Saudi Arabia has extraordinarily asked Iraq to mediate in the prolonged schism between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
According to Iraq’s Interior Minister Qassim Araji,
“Mohammed bin Salman (the Saudi crown prince) officially demanded me that Iraq mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reduce tensions. King Salman had also earlier raised such a demand. We believe that friendly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help the regional security”.
Taken at face value, the move might appear to be a Saudi attempt to de-escalate tensions with Iran whose military power is objectively superior to the expensively armed but poorly trained and infamously un-disciplined Saudi armed forces.
However, the deeper meaning is quite different.
Saudi Arabia realistically does not want good relations with Iran. It’s continued support of terrorist groups who have executed violence in Iran such as ISIS is one such way to ascertain this reality. Furthermore, it is Saudi which has consistently funded groups which aim to destroy Iran and her allies while Iran’s position on Saudi is one of defensive preparedness but never aggression and certainly never terrorism.
The reality is that Saudi’s move is a kind of psychological warfare directed not at Iran but at Iraq. Ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a man who was deeply anti-Iranian and also increasingly anti-Saudi, Iraq has become increasingly pro-Iranian with Shi’a Arabs whose sympathies often lie more with Tehran than the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, being the new dominant political force in Baghdad.
Recently, influential Shi’a cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr has developed surprisingly close relations with Saudi Arabia and even visited Saudi in late July.
Geo-political expert Andrew Korybko has explained al-Sadr’s pivot towards Saudi in the following way,
“This brings the analysis to the final possible explanation for al-Sadr’s recent warming up to the Saudis, and it’s that he plans to put his Arab/Iraqi Nationalism into practice by exploiting Iraq’s geostrategic pivot position between two Great Powers in order to balance between them for the supreme benefit of his country. This would be extraordinarily difficult to do in any case and would require Tito-like skills to pull off, but if this is indeed what al-Sadr has in mind, then it would answer a lot of the lingering questions about his latest behavior. For example, his echoing of the “Assad must go” mantra and intriguing inroads with the Saudis could then be seen necessary moves in order to preempt Riyadh’s support for post-Kurdish Sunni secessionism, as well as internationally recognized moves of strategic independence vis-à-vis Iran”.
It is increasingly looking that while al-Sadr is the opportunist Korbyko describes him as, Saudi is attempting to use him and any influential Iraqi that will give Saudi the time of day, to drive a wedge between Iran and Iraq.
This is a strategy that may temporarily work among some Iraqis who are desperate for quick cash and may have some notions that Saudi could somehow represent an fellow Arab ally, but in the long term this, strategy is doomed to fail.
Iraq as a nation and in particular its majority Shi’a population has suffered under the Saudi brand of ‘alt-Islam’ extremism known as Wahhabi terrorism for longer than any nation in the world. Whatever Shi’a Iraqis may have thought about Saudi before the Iraqi Civil War and its most recent development, the war against ISIS, any minor good will has largely been exhausted.
Iraq is keen to normalise relations across the region in order to prove Iraq is restoring her status as the stable country it once was, but beyond this, there is little that Saudi can offer Iraq in the long term. This is especially true if oil prices continue to fall in conjunction with Iraq restoring her oil producing facilities that had been seized by ISIS and destroyed in the subsequent fighting. When this inevitably happens, Iraq will once again be a competitor to Saudi for oil exports as it was during the days of the Iraqi Socialist Ba’ath party’s time in power.
Iran by contrast is vital for Iraq’s long term security. This is why Iran and Iraq recently signed a mutual defence agreement that will guide the shared destiny of both nations.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly keen preventing the Iran-Iraq-Syrian alliance that is already in place from growing. Saudi will never be able to turn Syria and certainly will not be able to turn Iran, but Iraq is politically speaking, the weakest link in this chain, a chain whose creation was largely do to the immediate need of fighting terrorism awakening latent fraternal instincts in each nation.
Iraq will of course continue to speak with Saudi, but beyond this, Riyadh will be disappointed if it honestly thinks that its power to bribe can complete with Iran’s power to protect Iraq against a common enemy, including those in Saudi.