Iraq Brings Saudi and Iran Closer as Biden Resets Policy

Iraq is carving out a mediating role between Iran and Gulf Arab oil producers including Saudi Arabia, a shift for a country better known as a victim of regional conflict than a conduit to defuse it.

In recent weeks, Iraq convened indirect talks between its neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iran, with a focus on Yemen’s war, where the two countries back opposing sides. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief experienced in regional security issues, is seen by Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates as having a degree of autonomy from Iran. He’s been able to build up trust to make such engagement possible, four people briefed on the talks say.

Kadhimi has also kept open channels between Tehran and President Joseph Biden’s administration, which two people briefed on the Iraqi side say has welcomed the separate avenue to engage diplomatically with Iran. World powers are holding talks in Vienna to try to resurrect a 2015 deal with Iran to rein in its nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iraq Brings Saudi and Iran Closer as Biden Resets Policy

The mid-May expiration of an agreement on monitoring Iranian nuclear facilities gives these multi-track talks added urgency. The regional outreach could help promote the revival of the nuclear accord, after former President Donald Trump’s unilateral exit was followed by attacks on global shipping lanes and Saudi oil installations, many of them blamed on Iran or its regional proxies.

Kadhimi’s Path

Kadhimi has navigated Iraq’s politics on the front-line of the broader confrontation with Iran, and played his cards wisely, said Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute and an expert on U.S. Middle East policy. “His stock is very high in Washington right now.”

Long caught in the middle of conflicts between global and regional powers, and still rebuilding from the invasions of the U.S. and Islamic State, Iraq hopes to ratchet down tensions that affect it directly. Kadhimi is also seeking to strengthen his role on the international stage, even as he navigates internal politics in Iraq, where he’s pulled between powerful competing parties.

In an online interview with the Beirut Institute on Wednesday, Iraqi President Barham Salih acknowledged that Iraq had hosted talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia “more than once.” He said he saw signs of a “diffusion” of tensions between regional powers including Iran, Turkey and Arab countries.

“For Iraq to be able to play that convenient role between these regional actors is important,” he said. “Instead of Iraq being a source of instability let it be the common bridge.”

A Saudi Foreign Ministry official confirmed his country is in discussions with Iran, according to Reuters. Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at the ministry, told the news agency that Riyadh wanted to see “verifiable deeds” before evaluating the talks.

The meetings, which have involved intelligence officials, began under former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi but have intensified under Kadhimi. Several rounds are planned with the first set mainly used to test the waters for future rapprochement, a senior Iraqi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.

“The U.S. is pushing its Gulf allies to talk directly to Iran,” said Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow and project director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House. “That’s part of the two-track approach that Biden is pursuing to get all sides involved in the process.”

The State Department didn’t respond when asked to comment on Iraq’s role. Spokesman Ned Price on April 22 referred questions about the Iraqi mediation to Baghdad and Riyadh.

Back-Channel

Regional and global concerns converged this week with the visit of a delegation of senior U.S. officials to the Middle East, meant to ease allies’ concerns over Biden’s bid to rejoin the nuclear deal. Gulf Arab states have long said they should be involved in diplomacy on Iran at a global level for any deal to be sustainable.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed Iraq’s role during a visit to the country last week and said Tehran wanted to see Baghdad become a more “pivotal” actor in regional matters.

If the Vienna talks fail, Iran-backed militias will act up in the region and Iranian hardliners will continue to resist the deal, said Dina Esfandiary, a senior adviser in the Middle East and North Africa team at International Crisis Group. The Gulf Arabs and Iraqis are trying to preempt that by conducting their talks now, she said.

Saudi Arabia and Iran both want to end the regional crises, according to the senior Iraqi government official. Tehran is under increasing economic pressure from sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, while Saudi Arabia’s top concern is mounting attacks from Iran-backed Yemeni fighters, a second person close to the Iraqi government said.

Iraq has found Saudi Arabia more open to dialog with Iran and thinks Kadhimi is a factor in that, the senior Iraqi government official said. The UAE also takes that view, trusting Kadhimi to communicate with them on Iran, a person familiar with the UAE government view said.

Prince Mohammed

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said last week the kingdom was working to resolve its differences with Iran, in comments that referred to an unspecified regional effort.

“We’re working today with our partners in the region to find solutions to these issues, and we hope to overcome them and have a good and positive relationship with them,” Prince Mohammed told a Saudi television channel on April 27.

That’s a dramatic reversal from his remarks on Iran in his last local television interview in 2017, when he accused Iran of trying to control the Islamic world and said the kingdom would take “the battle” to Iran, rather than wait for it to be in Saudi Arabia.

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