Could Iraq emerge as a regional hub for conflict mediation?

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi is trying to change the country's position from being a victim of foreign meddling to a forum of co-operation

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, visit the historical city Ad Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 31, 2021. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
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Despite its own internal troubles, Iraq could emerge as a potential hub for conflict mediation.

That is the view of western diplomatic and Iraqi government sources speaking to The National, who claimed that Iraq was hosting meetings with diplomats from Iran and regional powers to discuss de-escalating tensions.

The sources said Jordan and Egypt were involved in meetings in Baghdad with Iranian officials.

Saudi Arabian officials told Arabic media outlets they had not been involved in any meeting in Iraq.

Saudi government officials have not responded to a request for comment from The National.

Meetings "focused on reducing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia," a western diplomat who was briefed on the talks told The National.

Those involved in the discussions were "senior officials, rather than ministers", said the diplomat.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi led the discussions, the source added.

An Iraqi government source said talks took place.

“Baghdad did indeed host talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this month,” he said.

“This is in Iraq’s interest.”

Last Saturday, Mr Al Kadhimi held talks with religious scholars and said Iraq is "playing a historic role in bringing together and aligning regional views".

“We must all work together to restore the prestige of the state through reconstruction,” he said.

This view chimes with an unconfirmed prior effort by Iraq to mediate regional disputes, under the government of then-prime minister Haider Al Abadi.

In August 2017, Qasim Al Araji, a former interior minister who was once a member of the Iran-backed Badr Organisation, returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia where he met Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

"Calm and stability and the return of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will have positive repercussions on the region as a whole," Mr Al Araji told Iraqi news publication Al Ghadeer.

The alleged meetings in the Iraqi capital came weeks before the start of talks in Europe aimed at salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

Iran agreed to strict limits on uranium enrichment and to international inspections by the UN atomic energy body in exchange for lifting international sanctions.

US President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the Iran nuclear deal that former president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.

The talks made progress in Vienna last week, officials from Europe, Iran and China all said, but there is still some way to go.

Iran wants the US to drop sanctions before it will return to compliance with its 2015 obligations. Washington insists Iran must cut uranium enrichment and stockpiles before it will ease pressure.

In late March and early April, Mr Al Kadhimi visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia to boost economic, political and social relations with Gulf states.

Iraq has close ties to Iran but Mr Al Khadimi's push to improve links to the Gulf has placed it in a strong mediating position between Tehran and Riyadh, a European diplomat in Iraq told The National.

But there must be “a political will to unfreeze their relations” for there to be tangible changes, the diplomat said.

“It could be an important development for the region and for Iraq itself.”

Baghdad has been working to restore ties with its regional neighbours since the US-led invasion of 2003.

Senior Iraqi, Jordanian and Egyptian ministers have met several times in recent months to discuss security, economic and cultural ties.