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Baghdad Conference showcases Iraq's new role as mediator in region

Iraq is hosting a regional conference, bringing Iraqi neighboring countries together to support Iraq ahead of early elections.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi leaves Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Oct. 22, 2020 in London, England.

It is rare that Baghdad becomes the center of attention because of something constructive it did. The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, a historical gathering for all Iraq’s neighboring countries, except Syria, and regional and international players such as France, Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, points to Baghdad’s enhanced status under the premiership of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as a place where rivals and friends meet to try to resolve differences and forge common paths.

Al-Monitor has learned that half of the attendees of the Aug. 28 conference will participate at the highest level, among them Jordan’s King Abdullah, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Kuwait will participate with its prime minister, Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah, due to the health issues of the emir, who had expressed willingness to attend previously. Vice President and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid will represent United Arab Emirates. Iran will send new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Turkey and Saudi are not confirmed yet but it is expected that top leaders will attend. 

Indeed, bringing to the same table regional heavyweights who are in a state of open conflict, such as is the case with Iran and Saudi Arabia, would be a diplomatic achievement in and of itself for the al-Kadhimi government. Kadhimi has hosted three rounds of negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and has been engaged in other initiatives that involve regional conflicting countries.

The conference is a continuation of the government's efforts to reduce tensions in the region and support stability in Iraq.

Culture Minister Hassan Nadhim spoke of an ambitious and wide-ranging agenda. He said the conference aims to achieve two objectives, one political and one economic. The political one involves efforts to “de-escalate tensions among other countries in the region,” which would help “Iraq restore its stability.” The economic one is to consolidate economic partnerships among the conference’s participants in an array of fields, including oil, electricity, agriculture, culture and education, including school construction projects.

On the political front, there seems to be a consensus among the participants about supporting stability in Iraq. No country in the region benefits from a broken Iraqi state hopelessly incapable of enforcing its authority nationwide. A seriously destabilized Iraq can easily become a driver of instability regionwide, with all sorts of terrorist and criminal activities spilling across borders. 

Beyond this regional consensus to support Iraq’s fight against terrorism, a stable Iraq means different things to the different regional powers convened in the conference.

For Iran, a stable Iraq means a government politically in line with its “axis of resistance” and a welcoming trade partner ready to accept more cheap Iranian imports — although such imports have helped run many of Iraq's local producers out of business.

For Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, a stable Iraq means essentially a state independent of Tehran’s influence. Turkey views a reliable Iraq as a country that can take on Ankara's main foe, the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) and its Iraqi affiliates, some of whom are in alliance with pro-Iran armed groups in Iraq. Both Iraq and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization, although PKK-affiliated organizations are represented in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units.

As it is very difficult to square these conflicting political interests, the conference is unlikely to achieve its ultimate goal, but the dialogue should certainly contribute to the continuing efforts to change Iraq's role from being a battleground toward being a bridge of cooperation and partnership.

One potential breakthrough that Baghdad can facilitate, and that Kadhimi will shoot for, is an Iran-Saudi rapprochement deal to end their open confrontation, whose fallout has helped destabilize Iraq. Such a detente would be a political victory for Kadhimi. Much of the political importance of this conference stems from this possibility.

Other participants, such as France, Jordan and Egypt, are primarily motivated by economic, rather than political, considerations.

Encouraged by the Artway energy deal won by its oil giant, Total, and the Mosul International airport renovation deal secured by its Aeroports de Paris Ingenierie (to the annoyance of Turkey, which competed for the contract), France eyes more lucrative projects in Iraq, particularly in the energy field, hoping to fill in the vacuum left by the departure of US and British companies.

Egypt and Jordan look forward to trade and infrastructure deals. The Iraqi purchase of electricity from Jordan would make revenues available to the financially strapped Hashemite kingdom, lessen Iraq’s dependence on Iranian energy purchases and ease the US pressure on Baghdad to wean itself from this dependence.

Iraq’s plan to export oil through Jordan’s Aqaba seaport and potentially through nearby Egyptian seaports would diversify the country's export outlets and make them less vulnerable to the security and political turbulence that can threaten the safety of sea routes through the Persian Gulf. Planned infrastructure projects with these two countries involve building roads, bridges and schools that are desperately needed in Iraq.

The conference will probably witness the signing of economic partnership deals that have been in the works for months, but Iraq has a poor track record in pulling off big projects, particularly infrastructure ones, because of the endemic red tape and corruption problems that need to be tackled first in order for Iraqis to see the benefits of these important projects.

Kadhimi's thinking and character can be seen in two ways when it comes to the conference.

The first is his push for economic cooperation to be used to solve or lessen the negative effects of political conflicts. The principle itself makes sense: Economic benefits bring people together while politics drive them apart. But to turn this sound principle into a reality in a highly unstable and conflict-prone region like the Middle East has been for long decades a frustratingly difficult challenge.

The second involves the mediator personality type that has characterized Kadhimi's approach to conflict: Instead of confrontation, try to find common ground for the different sides to meet and discuss potential solutions. In a country such as Iraq, with its long and tortured history of zero-sum politics, especially during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, this is a welcome and historic departure from the problematic norm of the past.