Iraq to retain regional mediator role in 2023, experts say

Government under Al Sudani set to maintain relations with Gulf and wider region

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani. AFP
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Iraq is expected to retain its regional mediator role in 2023, experts told The National, as a new government headed by prime minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani takes power amid regional uncertainty.

Former premier Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who was in power until October last year, was able to use his relations with the Gulf, Iran and the West to change Iraq’s position from victim of foreign meddling to a ground for co-operation.

Baghdad has hosted several rounds of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the past two years and officials in the capital are pushing for further negotiations.

“People are waiting to see what shape the Al Sudani government will take,” said Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq initiative at Chatham House in London.

He said some believe Mr Al Kadhimi leveraged his relationships in the security and intelligence sector to bring together security officials from Iran, Saudi Arabia and others in the region as an initial way for that dialogue.

During the period of prime minister Haider Al Abadi’s rule, Baghdad’s relations with the Gulf rapidly improved.

In recent years, Baghdad has sought to revive its economy and rally support for much-needed reconstruction and the improvement of public services following decades of sanctions and conflict.

Iraq's outreach to Gulf states has helped with developments including improved relations with Saudi Arabia, which has led to high-level diplomatic meetings in Baghdad and Riyadh for the first time in decades.

Iraq will continue to hold a role as mediator, venue for talks and active participant in any dialogue because of its position in the region, said Sajad Jiyad, who is based in Baghdad and a fellow at the Century Foundation.

“Baghdad has good relations with all sides, is able to connect countries that are not on good terms directly and has the geopolitical interest of major countries such as Turkey, Iran and the US,” he said.

Mr Al Sudani's first trip overseas was to Iran, Kuwait and Jordan. He is yet to visit the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

“This will send a message to the Gulf states about his priorities,” said Michael Knights, Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

“The Iraq-Gulf relationship will look warm on the outside but will initially lack the personal connection that existed between Mustafa Kadhimi and the Gulf leaders.”

Saudi Arabia-Iran talks

Talks between Riyadh and Tehran in the Iraqi capital began in April 2021, lauded as a breakthrough that would ease regional tensions.

Mr Al Sudani said after taking office that Iraq had been asked to continue facilitating the dialogue.

However, Mr Knights believes that the talks had very little impact on easing tensions.

“I am a sceptic that these Iraq-mediated talks were ever important,” he said.

“They had very little effect and appeared to be about creating propaganda imagery that 'Iraq is back' as a diplomatic force. In reality, Saudi Arabia and Iran have no problem communicating.”

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said in November that the newly installed government will continue to push for negotiations to defuse tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“There is the desire from both countries [Saudi Arabia and Iran] to continue the dialogue,” he said. “There are some outstanding issues.”

Mr Hussein said Baghdad could easily talk to Iranian and American officials, in light of the historic good relations the country enjoys with both sides.

He said: “Finding lasting solutions to the Middle East’s conflicts, such as the Palestinian issue, and the situations in Yemen and Libya, is key to establishing regional security.”

Updated: January 10, 2023, 1:30 AM