Will Iraq’s regional diplomatic initiatives challenge the Abraham Accords?

Published originally by the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft.

Reports from Iraq say that Baghdad is subtly expanding its diplomatic role from mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia to arranging Iranian dialogue with Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE as well. This regional diplomatic track has the potential to fill the Middle Eastern vacuum in inclusive regional diplomacy while reducing the scope for the Abraham Accords as a format for regional cooperation.

Filling the regional diplomacy vacuum

The Middle East lacks a single, institutionalized diplomatic platform for dialogue and collective action on regional issues. A region-wide consensus on any issue remains elusive. Even the recent tilt to dialogue by several rival pairs, from Turkey and the UAE to Iran and Saudi Arabia, covers bilateral issues and involves no regional or multilateral commitments by either state.

Baghdad’s Iranian-Arab diplomacy initiative redresses this gap in regional diplomacy by presenting Iraq itself as a venue for Iranian-Arab coexistence.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE both give major importance to their respective bilateral relations with Iraq while Egypt and Jordan have held trilateral meetings with Iraqi officials five times since 2019. A common feature of Arab engagement with Iraq is their focus on soft-power and economic exchange, which the Arab Center’s Zeidon Alkinani explains is due to their inability to match Iran’s military hard-power in Iraq and its ability to engineer Iraqi politics. 

Thus, Iraq is not really a front for heated rivalry between Iran and its Arab counterparts. Baghdad’s diplomacy takes advantage of this, showing Tehran and the Arab states that Iraq is comfortable with all their interests as opposed to being stuck in a tug of war between them.

Instead, Iraq is positioned as a credibly neutral actor that can be counted on to broker Middle Eastern dialogue whenever necessary, as opposed to a partisan player who will be compelled to eschew diplomacy and take sides whenever there is a spike in regional tensions. This makes Iraqi mediation a useful de-escalatory tool for most of the region, as either side of a particular rivalry can agree to mutually de-escalate under Baghdad’s mediation without losing face.

These strengths in Iraq’s Iranian-Arab diplomacy, coupled with the Iraqi strategic objectives it furthers, make it a major challenge to the Abraham Accords signed by Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco.

Iraq versus the Accords

Aside from incorporating more Israeli-Arab normalization deals, the Abraham Accords are intended to be a platform for creating an Israeli-Arab regional coalition. But they have so far failed to incorporate the regional diplomacy needed to sell this idea to Arab or Muslim states.

For example, Israeli-Moroccan normalization inflamed Morocco’s tensions with neighboring Algeria. The Accords were declared by Algiers as a major reason for its recent severance of bilateral relations with Rabat and have thus become a factor of conflict, not diplomacy, in the Arab Maghreb. Similarly, Bahrain’s joining the Accords soon after Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi’s inaugural August 2020 signing was overshadowed by the refusal of the bigger and more prominent Gulf state Saudi Arabia to join the Accords. Riyadh’s reason was simple: avoid exacerbating tensions with Tehran, who Tel Aviv seeks to build its coalition against.

In view of this, the Accords are likely to strike Arab countries less as a driver of contemporary Middle Eastern multilateralism and more as a risky arrangement built atop geopolitical minefields, such as the Iranian-Israeli conflict.

Contrastingly, Iraq has both earned most of the Arab world’s trust and already made notable progress in multilateral Middle Eastern diplomacy, giving Arab states a better option than the Accords in terms of raising their regional profiles or bringing their own issues to a multilateral setting.

In this context, Iraq launched the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership in August 2021. The conference was attended by essentially all the parties involved in Iraq’s Iranian-Arab diplomacy. It was also attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and tentatively endorsed by the United States as an Iraqi-led regional diplomacy platform. 

Compared to the geopolitical polarization associated with the Accords, Iraqi diplomacy hence looks much safer and more inclusive. Also, it does not rely on the US to deliver outcomes for its participants, unlike the Accords where it took Washington’s greenlight of Emirati F-35 fighter jet purchases and its recognition of Moroccan claims over the disputed Western Sahara to get the two Arab states to sign normalization pacts with Israel.

Co-founder of the Quincy Institute Trita Parsi highlighted this as a key advantage for Iraqi diplomacy over the Accords due to the US’ growing urge to disengage from the Middle East. Describing the Baghdad Conference and the Accords as two diverging regional diplomatic models, Parsi stated:

“Moreover, while the Accords were largely imposed upon the Middle East, with the United States bribing or pressuring states to come along, the impetus for the Iraqi diplomatic initiative came from within. Innovatively, for Middle Eastern standards, it seeks stability without requiring a taxing dependence on Washington’s political and military resources.”

Iraq’s position on Israel

Iraq never established bilateral relations with Israel and has historically seen it as an enemy. Israel’s support for secessionist elements in the Iraqi Kurdistan province underpins Baghdad’s view of Tel Aviv as a destabilizing influence for both Iraq and the region overall.

Iraq’s regional diplomatic strategy accounts for its desire to deter Israel. In parallel with expanding the scope of its diplomacy, Iraq has increased its crackdowns against internal actors with ties to Israel. In May 2022, Baghdad passed a law criminalizing relations with Israel in response to an event advocating Iraqi-Israeli relations that was held in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan a month before the Baghdad Conference. This, of course, parallels fact that Iraq will not partake in diplomacy involving Israel and Israeli-Arab normalization.

Iraq’s reservations about Israel will be taken more seriously as the former consolidates its centrality in the Middle East’s emerging diplomatic architecture. The consensus across the region on the need for sustained, multilateral diplomacy is greater now than it has ever been, and this gives states reason to acknowledge Iraq’s red-line on Israel to ensure that Baghdad remains willing as their go-to diplomatic broker.

Furthermore, the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan has turned into a flashpoint of Iranian-Israeli tensions gives Iraq an effective pretext to include opposition to Israel’s regional role into its diplomatic strategy. Indeed, Baghdad can stress Israel as an outside influence that is disturbing the relative calm in Iraq that both Tehran and the Arab states have been able to benefit from despite their many differences.

Whether Iraq raises its issues with Israel multilaterally or takes the matter up one-to-one with its regional peers, it will have a strong point from a regional stability and de-escalation angle.

High-stakes diplomacy

Whether or not Iraq’s Iranian-Arab diplomacy overtly challenges the Abraham Accords, it is poised to leave a strong and lasting impression on the emergent paradigm of multilateral diplomacy in the Middle East.  The Abraham Accords aim to do precisely this, but will face stiff challenges from the progress and stable foundations of Iraq’s diplomatic initiatives.

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