Tillerson Urges Cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia
On October 23rd, as part of a series of visits to the Middle East, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Iraq. The purpose of the visit was to promote regional stability and to pursue the United States’s interests as the Iraqi government works to rebuild following terrorist-caused destruction.
One of Tillerson’s main goals in his visit to Iraq and Saudi Arabia a day earlier was to convince the two governments to work together against Iran. Efforts by the United States to promote cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iraq are reflected in Tillerson’s participation in the inaugural meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee on October 22. Tillerson spoke highly of the countries’ relationship, praising the “recent opening of the Arar border crossing in August and the resumption of flights between Riyadh and Baghdad last week.”
The United States sees Iran’s growing power in the region as a threat, and has been urging Iranian-backed militias to leave Iraq as the Islamic State has nearly been driven out. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia have been urging countries not to do business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the U.S. has accused of causing instability in the region and committing human rights abuses.
However, hours before Tillerson’s arrival in Iraq, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, questioned Tillerson’s call for Iranian forces to leave Iraq. Abadi said that members of the militias are Iraqis who “have sacrificed greatly to defend their country. No side has the right to intervene in Iraq’s affairs or decide what Iraqis should do.” Abadi’s statement indicates that Iraq will not be easily convinced to abandon their relations with Iran and form an alliance with Saudi Arabia.
The idea of an alliance between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is not new, and has not been successful in the past. Iraq has long had a strong relationship with Iran. Most recently, Iran intervened when the Kurds voted for independence from the rest of Iraq. However, H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, has warned that Iran pits “communities against each other [using] tribal and ethnic and sectarian conflicts to gain influence...and then they use that invitation to come in and to help to advance their agenda,” which conveys why the Trump administration feels a great urgency to break the alliance between Iran and Iraq.
Iraqi leaders seem off-put by remarks by members in the Trump administration. On Monday, Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for the popular mobilization forces, told the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad that he considered Mr. Tillerson’s comments an “unacceptable and false accusation.” Assadi further said that Tillerson’s remarks, with regard to the Iranian militias, show a “lack of experience.”
Cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia would promote regional stability in certain aspects, but it is also dangerous to completely isolate Iran. Although the United States and other non-Middle Eastern countries and actors may play a role in stabilizing the region, it’s also important for countries in the region to work together towards some level of peace. Currently, it seems unlikely that the United States will successfully be able to convince Iraq to move from working with Iran to working with Saudi Arabia, but Tillerson will likely continue to push for this goal, further alienating Iran in the process.