Saudi, Iraqi leaders ‘draw closer’ after Sadr meeting
The motivation for Muqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia Muslim scholar, to meet the Saudi crown prince last month was an attempt to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq, seek a leadership role and tone down sectarianism between the two countries, analysts say.
Sadr, who is openly hostile to the United States, was hosted on July 30 by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The reason behind the gathering in Jeddah centred on a shared interest in countering Iranian influence in Iraq, Baghdad-based analyst Ahmed Younis said.
Saudi-Iran row: Iraq offers to mediate
“Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia is a bold shift of his policy to deliver a message to regional, influential Sunni states that not all Shia groups carry the label ‘Made in Iran’.”
For Sadr, who has a large following among the poor in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities, it was part of efforts to bolster his Arab and nationalist image ahead of elections where he faces Shia rivals close to Iran.
“This is both a tactical and strategic move by Sadr. He wants to play the Saudis off against the Iranians, shake down both sides for money and diplomatic cover,” said Ali Khedery, who was a special assistant to five US ambassadors in Iraq.
Ultimately, Sadr seeks a leadership role in Iraq that would allow him to shape events without becoming embroiled in daily administration, which could erode his popularity, diplomats and analysts say.
Days after the Jeddah meeting, Sadr met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who has also taken an assertive line against Iran, the dominant foreign power in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion ended Sunni minority rule.
Iran has since increased its regional influence, with its forces and allied fighters spearheading the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levane (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and holding sway in Baghdad.
For Saudi Arabia, less Iranian influence in Iraq would be a big win in a rivalry that underpins conflict across the Middle East.
“There are plans to secure peace and reject sectarianism in the region,” Sadr told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper last week, saying that it was “necessary to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold”.
When asked what Saudi Arabia hoped to achieve with Sadr’s recent visit to the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi official at the Saudi embassy in Washington said: “Saudi Arabia hopes to encourage Iraqis to work together to build a strong resilient and independent state. With that in mind, it will reach out to any party who could contribute to achieving that goal”.
A politician close to Sadr said the Jeddah meeting was aimed at building confidence and toning down sectarian rhetoric between the two countries.
The rapprochement is “a careful testing of the waters with the Abadi government and some of the Shia centres of influence like Sadr and the interior minister,” said Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation.
Another sign of rapprochement is an agreement to increase direct flights to a daily basis.
Iraqi Airways hopes to reopen offices in Saudi airports to help Iraqis travel to the kingdom, especially for pilgrimages, Iraq’s transport ministry said.
As OPEC producers, the two countries cooperated in November to support oil prices. Their energy ministers discussed bilateral cooperation and investment last week.
Iranian reaction to the meetings has however been minimal.
“Iraqi personalities and officials do not need our permission to travel outside of Iraq or to report to us,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said last week, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
The implication is that Iran would resume enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels.
Rouhani’s threat came a day after Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, passed a largely symbolic sanctions bill against the U.S. — and authorized a far more potent additional $US800 million for its expeditionary forces in the Middle East, the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Some of the money will go to Iran’s already sophisticated ballistic missile program.
The extra money for Iran’s Quds Force and its proxy allies in the wars in Syria and Yemen is a direct response to Saudi Arabia’s flexing of its regional muscles. There has been a notable increase in Riyadh’s assertion of its regional power and authority since May, when President Trump, on his first foreign tour, gave a speech clearly siding with Saudi Arabia and denigrating Iran.
“For decades,” Trump said, “Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.”
Saudi Arabia — whose foreign and military establishments appear to be in the hands of the young and excitable heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — has taken Trump’s speech as permission to pursue a power play against Iran. That goes well beyond pursuing an air war in neighbouring Yemen against Huthyi rebels backed by Iran, and supporting rebels fighting Iranian ally President Bashar Assad in Syria.
Immediately after Trump’s departure, Riyadh marshalled its allies in the Persian Gulf to isolate the Gulf state of Qatar, which Saudi Arabia accuses of funding terrorism and maintaining a treacherous relationship with Iran.
Gulf states Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are showing signs of nervousness that they too could be the targets of direct action by Riyadh if their loyalty comes under question.
At the same time, the Riyadh authorities are striking out against minority Shia Muslims in eastern Saudi Arabia. Iran is the heartland of the Shia faction of Islam, and Riyadh has long suspected Tehran of using the minority in Saudi Arabia to foment dissent.
This campaign has tipped Canada into the Middle East caldron. Photographs are circulating that appear to show Riyadh’s forces using Canadian-supplied General Dynamics light armoured vehicles (LAVs) and combat scout cars made by the Ontario company, Terradyne Armored Vehicles, against the Shia minority.
The evidence is bolstering political and public opposition in Canada to the pending $15 billion deal for London, Onatrio-based General Dynamics to sell its latest version of the LAV to Saudi Arabia.
So Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is investigating the latest claims against Riyadh. Government policy bans the export of arms to countries with a “persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens.”
Saudi Arabia’s atrocious civil rights record is such that Ottawa should not need physical evidence of Canadian combat vehicles being used to crush minorities in order to decide selling weapons to the Riyadh regime is not a good idea. But there are a lot of Canadian jobs on the line.
At the moment, however, Canada is playing a small role in the booming Middle East arms race springing from the Tehran-Riyadh contest for power. The latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show that all Middle eastern states, and Persian Gulf states in particular, have leapt up the rankings of arms buyers in the last year or so.
Tiny oil-and-gas-rich Qatar has tripled its weapons purchases since 2012 and is now the world’s third largest arms buyer.
Iran can now be expected to use Trump’s repeated claim that the 2015 JCPOA agreement limiting Tehran’s nuclear program is a “disaster” as justification for abandoning the deal. In this, Trump is ignoring the stated position of the other parties involved — Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and the United Nations — that Iran is holding to the deal.
While most international sanctions against Tehran are being lifted, Iran has not seen the expected economic benefits of complying with the program because the Trump regime continues to sanction both Iran and those that do business with the country.
Trump’s attitude has created a highly unusual unity in Iran between political hardliners and reformers on one hand, and the public on the other. That it was President Rouhani, widely seen as a reformer, who threatened on Tuesday to resume the nuclear program illustrates this effect.
There has always been a suspicion in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Co-operation Council allies — the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain — that Iran might renege on the JCPOA deal, which came into force in January last year. And even if Tehran stuck to the agreement, Riyadh fears Iran will build nuclear weapons after the deal runs its course in 10 to 15 years’ time.
This has added to the conviction among international observers that Saudi Arabia is seeking its own nuclear weapons capability.
It has long been rumoured that Pakistan has agreed to supply Riyadh with nuclear weapons in return for Saudi financing of Islamabad’s nuclear arms program in the 1990s. However, in a recent report the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security says it has uncovered evidence that Pakistan will not supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons.
Instead, Islamabad will assist in other ways, such as supplying equipment, materials and know-how for Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning “civilian” nuclear program. Saudi Arabia might also be allowed to work on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan, away from the watchful eyes of international inspectors.
Riyadh has announced it plans to build 16 nuclear reactors in the next few years. And Riyadh has a stock of ballistic missiles it bought from China a few years ago that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The world must hope that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the president’s point man on the Middle East, has pursued his self-education on the region beyond his recent conclusion that the problems there are “difficult.”
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