Iraqi identity has long been split by cultures and religions, Arab and Persian, Sunni and Shia. This has fractured the country through insurgency and terrorism and war, but now there is an opportunity for Iraq to use its mixed heritage to rehabilitate its international standing and mediate the diplomatic standoff which has erupted between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudi execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was met with condemnation by the Iranian government and violent protests in Tehran culminating in the firebombing of the Saudi embassy. This attack on the embassy set off a breach, which has seen first the Saudis then a slew of other Arab states, cut and downgrade their diplomatic ties to Iran in protest. This plays into a long term rivalry between Iran and the Arabs, who only have the narrow Persian Gulf between them, but this most recent breach has seen harsher rhetoric and stronger actions by the two which threatens to cripple regional co-operation in a part of the world already overbrimming with conflict.
These recent tensions threaten efforts to attain regional stability. With Iran and Saudi Arabia backing opposite sides in conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon; having these two regional powers at diplomatic loggerheads will obstruct any locally supported resolution to these conflicts. The threat the Iran-Saudi split presents to regional stability already has the United States scrambling to rehabilitate co-operation between Tehran and Riyadh to save Syria talks in Geneva. Further afield the involvement of African states, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia, in cutting relations with Iran demonstrates a risk of expanding this destructively polarised Sunni-Shia split from the Middle-East to Islam’s other frontiers.
This dispute presents an opportunity to Iraq, one which Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, seems to be taking. Iraq has a deeply vested interest in resolving this dispute; it has a lot to lose from an ongoing Iran-Saudi split. Iraq relies on continued Saudi and Iranian co-operation in combating the terrorist group Daesh. Iraq is both battlefield and prize for the Sunnis and Shiites who have jostled for influence in the country since Saddam Hussein was toppled. Saudi Arabia and Iran champion significant Sunni and Shia populations in Iraq, with Iraqi leaders caught in the crossfire, navigating their constituents through sectarian divides.
Recent history has only increased the need for an independent Iraqi settlement to avoid a satellite status between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Abadi has resisted calls to lead Iraq into further sectarianism. Instead Mr. Abadi, though a Shia Muslim himself, has continued to stake his reputation on broaching the gap between Sunnis and Shiites in his own state, expanding it internationally to act as a broker for the regional patrons of these groups. If Mr. Abadi succeeds in mediating Iran and Saudi Arabia, it will strengthen his credibility with the Shia and Sunni groups in his own country.
What’s more, after over a decade of foreign intervention, civil instability, and terrorist insurgency, Iraq has a lot to prove. Baghdad has a huge deficit in international reputation and standing; a reputation which is struggling to rise above the humiliation of its army and the loss of its integrity to Daesh. The offer to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is a step towards demonstrating that Iraq has a vision for itself in the region beyond defeating Daesh in the north and re-asserting its sovereignty.
The freshness of the Iraqi government presents an opportunity for the Iraqis to redefine their role and enter this heated diplomatic fray more openly than other states in the region. Iraq’s poor relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran in the past were relieved with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has since proven that it has the ear of Iran through the recent appeals of restraint made in Tehran by Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. And while Baghdad’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained, the common Arab identity and the Iraqi relationship with the Saudi’s ally, the United States, will ensure that Riyadh will pay attention to Mr. Abadi’s efforts. By seizing this opportunity and succeeding, Iraq could rehabilitate its own position both domestically and regionally while supporting peaceful diplomatic relations in the Middle-East.
Brendan Storer holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from the Australian National University and has interests in US foreign policy, trade and strategic security.
Image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (cropped) (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)