Myth and reality of the Iraqi mediation
Iraq cannot help broker Iranian-Saudi peace negotiations, writes Salah Nasrawi
When reports emerged last week that Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari wanted to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to end the standoff over the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, many Iraqis were taken by surprise.
Commentators and writers on social media received the reports with scepticism, and many even joked about the ability of Iraqi diplomacy to assume regional responsibilities in foreign affairs when the country remained deeply immersed in domestic ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
Still, the Iraqi government’s offer to broker a deal between the two regional rivals was not that funny, and many thought the suggestion raised some serious questions about the country’s fortunes in its neighbourhood’s newest conflict.
Al-Jaafari’s surprise initiative came after Riyadh’s execution of popular Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr led to a row with its regional nemesis, Iran. He also made an intense four-day trip in shuttle diplomacy that included Tehran, Muscat and Cairo in efforts to defuse the crisis.
But by the time Iraq launched its meditation initiative, tensions between the two Middle Eastern rivals had already erupted into a fully-fledged regional conflict with the potential for further flare-ups.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the oil-rich kingdom would face “divine revenge” for its execution of Al-Nimr, and a spokesman at Iran’s foreign ministry said Saudi Arabia would “pay a high price”.
Iranians protesting against Al-Nimr’s execution stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at the building. Similar demonstrations were held at the offices of the Saudi consulate in the holy city of Mashhad
After its embassy in Tehran was sacked by angry Iranians, Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with the country and recalled its ambassador. Several Saudi allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in addition to Djibouti and Sudan, also cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Iran in solidarity with Saudi Arabia.
But Saudi Arabia’s execution of Al-Nimr prompted uproar from Shias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan and infuriated other Shia communities across the world.
The rupture in diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia also raised fears among world capitals that it could worsen the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and undercut the international campaign against the Islamic State (IS) terror group which now threatens to take over major cities in Libya.
Baghdad’s worries about escalation are well founded as the tensions could worsen the country’s sectarian conflict. Iraq fears that the new rift could threaten national reconciliation efforts, as the Shia-led government in Baghdad is urgently trying to reach out to Sunnis in the country as it seeks to retake territory controlled by IS and is particularly vulnerable to any upsurge in anger between the Muslim sects.
Yet, the question remains of whether a country that is embroiled in a bloody sectarian conflict with far-reaching consequences on its neighbours can help find some sort of a compromise in the most dangerous regional crisis since the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988.
Away from the headlines, there are number of reasons why Baghdad cannot mediate between an Arab kingdom which sees itself as the bulwark of the Sunni world and a Persian nation ruled by a Shia theocracy which aspires to lead the world of Muslim Shias.
Naturally, any mediation presupposes that the two sides are willing to accept the mediator. Yet, that willingness is nowhere to be seen. Moreover, the two powers are apparently set on pulling the entire region into a struggle between Islam’s two main sects of the Sunnis and the Shias.
It is no secret that Saudi Arabia does not trust the Shia-led government in Baghdad and considers its leaders to be the stooges of Iran. Since the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s predominantly Sunni regime, the kingdom has refused to reach out to the Shia government’s leaders, accusing them of opening the door to Iranian influence in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad only a few days before Al-Nimr’s execution, having earlier rejected all calls to send a diplomatic mission to the country after the downfall of Saddam in 2003.
But the resumption of full diplomatic ties does not seem to indicate that Iraqi-Saudi relations are now out of the dark. Uncertainty, caused by a lack of mutual trust and divergent regional and domestic policy agendas, is expected to remain the norm in their bilateral relations.
Meanwhile, the Iranian-Saudi escalation is bound to change the rules of the game in the proxy wars in Iraq. The increased hostility will not only represent yet another hurdle for regional and international action to combat IS, but will also pit Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other in a direct confrontation in Iraq.
Only a few days before the eruption of the new crisis, Saudi Arabia unveiled plans to create a new Sunni-dominated Islamic military alliance devoted to fighting global terrorism and plans to set up a “Strategic Cooperation Council” with Turkey.
The two moves were seen by Baghdad as primarily motivated by regional rivalry with Iran and not the fight against terrorism. For Iraq, the strategy aims at creating a new regional order with Saudi Arabia as one of its pillars that could throw the delicate international coalition against IS off balance.
The standoff is also expected to have negative effects on Iraq’s home front. One of its major consequences is increasing sectarianism inside Iraq. The execution and ensuing crisis has the potential to inflame the Shia-Sunni divide as the country braces itself for the post-IS era.
Another reason why Al-Jaafari’s offer of meditation between Iran and Saudi Arabia represents a strategic blunder is the growing gulf between the government in Baghdad and the Iran-backed Shia militias that have been increasingly operating as the country’s main military and political force.
Thousands of supporters of the main Shia militias rallied in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities last week, chanting slogans against the Saudi ruling family and denouncing Al-Nimr’s execution.
Leaders of the three most powerful militias, the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hizbullah, which organised the rallies, called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to shut the Saudi Embassy in Baghdad and expel the Saudi diplomats.
Some other less-prominent militias threatened to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for the execution of the Saudi cleric.
In contrast, the ruling Shia National Alliance in Iraq reacted by issuing a statement condemning Al-Nimr’s execution as a violation of human rights and “transgression against the sublime status of [Muslim] clergymen”.
The Iranian-Saudi rupture is stoking tensions between the Shia ruling groups and the rising militia leaders. The conflicting reactions to the Iranian-Saudi standoff are a reflection of the sort of quasi-arms race for influence that they are now engaged in.
Beneath the turmoil looms a complex power struggle between the Shia groups that reveals much about the direction in which the country is heading. Real power rests with an inner circle of Shia oligarchs, and this is increasingly being contested by the militias.
The Iranian-Saudi tensions are just one of the challenges which are expected to reinvigorate the Shia power struggle. What Al-Jaafari and the Shia-led government have been doing by offering unsolicited mediation is to display moderation versus the radicalism shown by the militia leaders.
When Arab foreign ministers finally met in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the standoff, it was disclosed that there was no Iraqi diplomatic initiative to defuse the Iranian-Saudi crisis. Instead, the ministers condemned the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran and warned that Tehran would face wider opposition by the Arabs.
While keeping observers guessing, Al-Jaafari endorsed the pan-Arab resolution, which also denounced Iran’s ally the Shia Lebanese group Hizbullah, infuriating the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias.
“We didn’t want to break the Arab consensus,” Al-Jaafari told reporters afterwards. “The endorsement was to ease the tensions,” said ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal in a statement.
While Al-Jaafari’s U-turn underscored the Iraqi Shia ruling elite’s keenness to display moderation to sceptical Sunni Arab governments vis-à-vis the hardline militias in Iraq, many Iraqi politicians believe the move conceals the government’s own weak diplomacy.
“Al-Jaafari behaved as if he owned the state. It was a huge scandal and an insult to Iraq,” said a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee Mithal Al-Alousi in a statement.