Middle East and European leaders pledge to support Iraq's stability at Jordan conference

Baghdad Conference for Co-operation and Partnership focuses on Iraq's stability and security

Left to right, French President Emmanuel Macron, Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, Jordan's King Abdullah II, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Jordan's Crown Prince Hussein, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. EPA
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Leaders from the Middle East and beyond pledged on Tuesday to support Iraq's "stability" and called for Baghdad to distance itself from foreign influence, at a summit aimed at helping resolve regional crises.

Iraq has been caught for years in a delicate balancing act between its two main allies, the United States and Iran, and Baghdad only recently arrived at a fragile compromise government after a year of political stalemate.

The second session of the Baghdad Conference for Co-operation and Partnership in Jordan, which also included officials from France and the European Union, followed an August 2021 summit in Iraq's capital, organised at the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Summit participants said they would continue to "co-operate with Iraq to support its stability, sovereignty and the democratic process in the country", a final statement read.

They also vowed to support "Iraq's efforts to establish dialogue as a way of resolving regional crises".

Addressing the opening session on Tuesday, Mr Macron said Iraq is used as a battleground for its neighbours and their foes. He also pledged Paris's firm support for Iraq and other Middle East allies.

The one-day summit at a Dead Sea resort brought together leaders and senior officials from countries including the UAE — represented by Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, ruler of Ras Al Khaimah — France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.

They were primarily gathered to help Iraq in its efforts to stabilise and rebuild. Security in the region was also reviewed.

Iraq has been badly shaken for decades, first by its ruinous 1980-1988 war with Iran, then by more than a decade of UN sanctions following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and its subsequent defeat by an international coalition.

French President Emmanuel Macron talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi at the conference. AFP

The 2003 US-led invasion led to years of violence and sectarian strife, including the creation of extremist groups such as ISIS, and the growing power of Iranian-backed political factions and militias.

More recently, the country has suffered political gridlock, with the main dividing line running between Iran's allies and opponents.

“Iraq today is the scene of [foreign] influences, incursions, destabilisation that are linked to the entire region,” Mr Macron told the conference, which he co-chaired with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

France, he added, was keen on the stability of the region, which he said was struggling with “deadlock, divisions, foreign meddling and security issues.” France's interest, he explained, was to promote peace and security in the broader Mediterranean basin.

“Iraq probably is, given the past decades, one of the main victims of regional destabilisation,” Mr Macron said. “We need to be able to ... overcome the divisions of the moment.”

“I believe that what has been happening since last February 24 lends growing significance to the security and stability agenda that we first adopted in August last year,” he said, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“We were by your side a year ago, today and next year,” he said.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, right, with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi at the conference. AFP

The Jordanian monarch said the meeting “takes place at a time when the region is facing security and political crises,” along with threats to food, water, health and energy security and the impact of climate change.

Significantly, conference participants included the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional rivals who severed ties in 2016. There was no word on whether Hossein Amirabdollahian and Prince Faisal bin Farhan met on the sidelines.

Mr Amirabdollahian said Iran’s "policy is to avoid war and work to restore security and stability."

He also asserted Iran’s willingness to return to an international agreement on its nuclear programme “provided that red lines are not crossed.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan said the kingdom “affirms its total rejection of any aggression on the territory of Iraq,” an apparent swipe at Iran, which has recently launched airstrikes against Kurdish Iranian dissident groups in northern Iraq.

Iraq has hosted five meetings between Saudi Arabian and Iranian officials since last year, the last of which was in April, but these contacts have not yielded any breakthrough in relations.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said Cairo rejected “foreign intervention” in Iraq's domestic affairs, a likely reference to Iran and Turkey, which have launched military operations within Iraq despite Baghdad's protests.

For Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, the Iraqi Prime Minister, attending Tuesday's conference was his first participation in a major international meeting. He is widely considered to be closer to Iran than his predecessor, Mustafa Al Kadhimi.

This is the second time the conference has been held, with the first in Baghdad in August last year. The gathering was originally designed to exclusively support Iraq's sovereignty and stability but has evolved to include more stakeholders and expand its brief to include regional security.

Good opportunity

Mr Amirabdollahian and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell met before the start of the Jordan conference. They were joined by Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, and his EU counterpart, Enrique Mora, Iran's official news agency Irna said.

Talks to restore Iran's 2015 nuclear accord have been at a stalemate since September. Western powers accuse Iran of raising unreasonable demands after all sides appeared to be nearing a deal.

Comments made after the meeting laid bare the tense nature of relations between Tehran and the EU.

Mr Borrell said he had told the Iranian minister that Tehran should immediately halt military support for Russia and internal repression.

However, he said the meeting was necessary “amid deteriorating Iran-EU relations”. The EU would continue to work with Iran although there was currently no sign of a return to talks, he said.

Mr Amirabdollahian also voiced his condemnation of what he called the West's support of protests in Iran and the “illegal” sanctions against his country.

Mr Borrell, who has been mediating talks aimed at reviving Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, also held a meeting with Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi on Monday.

Left to right, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, and French President Emmanuel Macron at the conference. AP

“We discussed ways to work together to support Iraq's sovereignty, security and stability,” he said on Twitter. “We also touched upon a variety of other regional issues, focusing on the Middle East Peace Process, as well as upon EU-Jordan relations and the continuing Jordanian reform process.”

Also on Monday, Mr Amirabdollahian said the summit would provide a “good opportunity” for negotiations aimed at restoring the nuclear accord.

On-off talks to revive the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, started in April between Iran on one side and Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, and indirectly with the US, on the other.

But the indirect talks between Washington and Tehran, mediated by the EU, stalled, with Iran awash with protests over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin, on September 16.

Jordan is a good opportunity for us to complete these discussions,” Mr Amirabdollahian told reporters in Tehran.

“I hope that … we will see a change of approach and the American side will behave realistically.

“I say clearly to the Americans; that they must choose between hypocrisy, and the request to reach an agreement and the United States' return to the JCPOA.”

Left to right, Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah at the conference. AP
Updated: December 21, 2022, 6:25 AM