Saudis Face Daunting Challenge in Drawing Iraq Away from Iran

Iraq has become the newest front in the struggle for primacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Riyadh mounting a determined bid to lure Baghdad out of Tehran’s orbit. But given the sheer magnitude of Iran’s influence in Iraq, this promises to be an arduous, if not impossible task, Jerusalem Post reports.

Saudi King Salman on Sunday hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi for the first meeting of a joint coordinating council whose launch underscores the restart of ties after years of tension and on Saturday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih made a high profile visit to Baghdad, urging stronger economic relations to boost oil prices.

Riyadh, which is combating Iranian influence in Yemen and Syria and sees an Iranian hand in outbreaks of unrest in neighboring Bahrain, has a clear interest in courting Iraq.

“The Saudis want to woo the Iraqi government outside the orbit of Iran and drive a wedge between Iraq and Iran or at least enable the Iraqi government not to rely so heavily on Iranian support and reinforcement,” said Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East specialist at the University of Haifa.

The Saudis severed relations with Iraq in 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and in recent years relations were cool in light of Iran’s influence on Iraq’s Shi’a government.

Abadi has aspirations for a more independent foreign policy than his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, who was pro-Iran. The rapprochement also has domestic imperatives for Abadi, since it sends a calming message to Iraq’s large Sunni majority, which has suffered exclusion especially under Maliki.

What Abadi really wants is more diplomatic support – to break away from the isolation Iraq suffered because of it being in effect an Iranian proxy – and to be accepted in mainstream Arab public opinion and in the inter-Arab scene.

“He would like to appear as someone who represents the national interest in a patriotic way and not just a Shi’ite ruler who carries out the commands of Iran automatically. [Rapprochement] is very important for his effort to put the house in order,” said Ben-Dor.

But despite the interests on both sides, Iranian opposition might thwart the relationship from taking firm hold. The powerful interior minister, Kasim al-Araji, has deep ties to Iran dating back to the 1980s, and comes from the Iranian-sponsored Badr paramilitary force.

Iran has influential allies in the Iraqi Parliament to pursue its agenda.

“Right now, if Abadi tried to manufacture a break, the Iranians would bring him to heel. At a minimum, they have influence over enough people in his parliamentary majority to make life difficult for him governing and perhaps even to have a no-confidence motion,” said F. Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Iran also exerts wide influence through the Shi’ite militias it backs that participated in the war against ISIS.

In a clear sign he will proceed cautiously in forging the Saudi ties, Abadi flatly rebuffed a call by Tillerson to “send home” the militias, with the premier saying the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Force is “part of the Iraqi institutions.”

According to Reuters, Abadi said: “Popular Mobilization fighters should be encouraged because they will be the hope of the country and the region.”

In the view of Gause, it is possible to dilute Iranian influence in Iraq, but it will take time.

“You have to have a time-frame of years, not weeks or months. If you are the Saudis, you provide some help, political and economic, to the Iraqi government and friendly Iraqi politicians. You support the Iraqi army versus Popular Mobilization units and you wait for issues in Iran to maybe lessen the willingness and ability of the Iranian government to take an active role in Iraq. Who knows when the next political crisis in Iran will come, when their energies are focused more inside and less to their position in the region? If you’re an Iraqi prime minister, you can take advantage of those kind of events to re-consolidate in a way that makes you less reliant on Iran.”

Gause added: “The Iranians have been building their position in Iraq since 2003. The Saudis didn’t get that involved. There’s ground work to be laid. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. But if you are willing to take a longer time frame, it is possible to compete with Iranian influence in Iraq.”