As a basic principle, foreign policy serves as an extension of a country’s domestic politics and an instrument wielded by policy-makers to enhance their domestic standing. Such was the case with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi when, on August 28, he hosted a rare but necessary regional conference to which he invited close and distant neighbors. These included France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, was happy to attend. The meeting came at a very opportune moment as Kadhimi no doubt watches—with apprehension—the developments in Afghanistan that were precipitated by the hasty departure of the United States and its forces after two decades of a failed project to build strong state institutions in Kabul. The Iraqi prime minister is thus quite aware of the stakes at hand and is trying to both put his domestic affairs in order and organize an effort to mitigate regional influences on his country.
Kadhimi’s success in bringing together Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, France, Turkey, and Iran—in addition to the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council—was a feat, considering current and recently patched-up disagreements between many of the attendees. Each of these has interests to pursue and concerns to address, but all were publicly committed to assist in creating conditions conducive to de-escalation and dialogue. This commitment was exactly what the Iraqi premier pursued in preparing for the meeting; indeed, Kadhimi was meticulous in dispatching representatives and emissaries to the capitals that he thought could be most influential in helping him achieve his aims.
The Iraqi prime minister’s most challenging domestic concern is his lack of a clear political base on which he could rely to stay in his position after the upcoming elections in October.
The Iraqi prime minister’s most challenging domestic concern is his lack of a clear political base on which he could rely to stay in his position after the upcoming elections in October. While his apparent political nonalignment may free him from direct competition with entrenched politicians who have their own organizations and reach inside state institutions, this neutrality deprives him of the ability to contest the elections as a powerful party man. And less than two months before the polls open, no one expects him to build an electoral machine and propose a program of action. What he hopes for, perhaps, is the chance to appear as the “man of the hour” as Iraq grapples with economic challenges, the possibility of resurgence by the now-dormant so-called Islamic State, and the certain rise of party-affiliated Shia militias.
Perhaps this is the reason that two days before last weekend’s meeting, the prime minister organized a National Dialogue Conference in which political forces and organizations, clan leaders, and activists from the October 2019 protests participated. While there should be no doubt that Iraq is in desperate need for dialogue about its future, Kadhimi could certainly benefit from leading the call for national cooperation, sacrifice, and compromise. What can be observed today is an Iraqi polity drifting between the hope of reconstituting itself despite disparate, centrifugal forces and the reality that its capacity for staying unified and effectual depends to a great extent on its elites’ continued loyalty and commitment to the Iraqi state. Kadhimi thus hopes to prod Iraqis to properly and amicably manage their relations with each other; he knows that such efforts will fail without the will to resist detrimental regional influences and work to distance Iraq from the apparent zero-sum competition outside its borders.
With a murky domestic picture that threatens Iraq’s security and stability, Kadhimi found it necessary to gather regional states to urge them to give his country a break.
With a murky domestic picture that threatens Iraq’s security and stability, Kadhimi found it necessary to gather regional states to urge them to give his country a break. While the United States did not attend the weekend Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, the White House was pleased it took place. During his visit to Washington in July, Kadhimi and President Joe Biden discussed how Iraq could use diplomacy “to improve and strengthen the ties” with its neighbors. Another interested party was French President Macron who, a day after the meeting and during a visit to Mosul, urged Iraqis to work together and promised to keep troops in Iraq to fight terrorism “no matter what choices the Americans make.” His comment was a clear reference to the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the potential American departure from Iraq sometime in the future.
But the question remains as to how rewarding this appeal for partnership and cooperation in the region will be. First, after Saudi and Iranian representatives met a few times in Baghdad under Kadhimi’s and Iraqi President Barham Salih’s auspices, no white smoke has risen from their talks; their discussions must have included such complicated issues as the situations in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon as well as Gulf security. To be sure, there is no love lost between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the ascendance of a hard-line Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency does not augur well for potential compromises on the part of the Islamic Republic. Additionally, Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, is close to the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and may not be amenable to simply let bygones be bygones in relations with the kingdom. Incidentally, Amir-Abdollahian was eager to show his colors when he vehemently criticized the US killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani—and his Iraqi associate Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis—in January 2020; the slain general was the strategist and executioner of Iranian interference in Iraq and the wider region.
After Saudi and Iranian representatives met a few times in Baghdad under Kadhimi’s and Iraqi President Barham Salih’s auspices, no white smoke has risen from their talks.
Second, despite contacts between Turkey and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and between Turkey and the UAE, a quick return to full and amicable relations is unlikely, which negatively impacts Kadhimi’s hopes for a conflict-free regional environment. There is also pointed criticism of Turkey’s apparent free hand in northern Iraq, where its armed forces have established military bases without Baghdad’s consent and occasionally conduct air strikes on Kurdistan Workers’ Party hideouts there. To be sure, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are wary of Turkey’s activism and, so far, consider it a concern to be managed as relations with Iran remain stalled.
Third, Kadhimi is walking a tightrope with his openness and cooperation with Jordan and Egypt, an “elephant in the room” that must raise concerns in Iran—and among Iran’s friends in his country. The three countries have already met three times to discuss joint economic and social ventures that could lessen Iraq’s reliance on commercial ties with the Islamic Republic. Indeed, such ventures will naturally translate into some form of political cooperation, and perhaps other forms of mutual efforts, that would increase Baghdad’s exposure to and involvement in the Arab world. Kadhimi is looking at this angle of Iraq’s foreign policy from the perspective of openness while, in reality, it is an obvious attempt at hedging: Iraq under Kadhimi is looking to reserve a place for itself in the Arab world after almost two decades of estrangement and despite the formidable presence of Iran-friendly political forces and militias in his country.
Prime Minister Kadhimi has shown a good degree of ambition and courage by planning the regional conference in Baghdad. But it may be a stretch for him to hope that Iraq will be allowed to escape the vagaries of regional conflicts and disagreements or to assume that influential actors are eager to set aside their differences. On the other hand, the conference may help to sweep such competition under the rug until, eventually, festering problems and disputes rear their ugly heads again. In the meantime, Kadhimi can send messages to his domestic audience that he is doing what is necessary to alleviate hardships originating outside Iraq’s borders while avoiding the inevitable battle with Iraqi political forces and militias standing in the way of the country’s domestic peace and development.