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Iraq leads with neutrality in a deeply partisan Middle East

  • 31 May 2019

Navigating the divergent agendas of its neighbours, Iraqi leaders caution regional players against escalating tensions.

Iraq's President Barham Salih told Arab leaders gathered in Saudi Arabia that the security and stability of Iran is in the interest of Muslim and Arab states. ( AP )

At the end of the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia this week, the 22-member organisation issued a statement that called for taking action against Iran, accusing it of using armed proxies in the region. However, one member, Iraq, disagreed with the others. 

Iraqi President Barham Salih expressed concern that the condemnation of Iran and the consequent increase in tensions could lead to war and the further destabilisation of the neighbourhood. He said Iran’s security must not be threatened. 

Tehran faces accusations that it orchestrated or at least backed attacks this month on an oil installation in Saudi Arabia, and tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. 

While Tehran denies any involvement, it continues to back Houthi rebels who are fighting Saudi-backed forces in the poor country of Yemen. 

“The absence of a firm stance against Iranian behaviour is what led to the escalation we see today,” Saudi Arabia’s King Salman told the delegates late on Thursday. 

The emergency Arab League meeting in Mecca came after developments which have raised the possibility of a direct confrontation between Iran and its foes, including the United States. 

The US says it has deployed additional aircraft and soldiers in the Middle East to deter Iran, which is already under stifling US economic sanctions. 

But amid this tension, Iraqi leaders have been trying to build bridges, even offering to mediate between Iran and the US. 

The Baghdad choice

Being the only Arab country to oppose further pressure on Iran might seem like an obvious choice for Baghdad. Iraq is a country of majority Shia Muslims, just like its eastern neighbour, Iran, but that’s not the only tie that binds the two. 

When Daesh spread across Iraq and took control of a vast chunk of the country in 2014, it was the Iranians who sent militias to counter the group. 

Iran also influences Iraqi politics, often backing certain politicians and militia leaders who are close to Tehran and its clergy. 

But that has changed since a divisive election in Iraq last year, which saw a coalition of Shia and moderate parties form a government. 

It is the result of a compromise between different political parties, which have risen above allegations of corruption and incompetence. It also reflects the political maturity of Iraqi leaders as the two main blocs in the parliament now represent cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic interests. 

Iraqi leaders have grown increasingly independent in their diplomatic efforts to further their country’s interests. 

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia reopened its Baghdad consulate after 30 years. A few days later, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi travelled to the kingdom on his first visit to meet King Salman. 

Mahdi has also met Iranian and Turkish leadership as his government tries to rebuild a country devastated by years of war. 

Despite being the second largest producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Iraq struggles to meet its energy needs, especially that of electricity. 

Iraq’s electricity demand in the summer can exceed supply by up to 50 percent, causing crippling power outages. 

Under-investment in power transmission and distribution systems has further compounded the problem of low power generation. 

To meet the shortfall, Iraq imports electricity from Iran, especially for its southern province, Basra, where power outages have led to violent protests

Iraq also imports Iranian gas, which is in turn used as a fuel to run thermal power plants. On March 19, the US gave Iraq a three-month waiver on importing energy from sanctions-hit Iran for three months but asked it to seek out alternates. 

Iraqis also know the pain of sanctions currently being faced by the Iranians. The memory of food and medicine shortages and more than a million people dying of malnutrition in 1990s are still fresh for many Iraqis. 

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