Iraq maintains neutrality in regional conflicts

On a visit to Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi leveled criticism at Iran and Saudi Arabia, reflecting his desire to maintain a neutral position in their regional rivalry.

al-monitor Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (L) and US President Barack Obama deliver remarks to reporters after their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 14, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Topics covered

yemen, syria, saudi arabia, saudi-iranian rivalry, regional politics, iraq, iran, is

Apr 29, 2015

It appears that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia, the two rival parties to the proxy and direct wars in the Middle East, was satisfied with the signals sent by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during his visit to Washington April 14-17. Abadi criticized the showy demeanor of Gen. Qasem Soleimani in presenting himself as the leader of the battle for Tikrit, saying of Iran’s military involvement in the Iraqi crisis, “I am extremely upset with what is happening, and I voiced my concerns to the Iranians.” He prefaced this remark by noting, “Iraqis do not accept the fact that some people say they are working on their behalf.” Abadi also stressed the importance of the image of the government, stating, “The people have to believe that democracy can triumph.”

Abadi also made sharp comments about Saudi Arabia's attitude toward Iraq, noting Riyadh's failure to take serious steps to improve relations, including pointing out that the Saudis have not yet opened an embassy in Baghdad. He also questioned Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, asserting that the operations there are not logical and wondering aloud, “What are the objectives behind the military operation?” 

In light of the current situation in the region, it would be impossible to satisfy all parties and actors. Iraq's stated neutrality toward regional events and noninterference in the Saudi-Iranian conflict beyond its borders does not please either party.

The Saudi-Iranian conflict is clearly being played out in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and most recently Yemen. Thus, Abadi’s criticism of both countries’ roles in Iraq carries many implied messages. Most important, it indicates Baghdad's intention to remain neutral in regional conflicts. Iraq has major crises to deal with — namely, fighting the Islamic State (IS) to recapture swathes of land seized by the extremist group — and therefore cannot afford to be drawn into other state's issues.

Iraq has not been an official participant in the Syrian civil war or in Yemen's. The Iraqi Shiite parties involved in the Syrian war do not represent the Iraqi state, but are working on behalf of Iran's interest. As a result, the neutrality asserted by successive Iraqi governments has not been a reality on the ground, with Iraqi relations with Iran somewhat unclear. Many in the media and in Arab capitals see the relationship as one of dependency on the part of Iraq.

The situation in Iraq requires delicacy and calm in terms of the country’s foreign relations and policies toward issues in the region. In the past few years, Iraq has had strained relations with Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh accused the governments of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of marginalizing Sunnis in Iraq while Iranian influence was expanding in the country. Meanwhile, Iraq accused Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in the country, citing the presence of Saudi members of IS.

Tense relations with Saudi Arabia could have been averted had Baghdad sent balanced messages through political and media channels about its desire for smooth relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Abadi should deal publicly and explicitly with the negative aspects of relations with both countries, which share long borders and historical and cultural ties with Iraq.

Iraq has an urgent need to have good foreign relations, especially with regional states. It also needs to demonstrate its ability to formulate independent decisions, which Abadi did during his Washington visit.

It is still possible for Iraq to carve out a role for itself as a valuable actor in the area through a balanced foreign policy allowing it to open dialogues with all parties and establish initiatives aimed at solving the regional crises. This can only be done, however, if the other countries in the area come to believe that Iraq is sufficiently stable and independent. Abadi’s government has a long way to go in this direction and still has to take decisive steps to impose the national interest over partisan and personal endeavors, which have affected the country’s ability to produce an independent and balanced foreign policy.

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