Bridge between rivals? Iraq PM to visit Iran and Saudi Arabia

Iraq is situated between the Middle East’s two great rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the Iraqi prime minister, hopes to position Baghdad as a regional mediator by promoting good relations with all its neighbors.

“We indeed are one of the advocates of being open towards all the neighboring countries,” Abdul-Mahdi told his weekly press conference in the Iraqi capital on Tuesday evening, announcing his plan to visit both Iran and Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks.

“We don’t want to build on disputes. There are existing disputes with all the neighboring countries. There have been sticking points for decades, years, at times centuries with the neighboring countries,” the PM said.

“But we have also had much in common over the years, decades, and centuries with neighboring countries. We want to build on those commonalities,” he added.

Abdul-Mahdi is due to meet with a joint Iraq-KSA Coordination Committee delegation on Wednesday to discuss border crossings, mutual investments, customs fees, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

“We are very ambitious to develop our ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). You know that economic relations incubate a better political and security environment,” the PM said.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraq’s ruling Shiite parties have fostered close political, economic, and religious ties with their Shiite neighbor to the east, Iran.

Tehran-backed militias and their commanders continue to hold significant sway over political life in Iraq, allowing sectarian rivalries to fester.

Relations with Saudi Arabia were rocky during the tenure of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who accused Riyadh of backing Sunni extremist groups operating inside Iraq.

That mistrust continues to run deep. In 2016, Shiite militias attacked the newly reopened Saudi embassy in Baghdad after the kingdom executed a prominent Shiite cleric.

The United States and its Saudi allies meanwhile have long called for the dismantling of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq – known locally as Hashd al-Shaabi.

The US sought to bolster efforts by Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, to improve relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and to reduce Tehran’s leverage over Baghdad. The policy has continued under Abdul-Mahdi.

A key motivation for building ties with the Saudis is the need for a wealthy benefactor to help rebuild Iraq’s shattered cities and infrastructure, devastated by decades of war, sanctions, and corruption.

Crippled by US sanctions and engaged in several costly foreign interventions, Iran is unlikely to offer Iraq the kind of largess needed to fund its reconstruction.

Washington is also keen to foster friendships between Middle East states and its allies in Riyadh to further isolate Tehran. By pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions, the US aims to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and stop interfering in regional affairs.

This does not mean Iraq is turning its back on Iran, however. Iraqi leaders remember all too well it was their Iranian friends who were first to intervene when ISIS launched its conquest in 2014.

During a three-day visit to Iraq last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed a deal with Abdul-Mahdi to allow Iraqis to enjoy visa-free travel to the Islamic Republic – a measure which officially came into force on April 1.

Tehran also hopes to increase its annual trade with Iraq from its current $12 billion to $20 billion in the coming years.

Iran exported $1.1 billion-worth of goods to Iraq over the Mehran crossing alone during the last Iranian year ending March 21.

Iraq also depends on Iranian energy subsidies to support its electricity network. Baghdad has been granted several waivers from complying with US sanctions on Iran in order to continue importing energy.

Cutting energy imports could worsen Iraq’s daily power blackouts and may lead to a repeat of last summer’s Basra riots.

Abdul-Mahdi’s visit to Tehran in the coming weeks will likely further cement that special relationship. The challenge for the Iraqi PM will be how he balances Iraq’s friendships in a hostile neighborhood. Source