Thursday, 25th April 2019

Iraq works to rebuild GCC ties as Iranian balancing act gets harder

Rarely short of a timely quote, President Barham Salih told a recent interviewer that “Iraq is coming back to the neighbourhood”. In promoting re-engagement with the Gulf and wider region, Salih was sharing a policy promoted by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to force Iraq out of its political and economic isolation to re-emerge as a studiedly neutral player (this time round) in regional diplomacy and commerce. While key elements of his administration remain blocked by domestic politicking, Abdul-Mahdi has worked to reposition Iraq in the region. This is no easy undertaking given Baghdad’s close relationship with Iran, many Iraqis’ antipathy to the United States and its Gulf Co-operation Council allies, and the need to build links with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, which have festered.

The announcement that Trade Bank of Iraq (TBI) was entering the Saudi market with its first operational branch abroad provided a public expression of warming Iraq-Saudi relations during Abdul-Mahdi’s potentially seminal 17-18 April visit to Riyadh. Deputy prime minister and finance minister Fuad Mohammed Hussein and Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority (Sama) governor Ahmed Al-Khulaifi joined TBI chairman Faisal Al-Haimus at the ribbon-cutting event in Riyadh’s Al-Olayya district. In the kingdom, Abdul-Mahdi witnessed the signature of some 13 political and economic agreements; oil minister Thamer Ghadhban said Saudi Aramco would help Iraq explore for gas in the western desert; and foreign minister Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim told Al Arabiya television about unspecified agreements on security and intelligence co-operation. The PM on 17 April met King Salman, after which Abdul-Mahdi broadcast on Facebook to say that his visit “symbolises the Iraqi government’s vision in aiming to bolster ties with the kingdom in all fields”. He also sat down for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).

The Riyadh visit was seen as essential to counterbalance Baghdad’s close relations with Iran, as underlined by President Hassan Rouhani’s 11-13 March visit (GSN 1,077/6). The sensitivity of these ties was underlined when US secretary of state Mike Pompeo subsequently visited GCC leaders with the message that they had to choose between Iran and the US (GSN 1,078/1). The them-and-us rhetoric was ratcheted up further when, in early April, President Donald Trump invoked Section 219 of the US Immigration and Nationality Act to designate the whole Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including General Qassim Suleimani’s Al-Quds Force, as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO).

Rationalising the first time a foreign government’s military has been designated an FTO, Trump said the IRGC “actively participates in, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft”. The decision rekindled fears of a new proxy war in Iraq and the wider region – with the alarming prospect of Washington sanctioning strikes against IRGC targets, as it did against fellow FTOs Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS or Daesh). Hardline Iraqi militia groups with strong ties to Iran, such as Harakat Hizbollah Al-Nujaba (HAN), had been named as FTOs before; Washington has promised to designate more. Such moves threaten the uneasy truce that has persisted in the Iraqi theatre since 2011.

A tacit understanding that the US and Iran were basically on the same side endured when American forces redeployed to fight Daesh in 2014. Before then was conflict: the IRGC was responsible for killing more than 600 US troops in Iraq in 2003-11, according to US special representative for Iran Brian Hook. (Hook is a leading Iran hawk, described by The Daily Beast as “a rare member of former secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s inner circle to have thrived under successor Mike Pompeo”.) US special forces countered with a covert war against IRGC units and their allies, which left hundreds of Iranian dead and has not been forgotten in Tehran.

Following the IRGC’s designation, its commander-in-chief (since 2007) Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said US forces would no longer be safe in the region if the designation endangered Iranian national security. The Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami (parliament) responded on 16 April with a motion designating Central Command and “all the US forces deployed in the region, all their facilities, their bases, and the entire logistic apparatus at their disposal” as “terrorist entities”, according to Majlis-e Shura Foreign Affairs and Security Committee member Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini. He said that all US bases and their personnel “should be treated as terror bases.”

Pompeo has also been cheerleader for tightening oil sanctions – which, according to Trump administration doctrine, would mean friendly big producers led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE increasing crude output to keep prices low. As GSN went to press, Pompeo was expected to announce the end, or at least reduction, of waivers for key buyers of Iranian crude. Trump on 18 April spoke to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan as he built support from key allies ahead of his possible decision to drop waivers.

Baghdad has watched with apprehension as Trump and Tehran have ratcheted up the pressure to an extent that it threatens a potential conflict which could prove very destructive for Iraq. Baghdad could not drop its Iranian alliance even if it wanted: US special forces and equipment can still be very useful, but Iran played an essential role in Daesh’s eventual defeat. However, mired in financial problems and its extensive and expensive exposure to Syria, Tehran has limited means to invest in the Iraqi economy.

Relations have been much more difficult with leading GCC countries. However, as Abdul-Mahdi’s photo ops with King Salman and MBS suggested, they now seem eager to counter Iran’s influence in Baghdad. This has been encouraged by Washington, where presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has continued to work on his Middle East masterplan (including taking Hook to meet MBS in February). The benefits for Iraq were signalled in early April when Saudi Arabia reopened its consulate in Baghdad for the first time in 30 years and Saudi commerce and investment minister Majid Bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi led a delegation that offered a $1bn grant to contribute to developing a new ‘sports city’ in Baghdad. Urban reconstruction is a pressing issue for Iraq and seems also to be on Saudi minds. One of Adbel-Mahdi’s tasks on 17 April was to inaugurate the Cities Destroyed by Terrorism exhibition, organised by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe – suggesting that even the Iraqis can project a bit of cultural soft power to win friends in the GCC and West.

Iraq’s damage containment strategy – and commitment to neutrality – was underlined by the 20 April ‘summit’ in Baghdad, hosted by Council of Representatives speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi. This brought together parliamentarians from Iraq’s six neighbours, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with Jordan, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey. Halbousi opened the meeting by saying that “Iraq is building a promising strategic partnership with all neighbouring countries without any reservations or favouring any party”. A bold statement of intent in what remains a very difficult region, but at least a signal that Iraq is looking to make a positive contribution where it can.

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