Analysis: Iran’s influence prevents Iraq’s Arab reintegration

Ties between Iraq and the Gulf Arab monarchies have warmed in recent years, but Iran ultimately has more influence.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein hold a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad, Iraq, February 2, 2023 [File: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

One month before the United States and the United Kingdom’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Saudi officials tried convincing the Bush administration to abandon its war plans.

“If change of regime comes with the destruction of Iraq, then you are solving one problem and creating five more problems,” warned Prince Saud Al Faisal.

For all their grievances with then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, such concerns about the unknowns of a post-Baathist Iraq were widespread among officials and citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

Since those warnings, Iran has emerged as the most influential regional actor in 21st-century Iraq.

Several factors, including Iraq’s demographics and divisions, have contributed to Iran’s high levels of influence in the Arab country.

“The religious conservative part of Shia Iraq has always been susceptible to Iranian influence, though not all Shia are pro-Iran,” Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, told Al Jazeera. “Iraq is not a liberal democracy, but it’s a democracy of sorts. As a democracy, it represents the interests of the majority of the people in the country.”

The Iranians have also made inroads into the Iraqi economy’s major sectors, such as oil, while also gaining high levels of influence over the security institutions and military. Some of the brigades of the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs) even have direct links to Tehran.

“Much of it has to do with the fact that the border between Iraq and Iran is very porous,” said Krieg. “Iraqi forces don’t make any effort, and don’t have any capacity, to control the border effectively. So, Iraq is still in many ways overly controlled and subverted by Iranian influence.”

In the aftermath of Saddam’s demise, the general assessment in Riyadh and other GCC capitals was that Iraq under a Shia-led government was “lost” to Tehran. Saudi Arabia’s leadership perceived Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and those in his inner circle as Iran’s lackeys.

Efforts to stop Iranian influence

Beginning in 2015, however, Riyadh began engaging Baghdad after the kingdom spent years trying to isolate Iraq.

That year, the Saudis appointed an ambassador to Iraq for the first time since 1990.

Between 2017 and 2019, Riyadh’s top diplomat visited Baghdad and the Saudis opened diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Basra.

By 2020, the Arar border crossing was reopened following its three-decade closure. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also took steps to start a new chapter in its relationship with Baghdad.

The logic has been that if GCC states can deepen cooperation with Baghdad, it will be possible to, at least partly, bring Iraq back to the Arab fold while halting Tehran’s influence.

But, on balance, such efforts have been unsuccessful.

Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that the results have been “decidedly mixed”.

According to Slavin, the project had more enthusiasm when Mustafa al-Kadhimi was Iraq’s prime minister. “There was a moment after the 2021 elections when it seemed that [Shia religious leader] Moqtada al-Sadr would be able to craft a government less in Tehran’s grasp but that faded when he pulled his representatives out of parliament and [Prime Minister Mohammed Shia] al-Sudani’s government eventually emerged.”

Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, who has positioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist, had emerged as the biggest block in parliament, but were unable to form a government.

Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, has a similar assessment to Slavin. Harb told Al Jazeera that the results have been a “mixed bag”, with Baghdad’s relationships with GCC states thus far not proving fruitful despite intentions.

“It is hoped that the latest agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reflect positively on Iraq-GCC relations. Iraq has good relations with Syria and Lebanon and has developed what can be seen as strategic economic relations with Jordan and Egypt that promise to help the three countries’ economic standing. In the end, a major determining factor in all of this is the position of Iran-friendly political forces in Iraq; thus the importance of the latest Saudi-Iran agreement,” added Harb.

A major issue pertains to Arab states lacking a coherent strategy for luring Baghdad away from Tehran, say analysts.

Despite some efforts to use logistics and infrastructure development to secure the GCC members more influence in Iraq by creating co-dependencies, there have been few results.

Such projects are not tied to any roadmap and “very little that’s tangible has happened from the Gulf side in terms of turning Iraq around”, Krieg said.

In general, most GCC states view al-Sudani and his constituencies as excessively close to Iran, according to Kreig.

“The Gulf has really put all collaboration for the time being on ice, which has undermined some of the progress that might have been made under the previous Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, who was seen as being more pro-Arab, pro-Gulf, and more critical of Iran. But obviously, he lost,” explained Krieg. “There will be elections soon again. That might bring al-Kadhimi back. But we don’t know that. The problem is there’s an unstable political regime in Iraq that keeps pivoting from one side to the other depending on who’s in office.”

Krieg continued, “We have a constant shift in Prime Ministers whereby one might pivot toward the Arab Gulf and other might pivot toward Iran.”

Naufel Alhassan, who served as chief of staff and senior adviser to former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, told Al Jazeera, “Iraq’s role in the region and the world will depend on the ability of the Iraqi political regime and the ruling elite to succeed internally, benefit from the great resources to build, and provide internal peace, and turn challenges into opportunities.”

Yet, many experts doubt that modern-day Iraq could re-establish itself as a leading Arab power if the state remains highly dysfunctional and under so much Iranian influence.

Saudi and Emirati-led efforts to reintegrate Iraq with the wider Arab world will be unsuccessful, argued Joseph A Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh.

“The Iranian influence is still prevalent and will continue sine die [indefinitely] and the Iraqi propensity to distinguish itself from Arab Gulf monarchies has not abated to anything more than wishful but wholly unrealistic intentions,” said Kechichian. “We will, therefore, continue to see a diplomatic dance that will most probably crash.”

Source: Al Jazeera