Mediation nation: Iraq’s new role in Iranian-Saudi talks

Europe should support the recent Iranian-Saudi talks in Baghdad as an opportunity to help stabilise the Middle East, despite risk of that engagement being derailed

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Iran International Conference Hall

Leaks of direct talks between senior Iranian and Saudi officials in Baghdad in April have been a boon to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Middle Eastern states are more used to facilitating dialogue to tackle conflict in Iraq than to turning to Iraq to mediate regional disputes. Kadhimi, however, has built on the deep relationships he developed with the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia in his years as Iraq’s intelligence chief to position Iraq as a venue for discussions between these great rivals.

Although the talks are a personal victory for Kadhimi, they have been facilitated by a confluence of regional and global shifts – and could just as easily be derailed by developments beyond Iraq’s control. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been seeking opportunities to improve their reputations with the new US administration and to influence Washington’s regional outlook. They are seeking to gain a strategic advantage as regional conflict dynamics appear on the brink of transformation. This constructive approach is highly fragile. And any escalation of tensions could rapidly halt such engagement. Nonetheless, Iraq’s nascent steps towards acting as a regional mediator are positive for both the country and the region. Europe should pursue opportunities to strengthen Iraq’s mediation work, to help stabilise Iraq and the Middle East more broadly.

On 9 April, Iraq hosted a meeting between Saudi intelligence chief Khalid al-Homeidan and Saeed Iravani, deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Though many details of the talks remain private, a source in the Iraqi government told the author that they focused on the war in Yemen.[1] (Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in the conflict in Yemen since 2015, primarily fighting against the Houthis – a movement that has received support from Iran.) Homeidan and Iravani then reportedly used their discussion of Yemen as a basis for broaching the broader subject of regional security dynamics.

The talks are particularly significant because the two regional powers have had no diplomatic relations since 2016, when Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran following Riyadh’s execution of a Shia cleric on terrorism charges. Even before then, Iran and Saudi Arabia accused each other of destabilising the region and competed for influence in a range of conflict zones. After initially issuing denials, both nations publicly acknowledged the talks; a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said they focused on bilateral and regional issues, while an official at the Saudi Foreign Ministry said Riyadh hoped “they prove successful, but it is too early” to judge.

Iraqi President Barham Salih confirmed that Baghdad hosted multiple rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks, while Amwaj Media reports that the dialogue is part of a broader set of meetings between Iranian security officials and their Arab counterparts from various countries, brokered by Iraq. The talks follow Kadhimi’s efforts to develop cooperation, and potentially even a regional alliance, between Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

One of the key developments to have created an environment amenable to the Iran-Saudi talks in Baghdad is the inauguration of US President Joe Biden. His administration’s focus on ending the war in Yemen, and on the potential restoration of the Iran nuclear deal, has shifted the political calculations of both Tehran and Riyadh. There is also a powerful political current in Iran for restoring the nuclear deal and thereby easing the harsh sanctions that the Trump administration imposed as part of its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against the country. Iran is primarily seeking to achieve these goals by directly engaging with the United States through the Vienna Process. But other forms of conciliatory outreach – including the talks in Baghdad – strengthen Iran’s international reputation and support its efforts to reach a deal with the US. This has been borne out by the Biden administration’s indirect statement of approval on the Iran-Saudi talks; in a recent interview, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “if [Iran and Saudi Arabia are] talking, I think that’s generally a good thing”.

Gaining the trust of Iran and Saudi Arabia to facilitate these talks is a significant victory in itself

Saudi Arabia wants to reposition itself to establish a positive relationship with the new US administration. The Biden team has clearly signalled its opposition to the war in Yemen, announcing last month that the US would suspend the sales of some offensive weapons to Riyadh. And, on the campaign trail, Biden excoriated Saudi Arabia for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Although the Biden administration opted not to punish the Saudi crown prince for the murder, the Saudis have been forced to work hard to rehabilitate their image, to avoid further disintegration of their relationship with the US.

The Saudis are aware that a new nuclear deal could dramatically shift regional power dynamics to the detriment of their economic and security interests. Moreover, the war in Yemen has become an intractable drain on Saudi resources, and a distraction from the planned domestic social and economic reforms Riyadh laid out in its Vision 2030 strategy. A negotiated exit from the Yemen conflict, which the Saudis could achieve with Iranian support, would strengthen their position domestically, regionally, and globally.

The change in Iranian and Saudi political calculations have created incentives for both parties to engage in talks, but Iraq has little control over these dynamics. And any deterioration in the regional or global political environment could quickly derail Saudi-Iranian engagement mediated by Iraq.

Kadhimi became prime minister in May 2020, after widespread protests in southern and central Iraq led to the fall of the previous administration. Kadhimi’s ability to present Iraq as a neutral mediator is particularly impressive given that it follows years of Gulf accusations that the country is merely a proxy for Iran. Several Iraqi government sources and officials described the talks as a personal initiative of Kadhimi,[2] while one source told the author that Kadhimi was likely to have been in the room for the 9 April meeting, which demonstrates the extent of his personal investment in the effort.[3] The prime minister cultivated relationships with leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia during his time as head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, a role that he assumed in 2016 and that he continues to hold.

The talks are also a product of the substantial efforts that Kadhimi and Salih have made to position Iraq as an independent and neutral actor in the region. Gaining the trust of Iran and Saudi Arabia to facilitate these talks is a significant victory in itself.[4]

Although Kadhimi’s domestic reputation has been boosted by the talks, they are unlikely to significantly improve his prospects of gaining a second term as prime minister in the October election. Kadhimi has chosen not to represent a political party in the vote – and has suspended the Al-Marhala party, which had been preparing to back him in the election. He hopes that, by positioning himself as an independent centrist figure, he may be able to retain his post. He is betting that Iraq’s victorious political parties will struggle to identify another compromise candidate for the premiership.

The negotiations on forming a new Iraqi government will likely be heavily influenced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, with which Kadhimi has long had a strained relationship (despite his positive relations with the government in Tehran).[5] A senior government source told the author that Kadhimi’s mediation of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran was unlikely to factor into negotiations on the appointment of an Iraqi prime minister.[6]

The Saudi-Iranian talks dovetail with the European Union’s aspirations for Iraq to play a de-escalatory role in the region. The EU and its member states should openly welcome the talks and use their relationships with Iraq to encourage further rounds of dialogue. While doing so, they should be realistic about the extent to which the dialogue remains contingent on a fragile political set-up in Iraq and on delicate regional conflict dynamics.

[1] Author’s interview with Iraqi government official by phone, 11 May 2021

[2] Author’s interviews with a senior Iraqi government source and a government official by phone, 11 May 2021.

[3] Author’s interview with an Iraqi analyst by phone, 6 May 2021.

[4] Author’s interview with an Iraqi analyst by phone, 6 May 2021.

[5] Author’s interview with an Iraqi analyst by phone, 6 May 2021.

[6] Author’s interview with a senior Iraqi government source by phone, 11 May 2021.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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