The Saudi-Iran-Iraq Triangle: Sectarianism and the Struggle for Regional Influence

The reestablishment of Iraqi-Saudi diplomatic ties has provided Baghdad with new economic opportunities while allowing Riyadh to undermine Iran’s influence in the region.
Barham Salih - Iraqi President

Relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia have not always been transparent or convivial. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia distanced itself diplomatically from Iraq. The invasion under Saddam Hussein led to international sanctions on Iraq, which in turn led to a significant deterioration in the two countries’ relations. More than two decades later, Saudi leadership has sought to revive Iraqi-Saudi relations and encourage trade and investment between the two nations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh and signed 13 agreements on April 17, which included provisions to share security intelligence, boost bilateral trade, and advance political cooperation. Prior to Abdul-Mahdi’s visit, Saudi Arabia reopened a consulate in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in 2015 following a 25-year break. The opening was accompanied by the announcement of a $1 billion aid package for Iraq.

Riyadh claims its focus now is on the two nations’ “blood ties, history, and common destiny,” with the intention to present an alternative to the Iranian influence in Iraq. “We want to help Iraq be a strong country,” said Ibrahim al-Nahas, a member of the Saudi Shura Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, in an interview in early May. A Saudi rapprochement with Iraq “will decrease the influence of Iran inside Iraq” and the whole region, al-Nahas continued. 

A Saudi rapprochement with Iraq “will decrease the influence of Iran inside Iraq” and the whole region

A move towards a new religious authority 

Islam, the most practiced religion of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, is split into two main offshoots, Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam. The majority of Muslims in Iran adhere to the Shi’a doctrine, whereas most Muslims in Saudi Arabia follow Wahabbi Islam, a stricter interpretation of Sunni Islam that opposes Shi’a teachings. During the 1979 Qatif Uprising in Saudi Arabia, demonstrations inspired by Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution led to sectarian violence between the Shi’a minority and Sunni majority. Saudi Arabia has since perceived its Shi’a population as sympathetic towards Iran. Shi’a-Sunni tensions in the region spiked once more after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

By consolidating ties with Iraq, the Saudi leaders have supposedly indicated that their problem is not with Shiism, but rather with Iran, which the kingdom believes has long been meddling in Arab affairs.

Saudi Arabia has arguably softened its position on Shi’a Islam as a means of reaching out to Iraq, which has the highest Shi’a Muslim population of any Arab state. By consolidating ties with Iraq, the Saudi leaders have supposedly indicated that their problem is not with Shiism, but rather with Iran, which the kingdom believes has long been meddling in Arab affairs.

The new attitude towards Shi’a Muslims began in earnest in 2017, when influential Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters make up the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament, visited Jeddah. The visit was viewed as a sign of cooperation by Iraq’s Shi’a population and played a role in improving diplomatic relations between the two countries. 

Riyadh also plans to open a consulate in the Iraqi city of Najaf, a holy city and spiritual center for Shiite Islam about 100 miles south of Baghdad. This move could potentially direct Saudi’s Shiite population to view Najaf as a cradle of religious authority, as opposed to the Shi’a clerics of Iran. The Saudi government-backed clerics known for dismissing Shiites as heretics have either fallen silent or publicly renounced their former positions upon hearing the announcement. This developing harmonization is significant for the Middle East North Africa region, as sectarian violence has been escalating in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameini (right)

The kingdom has attempted to gain Iraq’s support by overlooking sectarian divisions and appealing to a shared Arab identity, although Iraq still favors a more balanced relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  

Curbing Iran’s Influence in the Region

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s popularity in Iraq increased steadily in the decade that followed thanks to its extensive political and economic influence in the country. It used a multifaceted strategy which played on sectarian tensions in the region. While Al Qaeda attacked the Shi’a population, who make up the majority of Iraq’s Muslims, Iran supported the Shi’a affiliated armed groups, positioning itself as the protector of Shi’a interests. 

This allowed Tehran to push its allies and proxies into participating in local elections to gain control over state institutions. These gains were consolidated after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Iran’s political influence grew further when the Fatah Alliance (whose main component is the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces) secured the second-highest number of seats on the Iraqi Council of Representatives in 2018. Finally, Iranian militias played a significant role in pushing ISIS out of the region.

Because of their economic dependency on Iran, Iraq’s leaders are keen on maintaining close ties with their Iranian neighbor.

Because of their economic dependency on Iran, Iraq’s leaders are keen on maintaining close ties with their Iranian neighbor. During Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s three-day state visit to Baghdad in March, the two nations signed trade and transportation agreements that are expected to boost bilateral trade from $12 billion to $20 billion within the next two years. Expressing his hopes to realize these plans within a few years, Rouhani stated during his visit, “Being in Iraq feels like being in our own country. It’s not a link that can be weakened, and we are always keen to make it stronger.” Washington attributed the trade agreement as an undermining of Iraqi sovereignty, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accusing Iran of turning Iraq into a “vassal state.” 

Iraq relies heavily on energy imports from Iran and plans to continue to purchase energy from Tehran, even though the expiration of Washington’s waiver does not permit Baghdad to deal with Iran on energy purchases. The U.S. reimposed sanctions in November on exports of Iranian oil after President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. The waiver granted Iraq a six month window to continue importing crude in reduced quantities without incurring sanctions.

Saudi Arabia has been looking for a way to diversify the energy trade in Iraq away from Iran, so U.S. sanctions have provided the right opportunity to do so.

Saudi Arabia has been looking for a way to diversify the energy trade in Iraq away from Iran, so U.S. sanctions have provided the right opportunity to do so. Iraq is determined to restore its war-ravaged economy to its former glory and become the third-largest producer of crude oil by 2030. Iraq, on the other hand, represents an untapped market for Saudi investment. Consequently, the kingdom has offered to sell electricity to Baghdad at a fraction of Iranian prices. This is significant for Iraq as Iran had cut off electric power to Iraq in 2018 because of its failure to repay the $2 billion it owed for energy imports. Saudi Arabia can act as a counterweight in this scenario, enabling Iraq to be less reliant on Tehran for energy imports while avoiding friction with the U.S.

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s visit to the kingdom and Saudi’s pledged investments in Iraq have improved the two nations’ relationship. Although tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely to continue, Iraq’s balancing act appears to be its best option for the moment, while perhaps laying the groundwork for the new Iraq to become a regional mediator in the future.