In an attempt to promote Iraq as the neutral ground from which regional rivals can hash out agreements – a new Middle Eastern Switzerland – Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi hosted a regional summit with French involvement last Saturday in Baghdad that brought together foes Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, and Kuwait.
However, rather than Baghdad being any kind of neutral territory, the summit appears to have been taken advantage of by not only Iran – the most dominant state actor in Iraqi politics today – but also by domestic authorities, to paper over the glaring cracks that have plagued Iraq domestically since the US-led invasion toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003.
Despite this, regional actors will perhaps begin to explore whether the Baghdad summit can be a springboard for the creation of a Middle Eastern de-escalation framework, particularly in light of the increasingly receding influence and authority of the United States, a superpower that has just been embarrassingly defeated and ejected from Afghanistan.
Prior to the summit, Iran made it clear that any diplomatic breakthroughs with rival Saudi Arabia would depend on the progress made in the Vienna negotiations it is currently engaged in with the United States.
Currently, both Tehran and Washington have made little progress on a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal, aside from stating that they wish to revive it in order to reduce simmering tensions between the two powers.
Those tensions have often boiled over into Iraq in tit-for-tat exchanges, including Tehran’s Shia militia proxies attacking the US embassy on several occasions and Washington retaliating with airstrikes, the most famous of which occurred during the Trump administration when the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, was killed in a drone strike in early 2020.
It would appear that Iran’s logic in this regard is that there would be little point in Tehran cutting deals with Riyadh when they may need to escalate against them in order to force American compliance on the nuclear issue.
Saudi Arabia is dependent on the US diplomatically, militarily, and economically, and they are considered amongst Washington’s closest allies in the region, making them a lucrative target for Iranian reprisals against the “Great Satan”, as it is fond of describing the United States.
Such reprisals may take the form of attacks against Riyadh’s economically critical energy supplies, as occurred when Iranian Houthi proxies shut down Saudi oil production in 2019 by launching devastating drone strikes on two major oil facilities in the kingdom.
Iran’s diplomatic calculus is that it would prefer to engage in hushed talks with Saudi Arabia – that have again been facilitated by Iraq since April this year – and to keep the oil-rich monarchy that is desperate for regional stability on a hook while it hashes out a deal with Riyadh’s senior partner in Washington.
If that is achieved, it is highly likely that we will see a denouement of sorts between the two rivals, with Iran keeping all its recent territorial acquisitions and influence in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the so-called “Shia crescent” in exchange for Saudi being able to extract itself from the Yemeni quagmire and guarantees for the security of its economically vital energy industry. In such a scenario, Iran would be the clear winner and Iraq can claim to have brokered peace.
As such, the Baghdad summit could be viewed as being less about regional cooperation and partnership – the title of the summit – and more about defusing tensions at what is perceived by Iran to be a fortuitous moment when the United States has been forced into a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Washington’s allies, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia, will view the Biden administration’s abandonment of their client government in Afghanistan with grave concern, as the Kabul government quickly collapsed in the face of a determined and lightning Taliban advance.
Baghdad is also acutely aware of how its own state was in effect established by the American occupation in 2003 and can easily unravel should the US decide to completely disengage from Iraq, which provides an insight into why French President Emmanuel Macron insisted on Saturday that France will maintain a military presence in Iraq regardless of any decisions to withdraw made by the White House. The likelihood of Paris being able to fill a vacuum left by Washington, however, is debatable.
The lack of American credibility will also encourage Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other attendees to engage in the creation of a regional de-escalation framework. This would be a reactionary measure designed to cover any possible eventuality that the United States would decide to disengage, leaving a power vacuum that can be exploited by hungry up-and-coming powers like China and Russia, and also non-state actors looking to benefit from the insecurity generated, including militant groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS).
In Turkey’s unique context, this de-escalation mechanism – should it ever materialise – would be ideal as the United States has proven itself to be, time and again, a fickle friend. Ankara will remember how former President Barack Obama and his team were cautious to denounce the 2015 coup attempt and waited until it became clear that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would prevail.
Turkey will also be angered by Washington’s continuous support for the Kurdish YPG group in Syria, an organisation Ankara considers to be a terrorist organisation that is related to the PKK which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist group.
In that regard, the Baghdad summit may represent a start at beginning a conversation about regional dynamics and how to reduce simmering tensions in an already fraught neighbourhood, but it achieved nothing in terms of any major diplomatic breakthroughs.
While Iraqi elites may be concerned over a repeat of recent events in Kabul occurring in Baghdad, they have shown little progress in ameliorating Iraq’s domestic woes.
By trying to curry favour with regional powers in an attempt to prop them up should the United States disengage and remove its vital political, economic, and military support, the Iraqi authorities may be at risk of showing Iraqi voters that they care more for the opinions and interests of foreign powers rather than the aspirations of their citizens.
Considering the protest movement that has been effectively on the streets since 2019, Iraqis may feel that it would be a wiser expenditure of time and effort to fix Iraq’s myriad structural problems that have caused Iraqis to have such apathy towards their political process, with the last vote in 2018 attracting a paltry 44.5% turnout.
The summit has been accused of being a “political theatre” that was timed to take place a month and a half before national elections are due to be held. This could be because the Kadhimi administration is trying to polish the Iraqi political process’ credentials by giving it the appearance of regional clout.
However, the summit may have the opposite effect domestically as Iraqi voters will observe that the summit appears to largely be for Iran’s benefit and that Iraqi politicians prefer to deal with powerful neighboring states and curry support with France rather than addressing the fundamental problems plaguing Iraq’s state, economy, and society.
Iraqis suffer from a polluted water supply that only recently hospitalized thousands in Basra alone. Similarly, and despite being one of the most energy-rich countries in the world, Iraqis face repeated and extended power supply cuts and are forced to import electricity from Iran.
Further, rampant corruption and mismanagement that recently led to a huge blaze in a hospital coronavirus ward that killed almost a hundred patients have only served to punctuate to Iraqis that changes need to be made.
Even if Baghdad could attract the support of its neighbors to stabilize the political system, it may still unravel if it completely loses buy-in from the Iraqi people it is supposed to serve.
Without that buy-in from the populace, Iran, France, or any country would not be able to stop the Iraqi state from collapsing as it would lack legitimacy amongst its own people, who have been protesting almost continuously since 2019.
Iraqi policymakers run a risk should they fail to pay close attention to the sentiments of the people they are supposed to govern, as they could ultimately rebel and overthrow the very order they are trying to protect through these diplomatic endeavors.