The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry Comes to Iraq

The events in Iraq are the latest chapter in the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has always considered Maliki’s government pro-Shiite and, hence, pro-Iranian, and seen Iraq as a wellspring of Iranian influence.

Middle East expert and professor of the Department of the Modern East at Russian State University for the Humanities Grigory Kosach on the situation in Iraq and its influence on the balance of power in the region.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) continues to take over new areas of Iraq. Authorities in Baghdad report that ISIS has executed hundreds of captured soldiers and civilians, calling on Iraqis to defend the capital from the “bloodthirsty extremists,” whereas the “extremists” are distributing videos in which smiling ISIS fighters hand out copies of the Koran to passers-by and drivers. Given the aggressive media war inside Iraq, we should neither exaggerate nor downplay reports by either side.

But there are more fundamental reasons for speaking about the conflict.

First, the Syrian conflict is far from over, in part because regional and foreign powers are nowhere near reaching a settlement. This has allowed ISIS to take root in Syria, which they can use as a staging ground to destabilize the entire region.

Second, ISIS would not have been able to mount its successful offensive if its fighters had not been joined by Iraqi army officers, civilians opposed to the government of Nouri al-Maliki, and former Ba’ath Party leaders (such as Izzat al-Douri) and his sympathizers.

Third, ISIS does not seem to want to dominate all of Iraq. It is not going to take any action in Kurdistan or Baghdad (which would entail massive effort and enormous casualties), not to mention the Shiite south. So far, ISIS has stayed within predominantly Sunni areas.

Fourth, the success of ISIS in Iraq is the direct result of Maliki’s efforts to exclude the Sunni elite from the process of governing the country (rooted in a number of reasons), instead of encouraging the participation of all ethnic and religious communities of Iraq.

Fifth, and finally, the alliance between ISIS and the Iraq’s Sunni elite does not seem immutable. Quite the contrary, cracks are already started to emerge between the various forces in the country. There is a growing chorus of opponents of the Maliki government claiming that the combat operations against the Iraqi army are being conducted by “Sunni revolutionaries,” while the economic assets they have seized are becoming “the property of Sunni tribes.” Control over territory and wealth is becoming leverage in the inevitable bargaining that will be required to resolve internal Iraqi disputes in a way similar to the Lebanese model of confessional politics.

US and EU pressure on Iraq to form a “national salvation government” has not worked. John Kerry was unable to change Maliki’s mind during his trip to Baghdad. Maliki, relying on Iranian support for the “democratic legitimacy” of the Iraqi government and the Shiite clerics that are helping to raise militias, feels confident he can continue his confrontational policy toward his domestic foes (no longer limited to ISIS). The Obama administration apparently believes the purpose of the US military advisers sent to Iraq is less to save the rebellious prime minister than to reconstitute the Sunni “awakening” forces that fought with the US army against foreign jihadists during the Iraq war. This would necessarily involve Maliki’s resignation, as he refused to integrate the Sunni forces into the Iraqi security agencies after the US withdrawal. In general, the US cannot help restore stability in Iraq without turning on Maliki. This would be a blow to Iran, and Maliki’s fall would seriously undermine the position of Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with his Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal in Jeddah on June 21 gave a major new inflection to events in Iraq. Russia wants a stable Iraq in order to protect its oil interests in the country, and it cannot trust Iran alone to provide stability. But facilitating contacts between Saudi and Iraqi Sunnis could help Russia achieve this important goal. In this case Moscow would have to withdraw support for the current Iraqi government and, therefore, distance itself from Tehran to a certain extent.

Any attempt to curry favor with Riyadh (as Lavrov’s statements after his visit to Jeddah can be interpreted) will require Moscow to reevaluate, to some degree, its position toward the Assad regime. Upon returning from Saudi Arabia, Lavrov spoke about the need to revive the stalled Geneva 1 process.

The events in Iraq are the latest chapter in the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has always considered Maliki’s government pro-Shiite and, hence, pro-Iranian, and seen Iraq as a wellspring of Iranian influence. The actions by ISIS, which the Saudi government classifies as a terrorist organization, are nonetheless welcomed by Riyadh as a gift from the heavens, as they open up the possibility of weakening the current Iraqi leadership and achieving superiority over Iran not only in Iraq but also in neighboring Syria. By seeking to prevent foreign interference in Iraq, the Saudis are trying (and likely succeeding) to minimize coordination between the United States and Maliki and to obstruct Iranian support for Iraq.

However, greater Iranian support will be unavoidable if ISIS threatens Shiite shrines in Iraq, or if Shiites are completely ousted from Iraqi security agencies. Neither outcome appears likely today considering how generous Tehran has been in its support for the Syrian regime.

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