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Attendance in Baghdad Shows Iran's Commitment to Regional Diplomacy

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Mehran Haghirian

Bourse & Bazaar Foundation

August 31, 2021

The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, which took place on Saturday, was intended to boost Iraq’s regional profile, gather political and economic support for the country and, most importantly, provide a unique venue for diplomatic engagement between Iraq and its neighbours—Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt.

The decade since the Arab Spring has been marked by rising tensions in the Middle East. The Baghdad Conference offered a hopeful message that regional actors could move beyond tensions and violence. While it was the first time in recent years that officials from Iran and its Arab neighbours had met in such a multilateral format, the conference was not solely intended to foster reconciliation between Tehran and Arab capitals. Numerous intra-Arab conflicts had threatened regional security and the conference presented an opportunity to begin the mending of those fractured relations.

Such a gathering would have been impossible to imagine even just a few months ago. With the help and support of French president Emmanuel Macron, approval from the Biden administration, and the buy-in of all participating states, Iraq successfully managed to play the role of regional mediator.

Since beginning his term in May 2020, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has made it a priority to facilitate greater regional diplomacy. But the conditions were not right until Donald Trump’s departure from the White House, the end of the GCC rift following the Al Ula Summit, and the commencement of back-channel talks between Iranian security officials and both Saudi and Emirati counterparts. Moreover, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which underlined the interconnectedness of the region and the importance of coordinated economic and public health interventions, made Khadimi’s call for dialogue more convincing.

While the summit itself may have comprised more of symbolism than of substance, the mere presence of officials from the nine countries in the same venue and the numerous bilateral talks that took place on the sidelines provided a foundation for further regional diplomacy.

Last December, I suggested that 2021 could be the year that Iran and the GCC states enter into a robust dialogue. In recent years, Iranian leaders have increasingly focused on regional dialogue, reacting to an overall deterioration in regional security and the increased risk of escalation. In 2019, the Rouhani administration proposed the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE), a plan of action for regional diplomacy on issues including energy security, arms control, and nuclear non-proliferation. A summit was envisioned as one of the initial components of the plan.

The HOPE plan was not taken seriously by many Arab officials nor analytics, who remained sceptical that the plan put forward by the Rouhani administration had backing from the Iranian deep state, which had taken an interventionist line in the region in recent years. But today, the participation of the Raisi administration in the Baghdad Conference provides evidence that the importance of regional diplomacy is understood even among Iran’s so-called hardliners.

Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, made clear that regional diplomacy would be a cornerstone of the Raisi administration’s foreign policy. Of course, there are competing visions of what such diplomacy should entail. Amir-Abdollahian was unhappy about Syria’s exclusion from the Baghdad Conference, and it is precisely for that reason that his next trip after Baghdad was to Damascus. That the conference took place, however, should encourage Iranian leaders to put grudges aside. Extended hands will encourage Iran to unclench its fists.

Photo Credit: IRNA

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