Shia fighters launch a rocket during clashes with IS militants (photo: Reuters)
“Iran is taking over Iraq,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal decried last week while slamming Iran’s “hegemonistic tendencies in the region.” “We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where. This must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem.”The blunt words by the usually reserved Saudi top diplomat made waves with its most scathing criticism for Iran’s support to Iraq‘s Shia-led government and raised a host of difficult questions about the kingdom’s strategy in dealing with the region’s simmering crises.
Prince Saud broke no new ground on Saudi doctrine on Iraq. Since the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 US-led war Saudi Arabia has viewed Iraq as falling under Iran’s influence and remained reluctant to establish full diplomatic and political ties with the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
But Prince Saud strongly-worded remarks reflect the Sunni Arab powerhouse’s anxiety over Shia Persian Iran’s close and increasing involvement in the sectarian-divided and war-torn country.
Since the stunning territorial victory of the militants in June and their seizure of nearly one third of Iraq’s territories, Iran has escalated its role in Iraq, especially in building the Shia militias. It has mobilised its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build a massive and effective Iraqi Shia paramilitary force through funding, training and weapon supplies.
Iranian commanders are also spearheading the Iraqi attacks on the IS-held towns, providing tactical expertise to Iraqis. Major-General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force, the IGRC’s special operations arm, is directly overseeing the offensives against IS.
Echoing fear of sectarian reprisals during operations to drive IS’s militants out of Sunni towns, Prince Saud had referred to the ongoing offensive in the Sunni-populated Tikrit as an example of the overt Iranian involvement in Iraq.
A combination of some 30,000 Iraqi security forces and the Shia Popular Mobilisation Units launched an offensiveto retake Tikrit from the terror group this week. Tikrit, the hometown of former President Saddam Hussein, is viewed as a key foothold for a widely expected assault on Mosul, the IS’s self-declared capital.
Members of Iran-backed Shia militias who are part of the Popular Mobilisation Units have been accused of abuses against civilians in areas Iraqi forces have retaken from Islamic State. Human rights groups also are fearful the campaign in Tikrit could lead to atrocities.
Perhaps the most worrying sign to Saudi Arabia about Iran’s influence in Iraq remains rhetoric by Iranian leaders which reflect Tehran’s ambitions in Iraq.
On Sunday, Ali Younesi, a senior advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani boasted that Iraq has already become part of Iran.
“Iran today has become an empire as it was throughout history and its capital now is Baghdad in Iraq, which is the center of our civilization and our culture and identity today as it was in the past.”
Right now Iran is only helping Iraqis in battling IS. Still, Saudi leaders are wondering how much influence will Iran have in Iraq if the militants are evicted from all of the country and if this cozy relationship between the two countries is anything to be concerned about.
In short, Saudi Arabia believes that by increasing its control over Shia communities in Iraq and the region and through the persistent expansion of its influence, Iran is pursuing a power politics of the national interest. This has created enormous problems to Saudi Arabia which finds its leadership role in the Muslim Sunni world is being challenged by Iran.
In order to confront Iran, Saudi Arabia has tried a four-pronged approach to influence events in Iraq, without much success.
First, Saudi Arabia believes that empowerment of Iraqi Sunni Arabs is key to not only to put an end to their exclusion following Saddam’s ouster but also to resist Iranian influence in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia has largely relied on its traditional checkbook diplomacy to cement close connections with Iraqi Sunni tribes and political and religious figures to bolster their capacity politically and financially.
However, despite its generous support no viable and credible Iraqi Sunni leadership has emerged. Until the Sunni minority develops a united voice and platform to engage with Shia majority, Saudi Arabia will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Iranian pro-Shia policy in the country.
Moreover, accusations that Saudi Arabia’s policy somehow plays a role in supporting jihadi-style extremism has undermined the kingdom’s ability in advancing the Iraqi Sunni’s interests.
Second, Riyadh had resorted to oil as a weapon to have more latitude over Iran and the Shia-led government in Iraq. As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia can threaten the Iranian and Iraqi economies if it chooses to keep production high and prices low.
One way to do that is to continue its hands-off policy toward falling oil prices to screw its arch enemies in the region, the Iranians and the Iraqi Shia government.
But while the lower oil prices have harmed Iran’s and Iraq’s economic short term prospects their governments have worked hard to repair the damage caused by falling revenues.
Still, there is no doubt that Iran will continue military and political backing of its Iraqi Shia allies in the confrontation with IS even if it has to grapple with economic difficulties caused by oil prices’ slump.
Indeed, Tehran is showing no signs of battle fatigue and it is probably ahead of the game in clash with Saudi Arabia over other regional disputes, such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Third, Saudi Arabia has been trying to block a possible rapprochement between Iran and the United States following a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Knowing that the deal is neither directly nor exclusively about the nuclear issue Riyadh has been seeking assurance from Washington that there will be no “grand bargain” withIran.
Here again Riyadh’s choices seems to be limited. Although the Obama administration tried to ease the kingdom’s concerns about a “comprehensive” deal with Iran, a nuclear agreement now seems more likely.
The United States also does not seem to see to eye to eye with Saudi Arabia about Iran’s role in Iraq. Last week top US general Martin Dempsey said Iran’s involvement in the fight against IS in Iraq could be “a positive step”, as long as the situation does not descend into sectarianism.
The military chief also claimed that almost two thirds of the 30,000 offensive were Iranian-backed militiamen, meaning that without Iranian assistance and Soleimani’s guidance, the offensive on IS-held towns may not have been possible.
Finally, Saudi Arabia has been trying to build a broad regional Sunni bloc to curtail Iran’s and Shia’s rising influence. A great deal of this Saudi effort is to engage largely Sunni-populated Turkey in shaping this bipolar regional sectarian system.
Nevertheless, such an alliance will have vast implications on the regional balance of power and has the potential to reshape relationships throughout the Middle East. Turkey which has succeeded in staying away from regional sectarian polarization may find it counterproductive to be part of a Sunni bloc against its powerful eastern neighbour and the entire Shia world.
As many Turkish commentators wrote following a visit by Turkish President Recep TayyipErdoğan to Riyadh last month an anti-Iran or anti-Shia front will only escalate sectarian tensions in the region and hasno benefit for Turkey and any other country.
In addition, such an alliance will put Ankara’s key strategic interests such the Kurdish issue and its relations with its vast Allawite minority at risks.
Any assessment of Iran’s role in Iraq since Saddam’s downfall will show that Tehran has exploited Iraq’s 12 year old conflict to weaken the country and create outcomes that are likely togive it leverage over its Sunni neighbors and deprive them ofstrategic advantages andcreate new sources ofthreat.
Yet, Saudi Arabia and other Iraq’s Sunni neighbours have equally failed to come up with a viable plan to stop Iraq’s ethno sectarian conflict staying on a steady boil to threaten regional stability.
Unfortunately, the prospect of sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is expected to escalate, with sources of tension evident across the region. Nowhere this competition for power and influence is more evident than in Iraq which is expected to bear most of its devastating consequences.
Shia fighters launch a rocket during clashes with IS militants (photo: Reuters)