By Ali Choukeir – Agence France-Presse
Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s go to to Saudi Arabia on the finish of July signalled the Gulf Sunni powerhouse’s ambition to distance its Iranian foe from policy-making in Baghdad.
In the wake of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Riyadh severed relations with Baghdad and closed its border posts with its northern neighbour.
Ties have remained strained even after Saddam’s ouster in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, since when successive Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad have stayed shut to Tehran.
But Sadr’s uncommon go to to Saudi Arabia got here on the invitation of Riyadh, which performed up his assembly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Two weeks later, Sadr adopted up by holding talks in Abu Dhabi with its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, strongman of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and shut ally of his counterpart in the dominion of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
“Hosting Sadr in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi shows regional rivals and particularly Iran that KSA/UAE are capable of tapping into and influencing intra-Shia politics in Iraq,” mentioned Fanar Haddad, a analysis fellow on the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
For the Gulf monarchies, “Sadr would be a prize catch: authentically Shia-Iraqi, distrustful if not disdainful of Iran and with a genuinely organic and loyal grassroots following.”
– ‘Pulling the strings’ –
The pro-Western Arab states of the Gulf goal to present that Iran now not holds a monopoly on influencing coverage in Baghdad, in accordance to Iraqi political scientist Hashem al-Hashemi.
Tehran “prided itself on pulling all the strings among the Shiites (of Iraq) but it seems that several strings are now beyond its grasp, like that of the Sadrists”, Hashemi mentioned.
In June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, additionally a Shiite, held conferences in Saudi Arabia, 4 months after a go to to Baghdad by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, a primary of its type since 2003.
For Michael Knights, a researcher on the Washington Institute, such interplay with Riyadh might come at a value.
“Tehran will view the Saudi Arabian engagement by Abadi and Sadr as another reason that Abadi must be displaced as premier in the 2018 elections,” mentioned Knights.
“And Iran will work hard behind the scenes with money, media and weapons to make that happen.”
But on the identical time, Haddad warned that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi mustn’t rely too closely on Sadr to restore their affect in Baghdad on the expense of Tehran.
“They should moderate their expectations as to how much he will be willing to deliver,” he cautioned.
Tehran has performed a serious political, financial and army position in Baghdad for the reason that finish of Saddam’s rule, throughout which Shiites have been barred from highly effective posts and Shiite-majority Iraq fought a 1980-1988 warfare towards Shiite however non-Arab Iran.
According to the Carnegie Middle East Center, Iranian exports, not together with gasoline, tripled between 2008 and 2015 to attain $6.2 billion.
Apart from army advisers on the bottom in Iraq, Iran additionally sponsors a number of armed teams, in explicit the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi items which might be enjoying a key position in combating the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.
On his return from Saudi Arabia, Sadr renewed requires the dismantling of armed teams, a stance which “makes him particularly attractive to KSA/UAE”, mentioned Haddad.
But the firebrand cleric, whose personal armed supporters fought fierce battles towards US and authorities forces in the wake of the invasion, has steered away from overtly condemning Hashed al-Shaabi, which was arrange on the request of the Shiite non secular hierarchy in post-Saddam Iraq.
– Arar start line –
Furthermore, Haddad careworn, a warming in ties between Riyadh and Sadr can’t be in contrast to shut relations between two states.
“We’re still a long way from Iraqi-Saudi relations coming anywhere near the depth or complexity of Iraqi-Iranian ties,” he mentioned.
But in a primary decisive step, Riyadh and Baghdad have introduced plans to reopen the Arar desert crossing, their foremost border post and a possible various to Iraq’s posts with Iran which might be used for many of its imports.
The border has been shut for a lot of the previous three many years to all travellers besides Iraqi Muslim pilgrims heading to and from Mecca in western Saudi Arabia.
The announcement was made throughout a joint inspection of the Arar post by Iraqi and Saudi officers in addition to Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the worldwide coalition combating IS. (AFP)