Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently visited Jordan to attend the second Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership on December 20, 2022, which also brought together leaders and representatives from across the region, Europe, and Turkey. This conference aimed to build on the outcomes of the first Baghdad conference to support Iraq’s goals of acheiving security, stability, and sovereignty. Abdollahian’s participation in the conference occurred against the backdrop of ongoing Iranian protests and the IRGC’s recent cross-border attacks against Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. Iran’s participation and the meetings held on the sidelines of the conference reflected Tehran’s desire to project its diplomatic prowess and protect its longstanding strategic interests in Iraq.
During the conference, the Iraqi delegation shed light on Iraq’s challenges in light of extensive water and electricity shortages. Political volatility, economic crises and proxy conflicts have complicated the internal situation in Iraq. The agenda of the conference focused on promoting Iraqi interests through cooperation and dialogue and minimizing the implications of regional rivalry for the country’s sovereignty, stability and security. Such conferences are crucial to help in reviving the Iraqi economy, as regional and international support is imperative in improving domestic conditions as well as in healing rifts between domestic actors.
At the conference, there was much speculation about a possible resumption in talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Abdollahian said in a tweet that he had a “friendly conversation” on the sidelines of the conference with his Saudi counterpart. In the last 16 months, Iraq has brokered talks to restore diplomatic relations between both countries, however, despite multiple meetings, the talks did not succeed. The Iranian government recently accused Saudi Arabia of waging a propaganda war against it and the Commander of the Quds Force Esmail Qaani recently criticized and warned Saudi Arabia of retaliation. Furthermore, Iran’s involvement in the war in Yemen further complicates the regional security situation and impedes possibilities for constructive dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh. In addition, strong disagreements, clash of interests, lack of trust, and rhetorical threats and warnings targeting Saudi Arabia cast a dark shadow over a diplomatic breakthrough in the near future. Iran’s participation in the conference reflects several Iranian considerations. In the current context, Abdollahian’s visit to Jordan happened against the backrop of some key domestic and regional developments. Firstly, the new Iraqi government led by Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is likely to improve relations and be on better terms with Tehran than the previous government. Iranian officials were quick to praise the new government, and Tehran’s Ambassador to Baghdad Mohammad Kazem Ale-Sadegh was quick to meet Sudani and offer his country’s full support to his government. Given the new government’s pro-Iran orientation, Tehran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs is set to continue and Iraq’s landscape is likely to see a mushrooming of further Iranian proxies, hence meaning that the country will remain in a political and security flux for some time, and the previous government’s trajectory of independence and sovereignty will be completely halted. Secondly, Iran is keen on protecting its interests and upholding its influence in Iraq and for this end it realizes that it must engage diplomatically with all regional and international stakeholders. The recent conference gives Iran an avenue to reach out to all stakeholders. Iran has also in recent months signed several cooperation agreements with Iraq. However, trade relations between both countries have been negatively impacted by the impediments in payment mechanisms because of sanctions and the economic limitations faced by Baghdad. Despite this drop in trade, Iran remains Iraq’s main export partner and it intends to ensure its control of the Iraqi economy, especially as Baghdad is now expecting economic cooperation with a wide range of countries. Thirdly, Iran remains wary about the influence of Arab powers in Iraq and is keen on flexing its diplomatic weight at such conferences. The larger Iranian aim at the conference was to make sure that the outcomes were not harmful to its interests and influence in Iraq. It is important to note that Iran has often exploited Iraq’s dependency for the sake of its interests. For example, Iran has pressurized Baghdad on numerous occasions by threatening to cut energy supplies in times of crisis. Fourthly, the protests in Iran have put the Iranian government in the spotlight because of its oppressive and brutal responses. Iran’s cross-border attacks targeting Kurdish groups in northern Iraq have also been a source of concern for both regional and international powers. Abdollahian’s meetings on the sidelines of the conference reflected Tehran’s attempts to reach out to the West amid growing criticism of the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown on the protests and its cross-border attacks in northern Iraq.
Abdollahian’s promises and assurances at the conference are not consistent with Iran’s regional behavior and its meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs. Certainly, any genuine effort to support Iraq cannot be effective if Iran and its proxies continue to dictate the trajectory and orientations of the new Iraqi government and use Iraqi territories for their own ends.