Baghdad hosted a Conference for Cooperation and Partnership on 28 August, a first of its kind to bring together various Arab countries with Iran, Turkey and France. The purpose was to reduce regional tensions in order to tackle, in a collective manner if possible, the security and political challenges in the region.
The Arab countries at the conference were Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The Iraqi initiative to convene this unprecedented gathering stems from the fact that the present Iraqi government wants to play a growing role in Arab and regional politics and draw on Arab backing to deal with pro-Iranian proxies within Iraq. There has recently been a tug of war between the Iraqi government and some pro-Iranian militias in the country, and Iran has turned Iraq into a battleground to confront US forces through such proxies.
The sheer fact that the conference took place testifies to two facts. The first concerns Iraq and the interests of the Arab countries in the Middle East and the Gulf to engage Iraq and wean it away from Iran. The second relates to the will on the part of all the regional powers that the time has come to find political solutions to old and persistent problems, including the war in Yemen, the situation in Lebanon and the need to make sure that the Islamic State (IS) group does not rebuild itself in Iraq and Syria.
Syria was conspicuous by its absence from the conference. The reason given by the Iraqi foreign minister was the fact that Syrian participation was “problematic” – in other words that some countries present around the table would object to its participation. However, to discuss security, stability and economic prosperity in the region without the presence of Syria casts doubt on the whole exercise in the medium and longer term. Syria should not be synonymous with the present government in Damascus.
No one should expect the political differences between countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to be solved overnight, even though the two have recently been engaged in secret talks in an attempt to work out their differences. The two regional powers have realised that the present course has led nowhere. They have been waging a proxy war in Yemen since March 2015, and neither has been able to achieve a final victory. Diplomacy is the only alternative that can lead to peace.
On the other hand, the chances of success in forging partnerships across the region depend to a certain extent on the outcome of the negotiations regarding the return of the United States to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and of Iran recommitting itself to honouring the limits that this agreement put on its level of uranium enrichment and on its number of centrifuges. Of course, as long as there is speculation that the breakout time for Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb is narrowing – the Israeli side of the story – it will be difficult to expect a thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations. The Saudis have let it be known that if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, Riyadh will also not hesitate to acquire one.
The same thing applies to the political deadlock in Lebanon. The confrontation between the two Gulf powers has spilled over into Lebanon, with each supporting opposing Lebanese factions. A year after the Beirut port explosions, the Lebanese political class is still incapable of forming a government of technocrats, as demanded by the international community, to steer the country on the road of broad political and economic reforms.
The clear winner at the Baghdad Conference was undoubtedly the Iraqi government, which has been trying for the past year to become a regional player once more and one capable of taking the initiative and broadening its role as a bridge among competing powers. However, even if diplomatically speaking the conference was a success, there is still a long way to go before it is possible to determine the true weight of Iraq in a region beset by serious security challenges.
The presence of French President Emmanuel Macron at the conference gave it international and European dimensions. No one can solve all the political problems in the region without direct international participation in the search for solutions. The last ten years have witnessed unprecedented foreign intervention in regional politics, and France could help when the time comes in leading the region towards reestablishing security and stability by ensuring constructive cooperation between regional powers and the West, including the United States.
Egypt has a great stake in stabilising the region, and the participation of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in the Baghdad Conference speaks of the great interest that Egypt has in supporting Iraq in its efforts to master its own destiny and strengthen its capacities to defeat IS and contain the pro-Iranian militias. The repercussions of the upheavals in the Levant over the past 15 years, whether in Iraq, Syria or Yemen, have challenged the national security interests of Egypt. If Egypt has succeeded over the past eight years in meeting some of those challenges, its fight against terrorism is still a work in progress, directly related to the present situation in Iraq and Syria.
The International Coalition to defeat IS has not yet finished its mission, and in his remarks at the conference Al-Sisi underlined the importance of supporting Iraq in the areas of fighting terrorism, economic reform and reconstruction and the holding of parliamentary elections on schedule. He made it clear that Cairo would support the Iraqi government in its efforts to consolidate its power and credibility.
The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership was a first step on the road towards broad and solid regional reconciliation. If the challenges are great, so was the political will manifested in Baghdad last Saturday to forge ahead with partnerships for security, stability and economic reconstruction across the region.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly