There is a strong belief among Arab political observers that, when it comes to analysing disputes in the Middle East and especially in categorising the role of Iran, Western think-tanks, NGOs and media are radically influenced by notions inherited from the Obama administration.
These concepts are particularly acute when it comes to what they define as the sectarian war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, considering them equal powers with one representing the Sunni establishment and the other representing its Shia counterpart. That is an incorrect comparison on many levels.
These Obama-era definitions, which gained popularity with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran in 2015, echo today. This was shown in the International Crisis Group’s post-Iraqi elections report, which compared Iranian intervention in Iraq to the role that Saudi Arabia can play in Iraq’s desire to return to the Arab fold.
In “Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) asserts: “In projecting its influence in Iraq, Riyadh should resist the temptation to transform the country into the latest battleground in a cold war with Tehran.”
The report carries a nearly panicked tone over the upset election victory by Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential Shia cleric who in recent years has sought to distance himself from the Iranian government and worked to improve Iraq’s relations with its neighbours, visiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year.
The report says Saudi Arabia’s interest in engaging with Iraq is to “counter Iranian influence” and that, if Riyadh tries to do too much too soon, it could “provoke an Iranian reaction.”
That ICG report says Iran “should encourage Iraq’s efforts to diversify its regional alliances.”
Easier said than done, given that Iran has for years exploited every loophole to achieve influence in the region, including militarily through its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, as well as politically by interfering in democratic processes, as evidenced in Lebanon’s and Iraq’s recent elections.
Tehran achieving this goal is not only viewed as a threat in Saudi Arabia but in the Middle East as a whole. Relations deteriorated after the US-led invasion of Iraq. Iran exploited the power vacuum caused by the United States’ failure to plan for after the war and Iraq fell completely within Iran’s orbit.
The ICG report advises the Saudi government to strengthen the Iraqi state and focus on economic engagement, which, in reality, is all Riyadh has been working to achieve.
Efforts by Saudi Arabia to re-engage Iraq started when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made an unannounced visit in February 2017 to Baghdad, the first by a high-ranking Saudi official since 2003. Last June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah.
In October, Riyadh and Baghdad announced an agreement on shared border crossings, the resumption of flights and reopening the Saudi consulate in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia and other international donors pledged billions of dollars to help Iraq in its reconstruction efforts during a conference in February. Iran attended the conference but pledged nothing.
Saudi Arabia and Iraq also revealed joint economic initiatives, many related to the energy sector, as well as plans for significant trade.
“Saudi Arabia certainly seeks to expand in Iraq but will not follow the Iranian example, which occupies the Iraqi market without employing the labour force in Iraq,” an Iraqi political source told Al-Monitor news site on condition of anonymity.
Saudi Arabia “seeks soft dominance in Iraq by creating jobs for Iraqis,” which will make its “presence and influence in the political scene acceptable within the Iraqi society,” the source said.
Iraq stands at the crossroads: It can either accept a continuation of the old situation, being a country without a sovereign decision and subject to the authority of Iran and its expansionist agenda, or be an independent thriving Arab country free of sectarian expansionist projects.
If the election results are an indication, the Iraqi people have chosen the latter.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.