Iranian Foreign Minister delivering a speech in the Baghdad Conference. Source: www.irangov.ir
On August 28th, 2021, Iranian and Gulf Arab officials met in Baghdad in a regional summit that Iraq hoped would encourage its neighbors to talk to each other instead of settling scores on its territory. The meetings came months after Iran and Saudi Arabia resumed direct talks in Iraq which achieved no breakthrough, but helped deescalating tension in the Middle East.
France co-organized the meeting, which discussed a potentially devastating regional water crisis, the war in Yemen, and the severe economic and political situation in Lebanon that has brought the country to the point of collapse. Heads of state attending the conference included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and French President Emmanuel Macron, as co-host. Kuwait and the UAE sent their heads of government, and Turkey its foreign minister.
“Iraq, which for years has been a headline for war and conflicts, is hosting leaders and representatives of the region today to affirm their support for Iraqi sovereignty and prosperity,” said President Barham Salih.
Analysts said the meeting was a chance for Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to showcase his recent efforts to portray Iraq as a neutral mediator in the region’s crises and re-engage with the world after decades of conflict. “This summit marks the return of Iraq as a pivotal player in the region,” said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari, who heads the Iraqi Political Thinking Center in Baghdad. “Having rival parties be seated at the same table is a significant step in that direction.”
Khattar Abou Diab, political science teacher at the University of Paris, told VOA that this was something of a symbolic summit, but represented a step toward less conflict and more dialogue in a region that already is overly and conflictual. He argued that the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan had left regional players tired and nervous, and that after the US has stopped playing empire, many of the players are seeking a truce.
Paul Sullivan, a Washington-based Middle East analyst, told VOA he didn’t “expect much to come out of this meeting [in Baghdad].” He said he thought that “human development and human security need lots of work and lots of cooperation,” despite what he called the “stark differences of views among the countries” at the summit.
Competition for influence in the Middle East between Iran on one side and the US, Israel and Gulf Arab states on the other has made Iraq the scene of attacks against US forces and assassinations of Iranian and Iraqi paramilitary leaders. Moreover, the strained relationships within the region also led to disruptions to global oil supplies with attacks on Saudi Arabian oil installations, blamed on but denied by Tehran.
In this context, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met his counterparts from Kuwait and the UAE on Saturday, as said by officials from the two Gulf Arab states. There was no indication of any direct meetings between Iran and Saudi Arabia, states having sent their foreign ministers to attend the conference, but Iraq said talks between the two countries, which began in April, were continuing. Baghdad organizers declared no diplomatic breakthrough was expected, but rather “just by sitting at the same table for discussions” was already an achievement for the two states.
An Iraqi government official had told The Associated Press he anticipated Saudi and Iranian officials would hold talks on the sidelines of Saturday’s meetings. He said the aim was to create a political atmosphere for resolving outstanding problems.
Iranian officials have said they are focused more on the outcome of talks in Vienna with Western powers over Iran’s nuclear programme and international sanctions. “The meeting in Iraq … is only focused on Iraq and how the regional countries can cooperate to help Iraq,” an Iranian official told Reuters ahead of the Baghdad summit.
On August 30th, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, declared that “we welcome any meeting with the countries of the region and we are interested in it, but the fact that foreigners want to play a role in the region is not in our interest and in the interest of the countries in the region”. Emphasizing Iran’s continued support for Iraq, he said “We do not consider the presence of foreigners and occupiers in the region useful.”
Elsewhere in his remarks, the Iranian Foreign Minister pointed to the latest developments in Afghanistan, saying, “we support a government in Afghanistan that respects the will of the people of the country in determining their own destiny, and it is important that the inclusive government, with the participation of all Afghan ethnic groups, takes a unique political solution to Afghanistan’s problems”, also stressing that “we support a secure and stable Afghanistan and, of course, an Afghanistan whose people have a say in their destiny”.