The Shifting Priorities in Iraq and Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry

The Shifting Priorities in Iraq and Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry
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Senior Expert Bilgehan Alagöz

On December 8, in the op-ed in “The Atlantic”, Joe Biden explained that the reason behind his decision to nominate Lloyd Austin as the new Secretary of State was because of Austin's success in the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. The withdrawal issue has been the subject of an ongoing debate. Although Biden portrays this withdrawal as a success, it is a fact that this withdrawal enabled Iran to exert more influence in the region. The gradual US troop’s withdrawal from Iraq has enabled Iran to use Iraq's airspace and to fly Syria over the Iraqi airspace, and this situation has been criticized by Saudi Arabia, one of Iran's biggest rivals in the region. Biden’s last article suggests that Iraq will continue to be at the centre of any US and Middle East policy. As a matter of fact, in his speech at the NATO Defense Ministers Meeting held on February 18, the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin opened the door to the possibility of sending more American troops to the Middle East as a part of the NATO training mission to support Iraqi forces and prevent the rise of DAESH.

The possible strategies of Iran and Saudi Arabia, bitter rivals and regional players, have gained importance as the US is trying to come up with a new Iraq strategy. It is possible to say that Iran has built its objectives towards Iraq strategy on a set of three pillars: safeguarding Iraqi territorial integrity, maintaining the presence of its Iraqi proxies, and protecting market access. However, it is difficult to say that achieving these objectives is an easy task for Iran, due to a large number of decisive parameters in Iraq.

Efforts of the Iraqi authorities to limit Iran’s influence on the country has become more visible, following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Deputy Chief of the Hashd al-Shaabi Delegation (emerged in Iraq in 2014), on the Iraqi territory in January 2020. The Iraqi government expresses its extreme discontent with being a battleground between the US and Iran. In that regard, anti-Iran statements made by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shia authority in Iraq and spearhead of the Hashd al Shaabi, are of great importance. Following the announcement that four militia groups affiliated with Sistani had been separated from the Hashd al-Shaabi and formed a parallel force at the beginning of December, Iran’s influence on Iraq has again become the main topic of conversation.

There are important considerations that limit Iran's efforts to keep its proxy forces in Iraq under control. Firstly, economic hardship caused by the US 'maximum pressure' policy has drastically cut Iran’s cash supplies to its proxy forces in Iraq. The increasing US pressure on Baghdad for the last four years is another important factor. It is expected that the Biden administration will continue to follow the same policy. Therefore, although Iran has gained periodic success in controlling subgroups in Iraq, it is highly probable that these groups will seek new patronage in the following days and Hashd al-Shaabi will go through a structural and institutional split. As a matter of fact, there have been some signs of such a split. Although Iran issued orders to its armed allies in Iraq not to attack US targets last October, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the Iraqi armed factions backed by Iran, has carried out some attacks against the American envoys during November.

Another interesting development is the formation of a new unit affiliated with the Hashd al-Shaabi in Kirkuk, consisting of some 150 militants. Although there is no clear information on whether this new unit is affiliated with Iran or an independent organization, its establishment in the strategically important city of Kirkuk cannot be independent from changing the balances in Iraq. Aware of this situation, in order not to lose its influence in Iraq, Iran seeks to deepen military-to-military cooperation with Iraq, in addition to its proxy strategy. On the sidelines of the visit of the Iraqi Defense Minister to Tehran on November 14, the Chief of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces Mohammad Hossein Bagheri stated that Iran and Iraq are planning to strengthen their military cooperation in the near future. Although the Iraqi officials have not made a statement yet, it is no coincidence that Iran mentioned this issue, especially at a time when the US was discussing reducing the number of US troops in Iraq. Iran endeavours to send a message that its influence in Iraq will continue, despite the US pressure.

In that regard, Saudi Arabia's policy towards Iraq gains more importance. Prior to 2015, the Saudis missed critical opportunities to engage with the Iraqis. However, after King Abdullah’s death in 2015, King Salman and his son Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman have shifted their Iraq policy. In 2015, Saudi Arabia sent an ambassador to Baghdad and the Saudi foreign minister visited the Iraqi capital in 2017. Moreover, Saudi Arabia reopened a consulate in Basra in 2019 and announced a one billion dollars aid package for Iraq. All of these developments are not only the signs of a policy shift, but also indicators of the Saudi Arabia’s objective of reducing Iran’s influence in Iraq. In this context, as of November 18, the reopening of the Arar border crossing for trade is of prime importance. While Saudi Arabia engaged in a military competition with Iran over Iraq in the previous years, it has built its new strategy on reducing Iran’s influence by establishing economic superiority in Iraq.

On the other hand, the trust that could not have been built between Iraq and Saudi Arabia during the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki era has been tried to be rebuilt under the administration of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Both Iraq’s financial difficulties and the troubling activities of Iran’s proxies in Iraq have played crucial roles in this decision. In his remarks on November 10, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi criticized proxy forces affiliated with Iran, without naming them and also accused these forces of hindering Iraq’s rapprochement with foreign countries, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with whom Iraq has recently signed a cooperation agreement. The Iraqi authorities consider the foreign investment as the only solution to the dire financial situation, which caused the government to have difficulty paying the salaries of its employees. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has gained prominence as an important option for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Thus, the new focus of the Iran-Saudi Arabia competition for influence in Iraq will be the economy.

Aiming to rejoin the nuclear deal, Biden and his team wish not to shift their relations with America's traditional allies in the Middle East to a negative situation. In that regard, one question that comes to mind is undoubtedly whether a peaceful dialogue will begin between Iran and the Arab Gulf states during the Biden era. At this point, the most fundamental issue is in which direction the Saudi Arabia-Iran relations will be heading.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been rivals. Rather than directly fighting, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in proxy wars such as: Yemen and Iraq. However, there is a misperception regarding the idea of permanent hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran. During the periods of 2006-2007 and 2014-2017, when the relations were experiencing high tensions in the Iraqi channel, the two countries were able to take mutual steps and reduce tensions for a certain period of time. Hence, a similar possibility may be the case in the near future. However, compared to previous periods, the center of gravity will be the economy rather than proxies and military vehicles. As both countries regard Iraq as an important market, they try to increase their share in the Iraqi market. On the other hand, although Biden and his team have vowed to reduce the US troops in Iraq, it seems not likely that the US will make such a decision as it is highly possible that Iraq's economic woes increase the acts of violence and open the way for proxy forces. So, the Iranian-Saudi competition aiming to increase their economic influence in Iraq, under the shadow of the United States, will be the main theme of the new era.

Moreover, even Saudi Arabia and Iran continue their aggressive policies; there is a tendency to find a pathway towards reconciliation. Iran has intensively felt the effects of its US sanctions-shattered economy due to the pandemic and has looked for a way out. Similarly, the rapid decline in oil prices due to the pandemic has adversely affected the Saudi Arabian economy. This common problem experienced by both countries has formed the basis for developing an economy-oriented relationship, just like in the 1990s. Moreover, shifting the balance of power in the Gulf will also have an impact on Iran and Saudi Arabia relations, in this sense. Saudi Arabia is trying to shift its foreign policy, which causes it to become increasingly isolated in GCC. The GCC’s attempts to restore relations with Qatar and the presence of countries capable of conducting diplomacies with Iran, such as Kuwait and Oman are promising factors for the formation of a relatively conciliatory politics in the region. Therefore, while Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to be rivals in various areas, they will also come together to seek out a common ground when they deem necessary.