Analysis: Can Saudi Arabia reduce Iranian influence in Iraq?

Riyadh is trying to bring part of Iraq back into its fold, which might lead to a Saudi-Iranian thaw in relations.

A KURDISH MAN sells traditional candies at market in Erbil, Iraq. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A KURDISH MAN sells traditional candies at market in Erbil, Iraq.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In August of 1990, 27 years ago, Saddam Hussein unleashed his massive army to invade Kuwait. In just over a day, Iraq occupied the small emirate and set in motion a war that still reverberates today in the region.
Now Saudi Arabia, which helped form the coalition against Saddam, is trying to patch things up with Baghdad.
On August 15 the border crossing at Arar, a depressing sand-drenched outpost in Anbar province, was opened for the first time after a quarter century. It’s part of a process by which Riyadh wants to try to encourage Baghdad not to fall totally into the clutches of Iran.
The background to Saudi Arabia’s recent charm offensive in Iraq is a slow process of reconciliation. In June 2015, Saudi Arabia appointed a ambassador to Iraq named Thamer al-Sabhan. In September 2016, he found himself the center of controversy after reports emerged that extremist Shi’ite groups in Iraq had plotted his assassination, a rumor that was denied. However, the ambassador spoke out about pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a group of Shi’ite militias, condemned him and he was quietly withdrawn by Riyadh.
In February 2017, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a surprise visit to Baghdad to speak with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The National in the UAE noted: “Riyadh has mostly chosen to disengage from Iraq and has not had a significant influence among the country’s Sunni communities or political and insurgent groups.”
The thought in January was that Abadi was seeking to counterbalance Iranian power in Iraq. Many of the leaders of the PMU such as Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis served alongside the Iranians in the 1980s. Abu Mahdi was even accused of terrorist activity in Kuwait. In June 2017, Abadi visited Saudi Arabia as part of his attempts to reconcile with his large southern neighbor.
Then things become complex.
On July 30, Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric, met with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Al Jazeera claimed that it “was an attempt to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq, seek a leadership role and tone down sectarianism between the two countries.”
Sadr was one of the most militant and vociferous critics of the Americans after the 2003 invasion. He has played a major populist role in Baghdad. In March and late April 2016, Sadr’s followers took over the Green Zone in Baghdad and carried out populist “occupy” style sitins in the government quarter.
The Guardian wondered if the Baghdad government was “viable.”
It’s not the first time the Saudis sought out Sadr. He had made a visit to Iraq in 2006.
That same year a confidential cable from the US Consulate in Jeddah noted that Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal “directly warned the Iranians not to interfere in Arab affairs and enumerated a number of areas where he believed Iran was now doing so. He cautioned Iran that if it supported certain factions within Iraq, other states would support different groups.”
The Saudi nightmare in Iraq has largely come true. In the 1980s Saudi supported Saddam Hussein in his almost decadelong war against Iran.
They were shocked when he turned on them in 1990, and more shocked when he fell from power and it was clear democracy in Iraq would bring the majority Shi’ite population into political power. Now after 14 years of shock, Riyadh realizes it must deal with the Shi’ite power brokers in Baghdad and hopes that it can work with Iraqi kingmakers like Sadr who don’t want to be pawns of Iran.
The flurry of diplomatic activity and opening the Arar crossing is only part of the story. Kenneth Pollack and Firas Maksad wrote at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday that “from the perspective of the United States and Iraq this can only be good news.”
Washington had been encouraging the Saudis to play a role in Iraq since 2003, they argued. “They have a vital role to play in Iraq’s stability and geopolitical realignment and that dissing the Iraqis would simply drive the country’s Shi’ites into the arms of the Iranians and its Sunnis into the arms of terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.”
The next step will be greater economic investment and the flow of goods and services, perhaps even oil, over the border.
For Israel, the Saudi opening to Iraq shows that the simplistic view that the Saudis and the Gulf only oppose Iran is problematic. It does oppose Iran, but it also has a complex diplomatic game. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was quoted in Al Jazeera as claiming that after the hajj in early September, Saudi and Iranian officials might exchange diplomatic visits.