Iraqi government has an objective beyond diplomatic meditations; Baghdad wants to establish itself as a regional player.


In the context of various Middle Eastern states’ efforts at diplomatic reconciliation, Iraq has also created a space for dialogue between two central rivals in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia. As mentioned above, the Iraqi government has an objective beyond diplomatic meditations; Baghdad wants to establish itself as a regional player. The major event in this period was the Baghdad Summit, which brought together the leaders of regional and international powers, including France, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The event marked the first time Iraq took on a diplomatic initiative to mitigate regional tensions within a well-attended high-level conference.
[iii] Independent of the positive symbolism of the initiative, the conference facilitated a series of bilateral side-meetings between Middle Eastern countries who had often been at odds with each other.[iv]

Since the war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), support for the idea of a balanced foreign policy among Iraqi politicians and officials has increased. Two key developments have driven the shift. First, the need to gain regional and international support in the fight against ISIS; and second, the military success against the group gave Iraqi officials a sense of power, pride and confidence. In 2017, Iraqi forces retook Mosul from ISIS and assumed control of the oil-rich Kirkuk province and other areas that had fallen under Kurdish control after 2014.[v] These events temporarily contributed to the rehabilitation of Iraq as a state since it showed its capacity to use effective force to secure its control over territory.

The call for a greater Iraqi role in regional politics and diplomatic mediations reached its peak with the forming of a government in May 2020 under the leadership of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. It is important to mention that al-Kadhimi is a consensus Prime Minister, insofar as he has no political faction in the Iraqi parliament to back him. Nevertheless, various Shia, Kurdish and Sunni parties, specifically the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, support al-Kadhimi’s regional policy. Al-Kadhimi’s personality is central in this development. His background, as the head of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service and his role in the fight against ISIS, managed to build relations and trust among different local and regional stakeholders.[vi]

Iran, for example, has proxies in Iraq, with the capabilities to use Iraq’s territory and state resources to threaten other neighbours.


There is an agreement among Iraqi decision-makers that a balanced and greater regional role is good for the stability of Iraq,[vii] which has become a battleground for different regional and international rivalries, such as the US-Iran rivalry and a rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and other regional powers. These rivalries have also created and strengthened local proxies and clients, further destabilising Iraq and weakening the notion of Iraqi statehood and sovereignty. There are groups in Iraq who align their foreign policy orientations with their regional patrons. Iran, for example, has proxies in Iraq, with the capabilities to use Iraq’s territory and state resources to threaten other neighbours. In this context, regional cooperation is not just good for establishing external sovereignty, but also fundamental to Iraq’s internal stability and sovereignty.[viii] To gain a broad national consensus, al-Kadhimi conducted prior consultations with Iraq’s leading political forces about the necessary steps to play this role. This has started to create an internal understanding about the new role of the Iraqi government as a regional bridge.

What Can Iraq Offer?

Iraq has an advantage over other Arab countries when it comes to Iran-Saudi relations and rivalries. For example, Qatar cannot play this role due to its own disputes with Saudi Arabia, and Oman is seen as too close to the Saudis from Iran’s point of view. Being a majority-Shia country has helped Iraq in this regard. So far, Iraqi mediation has succeeded in bringing the Saudi and Iranian parties together during five rounds of bilateral talks in Baghdad, helping the two regional rivals take steps towards normalising their relations. In addition, Iraq has also mediated between Iran, on the one hand, and Jordan and Egypt, on the other, as Baghdad hosted separate bilateral talks between Iran and Egypt, as well as between Iran and Jordan.[ix]

Baghdad has the desire to be a suitable meeting place between Iran and the Arab states. Both Iran and, to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, have deep and cross-sectoral relations with the Iraqi parties and communities. In the context of Iran’s comprehensive vision for the region, Iraq represents the heart of its regional influence. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, would like to restore Iraq to its Arab surroundings. Whilst Iraq wants to play the role of regional intermediary, both regional powers also want to place Iraq in their broader regional power rivalries.

Challenges

Baghdad’s internal fragility and limited sovereignty raises many questions about the realism of its plans.

Tehran and Riyadh are powerful regional actors, and Iraq is more dependent on them than the other way around.


First, Iraq is in a difficult political and economic position, constraining its attempt to offer support for regional diplomatic mediations. Since the October 2021 elections, for example, the country has divided into different camps, with several regional powers backing competing factions.[x] Tehran and Riyadh are powerful regional actors, and Iraq is more dependent on them than the other way around. Arguably, Iraq has found itself in this mediating role without having much to offer in the long-term. According to an interview with a Baghdad-based analyst, the US has pressured Saudi Arabia to reengage Iraq, because Iran found Iraq useful in working out its issues with the Saudis. For many years, U.S. officials promoted a broader alignment between Kurdish, Sunni, and ‘moderate’ Shia leaders at the national level, and Iraq’s alignment with the Arab states at the regional level. The rationale for this is to create a counterbalance against Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Second, Iraq won’t be taken credibly by regional powers before it can fix its own issues. Al-Kadhimi’s approach is based on the idea that stabilising the country requires it to play a greater regional role. On the ground, Iraq can only play a carrier role, delivering messages back and forth, but it cannot influence the direction of talks or force parties to make concessions. In this period, Iraq has gone through deep internal political crises, weakening the government’s power, and its desire to play a regional role. For example, less than a month after the 2021 parliamentary elections, Iranian-aligned groups rejected the results, and started challenging the government and its institutions. Within this context, the Prime Minister’s own house was attacked by explosive-carrying drones in November 2021.[xi] Such events undermine the country’s domestic sovereignty and, so, undermine its power to maintain external sovereignty.

Third, there are observations by some parties about how this role is managed. Some Shia parties believe that the approach is more closely related to the personality of the Prime Minister and not to Iraqi state institutions. In this context, it is important to highlight that al-Kadhimi is more preferred by Riyadh and other Arab capitals than Tehran. Some Shia powers, especially those who are aligned with Iran, believe that al-Kadhimi’s approach is biased in favour of the Saudis and other anti-Iran Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates. For example, during the Baghdad Summit, the Hashd al-Shaabi—an Iraqi state-financed umbrella organisation with sixty-seven armed factionsharshly criticised the Iraqi government for not inviting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the conference. Al-Kadhimi’s regional policy was also seen as an opportunity for him to remain in power by gaining regional support.

Fourth, Iraq’s regional role and its diplomatic activities require continuity. The limited powers of the Iraqi government, al-Kadhimi’s personality-politics, and the truncated influence of its prime ministers are seen as a key challenge to adopt a long-term and coherent foreign policy direction. Al-Kadhimi’s approach has managed to improve Iraq’s regional profile and diplomacy but has failed to institutionalise the process. This implies that Iraq’s current role in regional diplomacy may not continue in his absence.

Indeed, a number of Iraqi political actors are pursuing divergent and conflicting foreign policy objectives.[xii] Moreover, the next government is highly likely to be led and formed by an Iranian-aligned bloc under the Shia Coordination Framework, a broader amalgamation of majority Shia parties that includes influential Shia political figures. It remains to be seen how this will influence the country’s recent and current diplomatic engagement with different Arab states.

Conclusion

Iraq’s recent diplomatic activities and desire to be a regional player has had a positive symbolic impact on the country’s regional position. Nevertheless, Iraq lacks fundamental institutional capabilities to sustain the process that needs to follow its diplomatic initiatives and mediations between the region’s great powers. Iraq’s internal instability and power rivalries not only invite external interferences, but also limit the country’s ability to play a greater role in regional politics.

[i] “Iraq, Egypt and Jordan hold tripartite summit in Baghdad.” France24. 27 June 2021. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210627-iraq-egypt-and-jordan-hold-tripartite-summit-in-baghdad.
[ii] Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Relations. “Final Communiqué of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership.” 28 August 2021. https://mofa.gov.iq/2021/08/?p=25539.
[iii] Zubir, Ahmed. “The Bagdad Conference: Preparation for U.S. Withdrawal or the Brokering of a New Regional Balance?” Al Sharq Strategic Research. 14 August 2021. https://research.sharqforum.org/2021/09/14/bagdad-conference/.
[iv] Fanar, Haddad. “The Baghdad conference itself isn’t as important as what follows.” 30 August 2021. https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/2021/08/30/the-baghdad-conference-itself-isnt-as-important-as-what-follows/
[v] From 2014 to 2017, the Kurdistan Region underwent a radical transformation, culminating in the 25 September 2017 independence referendum. An overwhelming 92.73 percent majority voted ‘yes.’ The unilateral referendum backfired, with a multitude of negative consequences for the entity. The military balance, once viewed as crucial for enabling the de facto independence of Kurdistan, now favored Baghdad.
[vi] “Iraq seeks mediator role in region despite precarious position.” The Arab Weekly. 23 August 2021. https://thearabweekly.com/iraq-seeks-mediator-role-region-despite-precarious-position.
[vii] Fanar, Haddad. “The Baghdad conference itself isn’t as important as what follows.” 30 August 2021. https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/2021/08/30/the-baghdad-conference-itself-isnt-as-important-as-what-follows/
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Al-Hamid, Raed. “Iraqi ambitions to achieve a Saudi-Iranian agreement.” Anadole Agency. 6 July 2021. https://www.aa.com.tr/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1/%D8%B7%D9%85%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%A5%D9%86%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84/2631277
[x] Palani, Kamaran, and Khogir Mohammed. “Iraq: A Temporary Stalemate or a Sign of Long-Term Political Dysfunction?” Al Sharq Strategic Research. 12 May 2021. https://research.sharqforum.org/2022/05/12/the-fight-for-iraq-president/.
[xi] Davison, John, and Ahmed Rasheed. “Iraqi PM decries ‘cowardly’ attack on his home by drones carrying explosives.” Reuters. 8 November 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iraqi-pm-chairs-security-meeting-after-drone-attack-residence-2021-11-07/
[xii] Redha Al-Ibrahimi, Hamid. “Iraq and its chances of being a successful mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia.” Al Bayan Centre for Planning and Studies. 14 December 2021. https://www.bayancenter.org/en/2021/12/2998/.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.