The 2003 ouster of the Saddam regime and the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014 in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal helped Iran to become the most influential foreign power in Iraq. However, there is a growing concern in Tehran that the latest U.S.-backed diplomatic efforts by Saudi Arabia to forge close ties with the Iraqi government and Shiite leaders may undercut Iranian influence in Iraq. While Iranian officials play down the significance of Riyadh’s outreach to Baghdad, Iranian media outlets and analysts express the worry that the United States and Saudi Arabia are “plotting” to drive a wedge between Baghdad and Tehran as part of a broader effort to isolate Iran and counter its influence across the region. The inauguration of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council in Riyadh on Sunday, and the participation of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the meeting, has added to Tehran’s concern. The Iranian media, particularly outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), caution that Riyadh, with Washington’s support, is trying to counter Iranian influence in Iraq by courting Iraqi Shiite leaders, playing a prominent role in Iraq’s reconstruction process, and influencing the outcome of Iraqi parliamentary elections next year.
Tillerson’s Riyadh visit
On Saturday, the top U.S. diplomat traveled to the Saudi capital to attend a meeting of Saudi and Iraqi leaders and encourage the two Arab countries to further improve bilateral ties in order to promote regional stability and confront Iranian influence in the Middle East. At a press conference in Riyadh, Tillerson called for the dissolution of Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups in Iraq. He also stressed that Saudi Arabia can help rebuild Iraqi cities destroyed in the fight against the Islamic State and reduce Baghdad’s dependence on Iran.
Tillerson’s remarks drew strong reactions in Iran and Iraq. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif rejected Tillerson’s call for Iranian and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to be disbanded and defended his country’s military role in Iraq and Syria. “Had it not been because of sacrifices by the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly sacrifices by the defenders of shrines, the Islamic state would have been in control over Damascus, Baghdad and Erbil,” he claimed. Several top commanders of Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) also derided Tillerson’s comment. “The Foreign Minister of America: You must withdraw [U.S.] military forces from our country Iraq after the end of the pretext of the presence of Daesh [Islamic State], immediately and without any delays,” tweeted Qais al-Khazali, the U.S.-blacklisted leader of Iranian-backed militia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Apart from Tillerson’s comments, the Riyadh meeting triggered worries in Tehran about the implications of warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. “The U.S. secretary of state’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the presence of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Riyadh and the trilateral summit of America, Iraq and Saudi Arabia mark a turning point in the creation of a political movement to establish an Arab-American front,” wrote Tasnim News Agency, an outlet affiliated the I.R.G.C. “America’s chief goal is to create an effective and strong partnership between Arab and Zionist [Israel] countries. In this respect, we are witnessing the creation of an Arab-Zionist-American axis in the region, and the aim of this front is to systematically confront Iran’s military presence in the region,” it added. The article claimed that American and Saudi leaders asked Abadi at the meeting to dissolve the P.M.F. and confront Iran’s presence in Iraq.
Other Iranian outlets echoed a similar concern. An article in Eghtesad News, entitled “Tillerson’s Mission in Riyadh: Returning Iraq into Saudi Arabia’s Grip,” warned that although America’s efforts to cultivate close ties between Saudi Arabia and post-Saddam Iraq have not yielded results in the past, the latest security and political developments in Iraq and the region provide Washington and Riyadh an opportunity to succeed in undermining Iranian influence in the Arab world this time. “The unity between Saudi Arabia and Iraq can undercut Iran’s expanding sphere of influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea,” the article cautioned. “At a time when the Iraqi government needs foreign assistance to rebuild regions recaptured from Daesh and is also grappling with tension resulting from the Kurdish independence referendum, this issue is particularly important.”
Similarly, Javan Online, another I.R.G.C. mouthpiece, said Washington and Riyadh are trying to create a gulf between Iraq and Iran, but emphasized that history, geography and shared interests will help Iran and Iraq to remain close partners in the future. The article also pointed out that President Donald Trump tried to establish a new regional security alliance under the banner of “Arab NATO” during his trip to Riyadh earlier this year, but that effort failed due to the Qatar crisis and because a lack of unity among Arab nations precludes a strong joint regional stance against Iran.
Elections and reconstruction
Tehran is particularly concerned that Washington and Riyadh may influence the outcome of Iraq’s next parliamentary elections at the expense of Iranian interests. “Saudi Arabia’s chief strategy to counter Iranian presence in Iraq is to change the overall leadership of Iraq from Shiite parties to Sunni and Baathist parties,” warned Tasnim News Agency. “They also want to shape up the next Iraqi government by influencing the next year’s parliamentary elections,” it added. Referring to the a recent trip by Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Iraqi politician and the head of the Sadr movement, to Saudi Arabia, Tasnim opined that Riyadh is also reaching out to Iraqi Shiite leaders to unite them against Iran.
Other Iranian outlets also cautioned that Baghdad may accept some of U.S. and Saudi demands because it needs assistance to rebuild the country. “As Tillerson indicated, the main goal of the trilateral summit is to push Iraq closer to Saudi Arabia and away from Iran. This is because Iraq after Daesh [Islamic State], which has left behind Iraqi cities, industries and infrastructure in ruins, needs financial aid and foreign technical and engineering assistance. And at the present situation, America and Saudi Arabia will deliver this assistance in return for demands from the Abadi government such as siding with the American policies in the region against Iran,” one article argued. Javan Online, a conservative outlet close to the I.R.G.C., shared a similar view. “It is possible that Saudi Arabia gains influence in Sunni cities in northern Iraq. This is because Iraqi Sunnis at present need financial aid immediately.”
Warming Saudi-Iraqi relations
Relations between Riyadh and Baghdad took a nosedive in 1990 when late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hossein invaded Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia largely remained on the periphery of major developments in Iraq after the U.S. invasion that toppled the Saddam regime. In the past two years, however, Saudi leaders have tried to cultivate closer ties with the Iraqi government in an effort to counter the Iranian influence in Iraq and the broader region. The kingdom reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015 after more than two decades. Earlier this year, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a rare visit to the Iraqi capital; and the two countries announced the formation of a coordination council to enhance their strategic ties. This week, Saudi oil minister also visited Baghdad to bolster OPEC cooperation. Likewise, senior Iraqi leaders, including the prime minister and minister of interior have paid visits to Riyadh this year.
Since the Iraqi security and political situation remains fragile, however, Abadi is unlikely to take aggressive steps to confront Iranian influence in the country at present. But the Iraqi prime minister has demonstrated that he is an Iraqi nationalist and at times resisted Tehran and its proxies on some key policy issues in the past one year. For instance, Abadi did not permit P.M.F. groups to participate in Mosul operation and rejected demands from Iranian-backed P.M.F. commanders that the U.S. military play no role in anti-Islamic operations in western Mosul. The American and Saudi efforts may therefore yield results if Abadi wins reelection next year.
Moreover, instability and chaos has helped Iran to exert a powerful influence in Iraq. However, Iranian influence is expected to significantly decrease in the future as long as security and political stability in the country improve in the country. To roll back Iranian influence in Iraq, it is therefore important for the Trump Administration and its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to help with Iraq’s rebuilding process, empower Iraqi nationalists from all ethnic and religious communities, strengthen Iraqi government and non-government institutions, and help Baghdad to fully integrate P.M.F. units into the country’s security apparatus and disarm militia groups affiliated with Tehran.