Skip to main content

Iraq's dilemma: Caught between Gulf states and Iran

Iraq's dilemma: Caught between Gulf states and Iran
8 min read
19 December, 2022
Analysis: With Turkish and Iranian violations of Iraq's sovereignty, and suspicion from Gulf states towards the country's new prime minister, domestic instability looks set to continue in 2023.

Mohammad Shia al-Sudani’s appointment as Iraq’s prime minister on 27 October has led to concerns among officials in a host of countries.

Much of the worrying is based on his background, affiliations, and closeness to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Given that members of his coalition, the Coordination Framework, include figures from Iranian-backed Shia militias that Washington has designated as “terrorist organisations”, the Biden administration has had to tread carefully in its dealings with the new leadership in Baghdad.

But the impact of al-Sudani’s appointment is also felt in the region. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states are not too optimistic about what may come out of Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s successor.

His appointment is especially disappointing to those in Riyadh, who view al-Sudani and those in the Coordination Framework with suspicion. From the perspective of the Kingdom’s leadership, these are problematic figures to have at the helm in Baghdad.

“The Saudis liked al-Kadhimi and they thought they could deal with him,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi expert at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, in an interview with The New Arab.

“They were beginning to engage more directly with al-Kadhimi, not as much as I think that they could have, but they were doing more than they had in the past. I think there’s a general view in the Gulf that al-Sudani was put in place by the Iranians in effect and supported by the Hashd al-Sha’bi political parties. They are more leery of him. They will be less likely to deal with him as directly as they did with al-Kadhimi.”

Live Story

Along with Tehran accusing Saudi-funded Iran International of bearing a significant degree of responsibility for Iran’s nationwide upheaval since September, al-Sudani serving as Iraq’s new prime minister is another factor dimming the prospects of any successful Baghdad-led dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Although there were no diplomatic breakthroughs from the initial rounds of talks, Iraq did host a direct dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran from April 2021 until earlier this year. Those talks in Baghdad took place when al-Kadhimi, whom Riyadh saw as more trustworthy, was in the prime minister’s office.

Nonetheless, al-Sudani is determined to assuage Sunni Arab states’ concerns about his government’s relationship with the Islamic Republic. He and those around him have stressed that Baghdad remains committed to facilitating Iranian-Saudi dialogue.

“I think Sudani’s government in Baghdad wants to continue the trend of ‘balanced foreign policy,’” Feyzullah Tuna Aygün, an expert on Iraq at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), told TNA. “Iraq with Sudani at the helm can still facilitate a platform for Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, it may require some time for both actors to gain confidence from each other in a new platform.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (R) and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (L) hold a joint press conference after their meeting in Tehran, Iran on 29 November 2022. [Getty]

Within this context of al-Sudani seeking to ease suspicions among Iraq’s neighbours, his first international trips after taking office were to Kuwait and Jordan. Al-Sudani went to these two neighbouring countries because “he wanted to message Iraq's Arab neighbours that he wants to build on his predecessor's policy of deepening Iraq's engagement with its Arab neighbourhood,” Randa Slim, the director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute, told TNA.

Whether al-Sudani and his allies in Baghdad can convince the Saudis that the current Iraqi government can serve as a credible intermediator between Riyadh and Tehran remains to be seen. Gause believes that the possibility shouldn’t be ruled out. However, he is also sceptical that Iraq will be able to gain such confidence from Saudi Arabia without al-Kadhimi as prime minister.

“There was more willingness to allow the process to work itself out in these meetings in Baghdad on the Gulf side when al-Kadhimi was in power. I think that there wasn’t a sense on the Arab side that there was much success, but I don’t think they would have wanted to deal a diplomatic blow to al-Kadhimi. I don’t think they’ll be as solicitous to al-Sudani’s reputation,” added Gause.

According to Slim, whether this Iranian-Saudi dialogue in Iraq can sustain will be determined by two primary factors. The first is whether Tehran and Riyadh will see any value in continuing the talks.

“It is not clear they both do especially in light of Iran's accusation of Saudi Arabia's role in supporting the protest movement in Iran,” she explained in a TNA interview. The second is whether al-Sudani can convince Riyadh that he can serve as a “neutral and acceptable convenor” who is capable of acting as a neutral facilitator for dialogue between these two historic rivals that both neighbour Iraq.

“Saudi Arabia might prefer to move the dialogue to a different location,” added Slim. “In the past, one session of this dialogue was held in Oman.”

According to recent reporting citing the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to Lebanon, Iranian and Saudi officials will meet for talks in Jordan on the sidelines of the second edition of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, which will also be attended by Egypt, France, and Iraq.

Yet it remains to be seen if there is any such engagement between Tehran and Riyadh at this conference. If this reporting is accurate, these Iranian-Saudi talks would be the first to take place since the protests erupted in Iran three months ago.

Iraq Report
Inside MENA
Live Story

Iran's military strikes in Iraq

One of the challenges that al-Sudani faces relates to Iranian military operations against Kurdish dissident factions in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Baghdad has officially condemned these missile and drone strikes against the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Komala - two Iranian-Kurdish groups that have a history of being in northern Iraq since the 1980s.

Tehran justifies these IRGC operations by claiming that the PDKI and Komala are directly involved in arming “rioters” in different parts of Iran. Nonetheless, Tehran has not backed up these allegations with any concrete evidence.

When looking to the future of Iranian-Iraqi relations and questions about how Baghdad will address Tehran’s violations of Iraqi sovereignty, it is critical to consider the uncertain domestic situation inside Iran.

Of course, different scenarios need to be considered and any analyst attempting to predict the final outcome of this internal unrest in Iran needs to do so with much humility. Nonetheless, it is safe to bet that the Islamic Republic’s rulers will continue their efforts to deflect and try to externalise their country’s crisis, placing blame on foreign actors such as the West, GCC states, and ethnic separatists in Azerbaijan and Iraq.

A Kurdish flag is pictured amid the destruction caused by a reported Iranian rocket attack near Altun Kupri (Perdi), north of Kirkuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, on 23 November 2022. [Getty]

“The belief that [Iran’s] problems domestically are being stirred up by outside powers has led to these attacks from Tehran across the border” into northern Iraq, explained Gause.

“I think that is, to a great extent, wishful thinking on Tehran’s part. I think these are domestically generated problems. But to the extent that al-Sudani is reliant upon political parties that are extremely closely allied with Tehran, there’s not much he can do about it. His parliamentary majority relies on those parties, and I don’t think that he’ll be taking dramatic steps to stand up to Tehran and assert [Iraq’s national] independence.”

If instability in Iran further exacerbates with new elite fissures emerging, the Islamic Republic would probably have to shift much of its concentration from regional developments to dealing with the crisis at home.

“That would allow any Iraqi leader to push for a bit more independence,” said Gause. “If it were al-Kadhimi in power in the Prime Minister’s office, I think he’d certainly do that. I think it’s less likely that al-Sudani would do it just because of the nature of his political coalition.”

Regardless of what, if anything, al-Sudani does in response to the IRGC’s missile and drone attacks against PDKI and Komala, there is no denying that Tehran is creating new enemies among Iraqi Kurds. As innocent people die, suffer injuries, and become displaced because of Iran’s military strikes, Iraqis will increasingly direct their anger toward Tehran.

“With these strikes, Tehran might be seeking to deflect attention away from the domestic grievances fuelling the protests,” Slim told TNA. “But they are paying a cost in terms of how the Iraqi public views their actions particularly among Iraqi youth who already blame Iran and their Iraqi proxies for the violence targeting civilian protesters in 2019.”

If more Iraqis are upset at their prime minister and the Coordination Framework for not doing enough to stand up for Iraq’s sovereign rights in the face of both Iran and Turkey’s military interventions in the country’s autonomous Kurdish region, it remains to be seen how such dynamics will play out for al-Sudani in 2023.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Emily Milliken is Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates. Follow her on Twitter: @EmilyMPrzy