Al-Kadhimi’s Visit to Iran Seals His Role as the Middle East’s Middle Man

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP photo: Iranian presidency

When Iraq’s prime minister last met Ebrahim Raisi in February, the cleric was the head of Iran’s judiciary and didn’t know whether he would be approved to run in June’s election. Now, Raisi is the president of Iran and it is Mustafa Al-Kadhimi whose political future is uncertain. The visit on September 12 by Al-Kadhimi was the first by a foreign leader since Raisi was sworn in last month. But the symbolism goes beyond that. Iraq’s prime minister has spent the past few months burnishing his credentials as the man everyone can call. By speaking to Raisi first, he has sealed his reputation as the Middle East’s middle man. If Iran’s new president wants to talk to the Arabs, he has to call Al-Kadhimi first.

The prime minister’s visit to Iran was a follow up to what increasingly looks like a foreign-policy coup for Al-Kadhimi in what could be his final weeks in office, an international conference he convened in Baghdad at the end of August. The Baghdad summit managed to bring together Middle East leaders whose relationships range from the frosty to the furious.

The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran were there. Al-Kadhimi arranged the highest-profile meeting between the UAE and Qatar since ties were broken four years ago, when Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid met Sheikh Tamim. Tamim also sat down with Egypt’s president for their first meeting in years.

Reports also suggested Iran’s foreign ministers may have met foreign ministers from the Gulf, although not from Saudi Arabia. That’s a lot of bridges built in one weekend.

But Al-Kadhimi’s determination for better ties everywhere is not limited to diplomacy. He signed a deal with Lebanon to barter oil in exchange for goods and services. And he appears to have given the go-ahead for Turkish forces to carry out anti-PKK attacks on Iraqi soil, a significant concession to make for warmer ties. (Relations between the two are only still warming: the Turkish president declined to attend the summit.)

All of which means Al-Kadhimi can boast reasonable relations with all the most powerful countries in the region, crossing the multiple dividing lines of the Middle East.

Yet this juggling act comes with its own challenges, not the least of which is Al-Kadhimi’s own political future.

Certainly, many in the region will welcome this new constructive role for Iraq, after years when Saddam Hussein went out of his way to antagonize neighbors and throw Iraq’s considerable weight around, and two decades of post-invasion practical implosion.

But Iraq is hardly internally stable, and Iranian influence still stretches across the country.

Not for nothing did Al-Kadhimi ask the new Iranian president to rein in Shia militias inside Iraq ahead of next month’s election. Iraq’s prime minister can’t even exert control over his own territory, as the – still unclaimed – drone attack on Erbil airport earlier this month demonstrates. Nor is Al-Kadhmi’s position secure. A mere independent MP who doesn’t have a party of his own, his future after the election on October 10 is unknown.

And that’s where this role as middle man to the Arabs looks fragile.

The Middle East – and its many, shifting alliances – doesn’t stand still. It is profoundly risky to seek to be merely the mediator in a region with such vital global interests. (Jordan, which historically has attempted this role and found itself sidelined under the Trump administration, provides a warning.)

Two examples, in merely days surrounding Al-Kadhimi’s Baghdad summit, illustrate the point. The first was Saudi Arabia signing a military cooperation agreement with Russia, a surprising step given how close the kingdom is to the United States. The other, in the days after the summit, was a phone call between Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, breaking years of frosty relations. Two significant shifts in a matter of days, both by countries bordering Iraq, neither of which involved Iraq.

For a pivotal country like Iraq, surrounded by six countries, being a mediator isn’t sufficient; leaders also need the ability to actively influence policy beyond their borders. Otherwise the country is reduced to merely conveying messages – a step up, certainly, from being the chessboard on which others have fought their battles, which Iraq has been for many years, but not a sustainable status for a country of Iraq’s potential.

Being the Middle East’s middle man only works if Iraq’s prime minister can offer stability at home, a political future and a real say in the running of the region. Otherwise, his country’s status will be defined by the goodwill and political whims of others – who will find it only too convenient to sideline the messenger when necessary.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.