An alliance of convenience?
While President Fuad Masum’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week has ended years of strained relations between Iraq and the kingdom, Gerald Butt says the change will not weaken Baghdad’s ties with Tehran.
During the eight-year-long premiership of Nuri al-Maliki the Arab Gulf states viewed Iraq with concern bordering on hostility. They regarded Maliki as a leader committed to promote the interests of Shia Iraqis at the expense of the Sunni community. They also accused him of taking his orders from Iran.
The red carpet treatment accorded to President Masum when he arrived on last week’s official visit to Saudi Arabia – which included a meeting with King Abdullah – was a sign that the kingdom approves of the recent leadership changes inIraq. In turn, Iraq can expect greater political and possibly financial help from the GCC states in its campaign against IS. With the fall in oil prices the Baghdad government could well be forced to turn to its Gulf neighbours for financial support to meet the rising cost of military operations and the care of hundreds of thousands of homeless people.
In the days before President Masum’s trip to Saudi Arabia, the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, had visited both Iran and Jordan, a sign that the new government is adopting a fresh foreign policy strategy that is both balanced and pragmatic: Iraq cannot survive its current crisis without the support both of Iran and the Sunni-dominated Arab states of the region.
The new thawing in relations with Saudi Arabia should not, however, be interpreted as a sign that Iraq is about to downplay its ties with Tehran. Far from it. Although Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Qatar, is contributing to the anti-IS coalition by taking part in airstrikes on targets in Iraq, there seems no possibility of the Arab Gulf states committing troops on the ground.
Iran, on the other hand, has made no attempt to hide the deployment of members of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard to support Iraqi Shia militias in their battles against IS. While the United States and its allies are embarking on long-term training programmes aimed at putting muscle back into the badly shaken Iraqi army, Iran is taking immediate and direct action through groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigades and Kataib Hezbollah to ensure that IS forces don’t reach Baghdad or the predominantly Shia southern part of Iraq.
The Arab Gulf states, despite their willingness to reopen relations with Iraq, are in no position to match or replace what Iran is providing in terms of military support. But with channels to Baghdad open again they will seek to make sure that the voices of Iraqi Sunnis are heard and respected in the capital.
As for Iran, its long-term strategy will be to go on ensuring that Iraq’s Shia retain their dominance in the political system and that the country itself remains relatively weak. On no account will Tehran allow Iraq to emerge once more as a powerful force that might start a war with Iran, as happened in 1980.
In the short term, both Saudi Arabia and Iran want to see IS defeated, even though they differ radically on many regional issues, not least on Syria and the future of the Assad regime. Coordination between Riyadh and Tehran over dealing with the IS challenge is not a possibility in the near future. But by winning support via separate channels from the two regional superpowers, the Abadi government will feel that Iraq is better placed to tackle the jihadist challenge than it was before President Masum visited Saudi Arabia.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.