international analysis and commentary

Saudi Arabia vs Iran: Riyadh eyes Iraq’s rebalancing


The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, coupled with Iraq’s recent election results, offer Saudi Arabia an opportunity to regain leverage in the Middle East vis-à-vis Teheran. At the same time, Iran maintains its strong influence in Lebanese politics thanks to Hezbollah’s electoral performance.

Over the past year, Iraq has become the pivot point of Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy: Riyadh played the ethnic card of Arabism to co-opt segments of the Iraqi-Arab Shia community – including the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – against the overwhelming influence of the Persians.

The winner of the May 12 election was the anti-establishment Shia coalition led by Al-Sadr, “Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform”, which also encompasses the Communist party and some Iraqi civil movements. In second place was the “Conquest Alliance”, Hadi al-Ameri’s coalition representing the controversial Iranian-backed Shia militias of Iraq (Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi/Popular Mobilization Forces). Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his national, inter-confessional coalition, “Victory Alliance”, took third place. Al-Abadi will likely be re-appointed after extensive negotiations for a new coalition government.

Interestingly, the dominant coalitions have opposite geopolitical visions: Iraq’s citizens voted mainly for financial accountability, good governance and political reforms (the banners of Al-Sadr) and security (those of Al-Ameri). In fact, Al-Sadr has always been hostile towards Iranian interference in Baghdad’s politics, while Al-Ameri is the chief of the Teheran-backed Badr Organization. He was in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s regime and now enjoys warm relations with General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates publicly and unexpectedly opened a channel of communication with Al-Sadr, hosting him in Jeddah and then in Abu Dhabi. By supporting the Shia cleric, the Saudis could simultaneously achieve three strategic goals: outreach to Iraq’s lower and marginalized classes; capitalize on popular protests against corruption in Baghdad’s elite; and denounce Iran’s hegemonic policy in Iraq. This would fuel nationalist sentiment and tighten ties with the Shia hawza of Najaf, which is not only the birthplace of Al-Sadr, but it is also the theoretical rival of Iran’s Qom and the main source of religious influence for the Arab Gulf Shia communities.

Riyadh’s new engagement with Iraq, after 25 years of broken diplomatic relations, also promises an economic partnership that will be tested by the size of reconstruction investments (beyond the announcements made at the Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq in February 2018). This will likely depend on the front-runners of the future coalition government and the prime minister. Most of all, the Saudis must focus on the economic, military and political inclusion of the disenfranchised Northern and Western Sunni provinces, where the local insurgency paved the way for the growth of Daesh.

In the medium to long term, Saudi Arabia aims to re-balance Iraq’s geopolitical orbit by reducing Iran’s influence, which is bound to be a long and hard task. General Suleimani was in Baghdad for informal talks on forming a Shia ruling coalition even before formal talks had begun. Iran maintains the upper hand in Iraq, especially from a military point of view. But the elections further demonstrated voter distrust in political parties as only 44% went to the ballots. Those Arab Sunnis disaffected with party politics could easily turn to traditional tribal allegiances and kinships, thus empowering transnational ties with the Saudis, especially in Nineveh and Anbar governorates.

The case of Al-Sadr is the most visible attempt of Saudi re-engagement with the Arab Shia world. By playing the ethnic card, it is also clear that something is happening within Saudi Arabia itself, although regime security reasons (as in neighbouring Bahrain) prevent Riyadh from real rapprochement.

On April 15, the Saudi-dominated Arab League Summit was finally held in Dhahran, the oil-rich Shia-majority Eastern Province. On that occasion, Saudi King Salman surprisingly met with Saudi Shia clerics and businessmen, including the prominent opposition cleric Hassan al-Saffar from Qatif. Such a choice, however, cannot erase Riyadh’s persisting crackdown on Saudi Shia dissent, especially in Awamiyya, half of which was destroyed by Saudi security forces in August 2017. It suggests, though, that the kingdom is looking for a pragmatic co-opting of those Saudi Shia voices that are more open to dialogue in order to insulate them from Iran.

Looking at Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections since 2009, held in early May, Saudi Arabia definitely failed to roll-back the political ascendance of Hezbollah and its “March 8” coalition allies. Despite a low turnout and a new, proportional system of voting, the party-militia headed by Hassan Nasrallah emerged not only as the clear winner of the elections, but also as a fundamental component of the Lebanese political and military national apparatus. This outcome was not granted, especially due to Hezbollah’s five-year military campaign in Syria, with its legacy of human and financial losses. Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, backed by Saudi Arabia, lost one third of its seats, losing ground in electoral fiefdoms as Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon. However, Hariri remains the reference point for the Sunni community and, due to Lebanon’s sectarian balances, could gain the premiership again.

In the Middle East, recent electoral and military developments have enhanced alliances, counter-alignments and polarization along the “Saudi Arabia vs Iran” axis. For instance, the Israeli Education Minister, Naftali Bennet, wrote, after the Lebanese elections, “Hezbollah = Lebanon”, thus echoing a perception shared by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose plan to provoke an earthquake in Lebanese political arrangements (the mysterious affaire of Hariri’s resignation and detention in Riyadh in December 2017) turned into a public fiasco. Strategically, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel are becoming closer in the region because of Teheran: Bahrain declared that Israel has “the right of self-defense” when Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights were hit by Iranian rockets fired from Syria on May 10.

Polarization extends also to North Africa: Morocco strongly denounced Iran and Hezbollah’s alleged military aid and training for the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, severing diplomatic relations with Teheran. But the monarchical front is far from unity: Kuwait, Oman, the boycotted Qatar (and Dubai in a more nuanced way) do not overlap with the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini narrative against Iran. Jordan sided with Morocco on the Polisario-Hezbollah issue, but Amman is carefully seeking recalibration in foreign policy alliances, moving beyond the usual Riyadh-centered stance.

Given this framework, what could happen now? First, military escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran – although a direct war remains a remote possibility – is more likely than in the recent past, as well as a direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran. Second, geographical fronts and potential casus belli are now easier to isolate on the map: Riyadh and Teheran could clash because of Yemen and the increasing Huthi missile attacks on Saudi territory, while Tel Aviv and Teheran’s critical point is mainly the intersection between the Golan Heights and Hezbollah’s South Lebanon. Third, the Trump administration could find itself, paradoxically, much more involved in Middle Eastern security despite its “America first” rhetoric. This would be a consequence of political choices that maximize geopolitical tensions such as the withdrawal from the JCPOA and the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.

Iraq is decisive in regional balances. In case of further rifts, Iraq will likely be affected by escalation among Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia: Teheran will struggle to preserve its “Shia corridor” and Riyadh, working on cross-confessional alliances, will have more cards to play in Baghdad.