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Iraq rebuild can help abate sectarian tension across the region

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When International Crisis Group recently asked officials and analysts from Saudi Arabia and Iran to list their key interests in Iraq, we discovered that Riyadh and Tehran may agree on more than either side realized.

As Iraq’s newly-elected parliament negotiates to form a government, Saudi Arabia and Iran should take that list as a starting point to support Baghdad — and advance their interests too. 

{mosads}The United States, which has invested 15 years, hundreds of billions of dollars and nearly 5,000 soldiers’ lives in the name of Iraqi stability, has a vital interest in encouraging this détente so that Iraq does not become a battleground for foreign interests yet again.


The moment to begin is now, because Saudi Arabia has recently returned to Iraq after 25 years of estranged relations. Riyadh reopened ties in order to roll back Iranian influence as part of their broader push throughout the Middle East.

Iraqis, however, warmed to the rapprochement out of a need and a desire to strengthen their longstanding relations with the Arab world and balance Iranian influence without, however, triggering a confrontation between the two sides.

Iraqis have family members across the border in Saudi Arabia. They share a language, a culture, a music and a history with cousins to the south. Their country also needs help — funds, capital, expertise — to rebuild devastated cities and a torn national fabric.

Yet, if Baghdad is to succeed rising above 15 years of conflict, Iraqis are keen that outside powers avoid the temptation to settle scores on Iraqi territory. 

Now might seem like an impossible moment to suggest Saudi Arabia and Iran cooperate. Tensions in the region are higher than at any point in recent memory, thanks to conflicts in Yemen and Syria, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and a Palestine seething over the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and the killings of unarmed protesters in Gaza.

Tehran and Riyadh are actively fighting one another in the media, through armed proxies, in cyberspace and with Western lobbyists. This supposed regional cold war is in fact quite close to a boil. 

But in Iraq they should both see the case for détente. Before all else, countries of the region share a desire to prevent another iteration of the Islamic State, al Qaeda or other forms of jihadism.

That means ensuring Iraq’s cycle of conflict doesn’t restart — and it especially means that Saudi Arabia and Iran can’t bring their disagreements to Baghdad, Najaf or Mosul.

In addition, Iran and Saudi Arabia believe strongly in Iraq’s territorial integrity. Both sides urged the Kurdish regional government against a September 2017 independence referendum and saw its outcome as illegitimate. In its aftermath, they have urged Kurds in Iraq to find political solutions to their concerns with Baghdad.

Iraq’s struggling economy offers more space for accommodation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reconstruction is vital to maintaining calm in stressed provinces where opportunity and jobs are few. With needs estimated to total $88 billion, there are more than enough reconstruction projects and industries for regional donors and partners to find a niche.

With these common interests, some in Iran see Saudi Arabia’s re-engagement with Iraq as a net gain. Yet, an even more powerful reason has to do with sectarianism, the devilishly entrenched narrative that has written itself onto regional strife.

Both Riyadh and Tehran bear some responsibility, but cooler heads in both capitals now realize how dangerous and out of control it has become. 

The potential to rewrite that story begins in Saudi Arabia. Both in domestic public appearances and in his tours of Western capitals, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has promised to moderate Islam in his kingdom.

Acting just at home, MbS could deal sectarianism a blow. If he goes beyond rhetoric and actively curbs intolerance, takes defamatory rhetoric off the airwaves and improves the lives of Saudi Arabia’s own beleaguered Shiite community, extremist arguments could start to lose their potency. 

But Iraq offers yet another theatre to unwind regional sectarian narratives because it is host to the center of Arab Shiism, the Holy City of Najaf. Senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani is both the spiritual and civic guide to Shiite communities across the region. He is revered across confessional lines in Iraq for being staunchly anti-sectarian and refraining from overt politics.

Saudi policymakers working on Iraq say they know their relationship with Shiite communities is broken, so they are re-engaging there first and foremost. Saudi officials have formed strong personal relationships with Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi and the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, whose electoral coalition won a plurality of votes this month.

Sadr has refused to meet American officials. But he went to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in 2017 with a stack of proposals about how the Gulf can come back to Iraq and win the trust of Shiites.

Just days after the meeting between Sadr and MbS, Saudi Arabia requested permission from the Iraqi government to open a consulate in Najaf. The proposed mission would improve lives for Shiites in both countries, allowing them to travel back and forth for pilgrimages in Mecca and Najaf. 

Some in Iran view Saudi outreach to Iraqi Shiites as both threatening and deeply insulting. It’s true that Riyadh has a monumental task ahead in rebuilding the trust of a community that its clerics have long defamed as infidels.

But here’s a chance to liberate Iraqis — and maybe others too — from the identity war that regional politics have stamped upon their lives. During a visit to Najaf earlier this year, I was surprised to find enthusiasm from clerics about a Saudi return.

Saudis readily admit it was their mistake not to engage with Iraq sooner. Today, they are back, and with a bit of humility. “It’s our fault” that Iraq turned toward Iran, a Saudi royal family member said. “We left a vacuum.” 

Riyadh will need to foster that humility in the coming weeks and months. Iraq’s election results were a transparent reflection of a national ambivalence, torn between optimism at defeating ISIS and the scepticism bred during years of war.

That cynical side saw many stay home from the polls, sure that nothing about Iraq’s corrupt political system would change. Defiantly optimistic voters cast ballots, including for Sadr and his coalition with Iraq’s Communists that devoted their campaign to anti-graft.

As negotiations start now to form a coalition government, expectations are both high and low again. Perhaps their new government will attract investment for reconstruction, fight corruption and even become a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Even gains at the margins of these issues would help. As one Iraqi security analyst put it, “Iraqis have learned to take deep breaths.” 

Elizabeth Dickinson is Arabian Peninsula senior analyst for International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization founded in 1995 that carries out field research on violent conflict and advances policies to prevent, mitigate or resolve conflict.

Tags Ali al-Sistani Iran–Saudi Arabia relations Iraq Islam Member states of OPEC Member states of the Arab League Member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Middle East Middle Eastern countries Muqtada al-Sadr Saudi Arabia Sectarian violence

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