Why Iraqi-Saudi ties are backsliding yet again

After Iraq’s foreign affairs minister defended Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, Gulf-Iraqi ties may worsen.

al-monitor Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari speaks during a news conference with Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin in Baghdad, Feb. 11, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily.
Mustafa Saadoun

Mustafa Saadoun


Topics covered

terrorists, terrorist organization, popular mobilization units, hezbollah, gulf countries, gcc, arab leauge

Apr 5, 2016

Iraq is facing a new crisis with Saudi Arabia as a result of their differing points of view regarding regional issues, most notably those related to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which was recently classified by the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a terrorist organization.

The crisis started March 11 when Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari dropped a bombshell during the Arab League meetings in Cairo. He said, “Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and Lebanon’s Hezbollah preserved the dignity of the Arabs. Those accusing them of terrorism are the terrorists.”

The Saudi delegation withdrew from the meeting, but returned after Jaafari finished speaking.

Tense Saudi-Iranian ties were already affecting the whole region. In a Jan. 19 article by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of “supporting all radical and violent groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq.”

At the March 11 meeting, Saudi Arabia was obviously angered by the Iraqi minister defending Hezbollah. However, Jaafari told the press later that day that his defense of Hezbollah “will not affect Iraqi-Saudi ties, and it is normal that two countries have different perspectives." Those divergent views will not harm bilateral ties between Arab parties, he added.

Jaafari said he merely characterized Hezbollah as a resistance rather than a terrorist group and rejected the idea that Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units should be discriminated against. He said the Saudi delegation, led by its permanent representative to the Arab League, Ahmed bin Abdul-Aziz Kattan, did not leave the meeting while Jaafari was delivering his speech, but rather during a side dialogue.

He added, "Every country has the right to express its stance on any issue."

While the Arab League has labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization, Jaafari’s discourse may ignite a new crisis between Iraq and the Gulf states in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Jamal told Al-Monitor that Iraq is keen to be part of any Arab consensus to unify positions and, as a member state, is part of the Arab League’s general framework and charter.

“The vote on draft resolutions within the Arab League, and moving toward an Arab consensus, should not take place at the expense of Iraq’s principles. The most important among these is the noninterference in the other countries’ internal affairs. Thus, the decision to label Hezbollah as terrorist, when it is represented in parliament and the government, is interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs, which Iraq rejects," he said.

Jamal added, “The Iraqi-Saudi ties are fully developed, and Iraq is keen to promote them. Saudi Arabia is an important border country, and ties must necessarily be balanced.”

Khaled al-Assadi, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told Al-Monitor, “Raising issues and decisions deemed unacceptable by some member states taking part in the Arab League meetings is unprofessional, and Iraq has the right to object to such conduct.”

He said, “A sectarian agenda is behind decisions that ignite a political or sectarian crisis in the region. Iraq does not and will not accept them, considering that such decisions [diminish] Iraq’s role in promoting peace in the Arab region.” Assadi added, “Saudi Arabia is dealing with Iraq based on a sectarian agenda, which would harm bilateral ties. This is although we believe that having different views does not prejudice anyone. Rather, it is perceived as a healthy situation.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ihsan al-Shammari, a political science professor at Baghdad University, predicted the disagreement will not fracture Iraq's relationship with Gulf countries.

“Iraq has sovereignty in foreign decision-making. It does not want to be a dependent state or to be involved in a Gulf-Iranian conflict," he said. "[Iraq] prefers to not interfere in other Arab countries’ affairs.”

He added, “Despite the factors that have pushed Iraq to make a decision that contradicts the Arab decision on Hezbollah — which may be justified — the [GCC] countries’ positions toward Iraq will change a little bit. But the situation will not reach a rupture in the Gulf-Iraqi ties. This is because the Gulf countries have different positions toward Iraq. This also seems to apply to Arab [opinions of] Iraq.”

Iraqi journalist Zaher Mousa told Al-Monitor that Iraq is acting on principle and shouldn't be expected to do otherwise.

“Hezbollah is a resistance that has defended its people and the major Islamic issues in Iraq, Bosnia, Syria and Palestine. [Iraq's decision] is a point of honor, and the Gulf states no longer assume a trusteeship over Iraq in order to determine its position.”

Mousa thinks the Gulf states eventually will conclude that the momentum behind "the criminalization of Hezbollah is a mere reaction to the US-Iranian nuclear deal.”

Anyway, Iraq can't be expected to preserve balanced positive relations with both Iran and the GCC countries at the same time. This is because Iran has “a great influence there.” Besides, the internal Iraqi dispute over regional and international issues has a negative impact on its foreign ties, particularly with Saudi Arabia. This is due to the division between Iraq's political sphere and its public regarding Saudi Arabia and to protesters' demands that the Saudi Embassy not be allowed to reopen in January after 25 years, which reflected poorly on Iraqi diplomacy.

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