Lebanon Pulse

Iranian-Saudi agreement on Iraq may be near

Article Summary
While key issues remain, Iran and Saudi Arabia are reportedly close to agreeing on the formation of an Iraqi government, clearing the way to focus on another regional crisis.

A UN diplomatic source in Beirut told Al-Monitor that an Iranian-Saudi agreement on the formation of the next Iraqi government was almost done. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed that the visit by the Iranian Assistant Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdul Lahian to Saudi Arabia on Aug. 26 was the move that crowned the agreement.

The source said that some felt a few weeks ago that removing Nouri al-Maliki from the Iraqi Prime Ministry and designating Haider al-Abadi on Aug.11 was the final sign of a Tehran-Riyadh agreement on Baghdad. But this impression was not true.

According to the diplomatic source, the move followed mutual attempts by the two parties to raise their negotiating ceilings. For its part, Iran tried to harden its stance for known reasons; it gave the impression that removing Maliki happened more because of internal Iraqi Shiite calculations linked to the position of Shiite cleric Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, rather than a Shiite concession to the Sunnis or an Iranian concession to Saudi Arabia in Iraq. These calculations include compensating Maliki’s removal by strengthening his and his team’s position in governing and in the next government, as well as getting paid by the Sunni-Saudi team as a compensation.

In contrast, Riyadh also raised the ceiling of its demands after Maliki was replaced. It was as if Saudi officials saw Maliki’s fall as a sign of Iraqi Shiite weakness and of Iranian retreat in Baghdad. So the Saudis thought they could go further and get bigger gains. The UN diplomatic source in Beirut said that the negotiations between Tehran and Riyadh were stuck in tensions and one-upmanship for two weeks, before Lahian’s visit to Saudi Arabia moved the negotiations to the resolution stage.

The source said that the information provided to him by those concerned in the file indicated that the initial agreement was based on two major changes: First, assigning the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to a Sunni figure, and second, giving Iraqi Sunnis a major security position in the Iraqi government.

It should be noted that the same source wondered how the first item could be achieved, since it would require taking the ministry from the Kurds’ share and reassuring the Shiites about giving a key security post to the Sunnis, especially amid a political-security context that was not encouraging for those two matters. The Baghdad government has moved closer to the Kurdish authorities in Erbil to face the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul and northwestern Iraq; and, the establishment of IS in those areas has triggered concerns about Sunni security units and members, in terms of doubting their loyalty to the government in Baghdad.

So, in light of the IS event, how can Baghdad take from the Kurds’ political share and give more to the Sunnis?

According to the diplomatic source, these questions will soon be answered. The source has information that the new Iraqi government will be formed before Sept. 10, so the whole truth will be revealed in a few days. And according to the same information, if the Iranian-Saudi intersection is confirmed, then its next step will be the Yemeni file, because the explosive situation in Sanaa is clearly worrying the Saudis. Regarding other files — from Bahrain to Syria and Lebanon — they seem to be deferred to a later stage.

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Found in: yemen, sunni-shiite conflict, sectarian tensions, saudi arabia, iraq, iran, government formation

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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