Baghdad summit: What to expect?

August 13, 2021 - 21:30

TEHRAN – With the Iraqi government making arrangements for a regional summit in Baghdad, the region seems to be heading toward a sort of de-escalation that would probably put differences on hold for a while.

Later this month, the Iraqi government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi is going to try its hand at peace-making by holding a conference that would focus on regional challenges and the ways to overcome them. The conference was initially designed to be held with the participation of Iraq’s neighbors but it evolved into a “regional conference” that would include delegations from countries outside the region and non-neighboring states as well.  

In addition to Iraq’s five neighbors, a number of other countries such as France, Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates and international institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations are also expected to participate. The participation of Syria, which is a neighbor of Iraq, had not been determined yet. 

The Baghdad conference marks the first time Iraq takes on a diplomatic initiative to soothe tensions in the region beyond diplomatic mediation. Over the past few years, Iraq has sought to calm tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia by mediations and in some cases, shuttle diplomacy. This time, Baghdad is moving beyond mediation to tout itself as a diplomatic venue for countries of the region to meet and address their differences in a public way. 

It is also the first time Iraq holds such a conference since 1990, a move that suggests a resuscitation of Iraq’s status as a regional player.

In a bid to set the stage for the conference, al-Kadhimi dispatched his ministers and emissaries almost in all directions. Planning Minister Khalid Najim Traveled to Kuwait, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, Finance Minister Ali Allawi to Jordan, and Defense Minister Juma Inad to Egypt. 

Also, letters of invitation were sent to heads of state and leaders to attend the conference that Baghdad seeks to organize on the initial date of August 29, after the country has completed the religious pilgrimage to the city of Karbala in the south of the country, which is witnessing huge security preparations and an alert for security units to secure it as millions of Iraqis and expatriates from abroad go to the city to commemorate the 10th of Muharram which marks the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Hussein ibn Ali (AS).

The event, officially known as the “Iraqi Neighboring Countries Conference,” is closely watched by observers in the region and beyond. Because its agenda and the level of participation of regional heavyweights, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, will serve as a litmus test of whether de-escalation talks in the region, including between Tehran and Riyadh, have born fruits. 

Iran has already welcomed the Iraqi initiative. In his recent meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister, Iranian President Ayatollah Seyed Ebrahim Raisi described the conference as a “blessed step” and said that “Iran considers dialogue between the countries of the region in the context of addressing issues and improving relations between them, as a step towards strengthening regional security and stability,” according to a statement by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. 

The Iranian president made the remarks while receiving an invitation letter from the Iraqi prime minister delivered by Hussein. 

The Iraqi foreign minister delivered the letter on August 10 during a visit to Tehran where he met with a number of high-ranking Iranian officials.

During his meeting with Ayatollah Raisi, Hussein said, “The ‘Iraqi Neighboring Countries Conference’ is being held in the context of arrangements aimed at supporting the political process and economic growth of Iraq.”

Hussein also met with Secretary of the Supreme Iranian National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, who alluded to the possibility of countries of the region settling their differences and maintain peace without the meddling of foreign powers. Shamkhani told the visiting Iraqi foreign minister that “the countries of the region are able to maintain security and peace in them without having to any external interference,” according to a separate statement by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. 

Before visiting Iran, Hussein traveled to Saudi Arabia on a similar mission. He delivered a similar invitation letter from Al-Kadhimi addressed to King Salman Bin Abdulaziz.  He met with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh, where they discussed bilateral relations and ways to enhance them to achieve common interests. The Saudis have been tight-lipped about the Baghdad summit. They seem to be mulling the level of their representation at the Baghdad summit. Regional press reports suggested that the Saudis are waiting for the Iraqi government to inform them of the level of Turkish and Iranian representation. 

A senior Iraqi diplomatic source told Al Araby Al Jadeed that “Saudi Arabia wants to know the level of Iranian and Turkish representation in particular, to determine whether or not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will participate,” adding that other countries that share the same thing with Saudi Arabia welcomed participating, but so far it has not been clear what kind of representation they are considering. 

The same thing would likely be true for Qatar and the UAE, which have been at loggerheads since 2017. 

These complexities make it difficult to expect a breakthrough from the Baghdad conference. Hussein said that this event will not be only a photo-op occasion. Instead, it will be a catalyst for a greater understanding about regional challenges. The Iraqi source also quoted Hussein as saying that the conference will provide an excellent atmosphere to convene a Saudi-Iranian meeting at the level of heads of delegations participating in the event.

 The conference may succeed in convening a spontaneous meeting between the delegations of Tehran and Riyadh but such a meeting is unlikely to serve as a silver bullet. Because the Iran-Saudi differences are so deeply running that a chance meeting is unlikely to solve them.  However, such a meeting can serve as a prelude to other meetings. Iran and Saudi Arabia have already been meeting in Iraq since last April. But all these meetings were held behind closed doors and even Iran’s invitation of Saudi Arabia to Ayatollah Raisi’s inauguration failed to get the two rivals to publicize their talks. This may have been due to a Saudi unwillingness to take the first step toward Iran. The Baghdad conference can offer both sides a neutral venue and an ice breaker as well.  

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