As a founding member of the Arab League and bastion of Arab nationalism, Iraq has traditionally held great sway in regional politics. Its over-involvement in regional affairs under Saddam Hussein, however, has been replaced by its near disappearance since 2003.
The government, led by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, has sought to reverse this trend, as the internal political situation stabilizes and Iraq’s role as a regional and international actor becomes more dynamic. A summit held in Baghdad on Saturday was a major step in this direction, using Iraq’s delicate position wedged between regional rivals to bring them together.
The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership brought Iranian and Gulf counterparts together in a way that arguably had not been witnessed since former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited Jeddah in 1998. In facilitating dialogue between Sunni and Shiite blocs, Iraq hopes to provide some scope for scaling down wider tensions in the region, which have grown far more complicated than the sectarian divide.
However, regional rivalries, exacerbated by Lebanon’s collapse, a regional water crisis, the conflict in Yemen and Syria’s stagnant revolution, make it a tall order for a newly resurgent Iraq to secure an agreement.
America’s ill-fated and legally dubious 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have had a huge impact on the politics of the region. In creating a vacuum of leadership, it led to a shift away from Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus to new centers of power. The implosion of the Iraqi state also emboldened non-Arab regional states, while simultaneously inviting Russia into a region that had hitherto been an American preserve.
This succession of events has created a huge opening for the projection of Iranian power; and despite its genesis as a "War on Terror," revitalized and provided strategic depth to transnational terrorism; cementing Iraqi isolation from much of the Arab world. Iraq’s diplomatic stepping out this week is therefore a major milestone for a country that has suffered from two decades of instability and for a region that has sorely missed its traditional centers of power.
Given the regional destabilization that the war in Iraq caused, it is hoped that Baghdad’s recent stabilization will similarly be felt regionally. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, political concerns about America’s role in the Middle East have been brought to the fore. So the timing of the Baghdad conference makes it a hugely urgent and incredibly relevant meeting of minds. Recent events have shown how precarious the US security umbrella can be.
For Iraq, which has an incredibly complicated relationship with the US, there is an opportunity to lead regional players into a post-American future, with its experience of the last 20 years serving as a stark reminder of the costs of foreign intervention and sectarian proxy wars.
The last major regional meeting Iraq hosted was the emergency Arab summit of 1990. As the region was then on the brink of Operation Desert Storm, the gathering was intended to de-escalate tensions. This week’s conference came at a time of similar sensitivity, as the region’s powers stand on the edge of a precipice — so Iraq has chosen a very important moment to re-enter the political fray.
Iraq’s historical influence was characterized by its cohesive state, large army and wealth, the absence of which today will impact its ability to be influential. Regardless, its re-emergence is to be welcomed in a region that has suffered from foreign intervention and the short-termist foreign policies of newly emergent powers eager to make a mark.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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