Baghdad Conference: Transient Move or a New Regional Framework?

EPC | 13 Sep 2021

On August 28, 2021, Baghdad hosted a Cooperation and Partnership Conference sponsored by Iraq and France in which Iraq’s neighboring countries, Egypt, the UAE, and Qatar, participated. This was the most significant regional relations event held in Iraq since the 2012 Arab Summit. It also demonstrated the regional and international role Baghdad seeks to play as part of the current Iraqi government’s approach led by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih. Iraq sees itself as a neutral and effective point of convergence in its divided regional periphery. The conference also raised questions about the future trajectory and whether it was a nucleus for a new regional framework reflecting the reality of the emerging regional power relations or a mere transient moment that political and security shifts in Iraq and the region would overcome.

Iraqi and French motivations

The idea of the Iraqi-French initiative took shape when Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was in office. Paris proposed to work with Baghdad to support its sovereignty and enhance its international status. The idea was discussed again during a meeting between French President Emanuel Macron and Barham Salih but took off when al-Kadhimi took office. Al-Kadhimi considers the initiative in line with his approach to pull Iraq out of regional axes and make it a point of convergence for regional countries.

In September 2020, during his visit to Baghdad, Macron raised the idea with Barham and al-Kadhimi. During al-Kadhimi’s visit to Paris in November 2020, the idea of a regional conference took shape, and it was agreed that Iraq would host it with French support. The French motivations behind supporting the initiative can be summarized as follows:

• Global Geopolitics: Paris realizes that it has lost much influence and has become a medium international power. Renewing France’s international role requires bold initiatives different from traditional ones, often focusing on the Atlantic and Francophone countries. Two factors encouraged Paris to look for a new approach:

The First factor is a young president who is not aligned with traditional right and left parties. He is dynamic, confident and seeks to play a more prominent international role.

Second, during the previous administration, the United States followed the policy of “America First.” This retreat also reflected an increasing American isolationist tendency and reduced Washington’s involvement in the Middle East. Instead, it focused on the conflict with China. Moreover, Russia’s return to the Middle East region through Syria motivated the French to try and look for a regional role to confront Moscow’s impact.

• Europe’s geopolitics: Following Brexit, France sees itself as the primary experienced and concerned European power in the Middle East. This encourages Paris to play a bigger role in regional hot spots. However, multiple European actors are involved in Libya, the US monopolizes the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Syria has turned into a Russian-Iranian-Turkish sphere of influence. Macron has also attempted to play a role in Lebanon. Hence, the Iraqi window of opportunity, which was wide open for international involvement under al-Kadhimi’s government, appears suitable for France’s entry in light of the economic opportunities it puts on the table. In addition, the growing French-Turkish dispute over influence in the Mediterranean and Paris and Ankara’s position on political Islam enhance France’s ambition to play a bigger regional role to contain Turkey’s influence. At the same time, Paris can also introduce itself as an international actor, not part of the traditional polarizations, building bridges with different parties.

• Economic motivations: Considering the challenging economic situation in France exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic, building a bigger influence in Iraq would lead to economic benefits for the French side. French companies face stiff competition from Chinese, American, and German firms. Therefore, Paris is counting on transforming political influence into an economic one. The approach is also evident in the ambitious projects TotalEnergies is trying to win, notably four strategic ones in the Iraqi oil and gas sector. The French company will start a Common Seawater Supply Project (CSSP) project, injecting seawater into southern oilfields to enhance crude oil recovery. The project, which will help Baghdad increase its oil production, was supposed to be carried out by the American ExxonMobil firm. However, talks between Baghdad and the American firm crumbled, attracting TotalEnergies despite doubts over its technological capabilities. On September 5, 2021, the Iraqi government announced an umbrella agreement worth US$ 27 billion with the French firm to recover gas across three oil fields in the country and use it to generate power, develop oil fields, and build a solar power plant. Moreover, Paris seeks to revive old projects in Iraq such as Baghdad metro and take part in viable projects if the strategy to turn Iraq into an essential land crossing between Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Gulf takes shape. Such a strategy requires infrastructure, railroads, roads, and new services.

Motivations of the Iraqi side, especially al-Kadhimi’s government, can be summarized as follows:

• Domestic political motivations: The Iraqi government has not made many key breakthroughs on internal political issues, especially controlling and dismantling militias, prosecuting those who killed the demonstrators, and political reforms. However, Baghdad has achieved significant success in managing foreign relations by gaining the support of the international and regional communities, opening toward Arab Gulf countries, and strengthening trilateral ties with Egypt and Jordan. It has also taken initiatives to resolve some regional issues. This was evident in al-Kadhimi’s mediation that facilitated secret talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Holding a successful conference with regional and international ramifications adds credence to al-Kadhimi, especially his endeavors to remain in office after the upcoming legislative elections.

• A new vision for foreign relations: As the head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service before becoming prime minister, al-Kadhimi, built a reputation as a regional mediator and as a person with wide regional and international ties who can solve crises. This made it easy for him to play a bigger regional and international role when he became prime minister, especially with the significant American and Western support and the unprecedented Gulf openness. Al-Kadhimi wanted to employ all this to formulate a new vision for Iraq’s geopolitical position and its regional and international ties. This vision does not settle for declaring neutrality toward existing axes but acts as a bridge between regional powers focusing on exploring opportunities for cooperation instead of conflict. Baghdad is qualified to play such a role due to its geographic location between Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and Iraq’s oil capabilities that make the country independent. While many have started considering Iraq as part of Iran’s sphere of influence, al-Kadhimi seeks to balance it not through an open confrontation with Tehran and its proxies but by attracting other interested parties. He intends to expand Baghdad’s maneuverability and convince the Iranians that the Iraqi government is moderate and friendly to serve their endeavors better as an acceptable part of the regional order.

The conference

There were apprehensions about the poor turnout at the conference as some of the invited countries did not have enough knowledge about its agenda and objectives. They had concerns about attending without being sure about other countries’ representation levels. The Iraqi government adopted extensive diplomacy to invite heads of state. The Iraqi foreign minister used shuttle diplomacy while al-Kadhimi made phone calls to several kings, presidents, and princes. They managed to secure the attendance of King Abdullah II of Jordan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and French President Emanuel Macron. UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, also attended the conference.

Iraq faced two primary challenges during the preparations. The first was related to Syria’s participation in the event. The French side had already voiced its opposition to participate in any summit attended by President Bashar Al Assad. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, too, had reservations in this regard. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi chose to send the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) commission head, Falih al-Fayyadh, to Damascus to clarify the situation. Fayyadh has been active for years as Iraq’s special envoy for Al Assad. The message was that Syria has not abandoned Damascus and wanted to ensure the success of the gathering. However, the second challenge related to the US’s regional role.

Since it was meant to be a regional conference with France as a neutral global power, and the declining US role in the region, inviting Washington was not an option, particularly considering its rising tension with Iran. Owing to the substantial US influence in Iraq, it was imperative to notify it about the event and receive Washington’s blessing. Both Iraqi and French sides played an active role in explaining the initiative and its objectives to the US administration. Consequently, the US took a supportive position for the summit reflected in a statement made by President Biden in which he commended the gathering as an initiative to pursue diplomacy and underscoring Iraq’s vital role as the sponsor of this move.

In terms of political approach, the various participants fall under the following categories:

• The zealous approach: Countries under this category, particularly France, Egypt, and Jordan, consider the support for Al-Kadhimi’s government and its continuity necessary. They also want Iraq to play a more significant regional role.

• The understanding approach: All Gulf countries that attended the conference mostly tend to support the al-Kadhimi government.

• The apprehensive approach: These include both Iran and Turkey. Although both countries welcomed the conference and voiced support for the Kadhimi government, Iran is fully aware that linking Iraq independently with other regional actors, with visions contradictory to Tehran and close to the US, would not serve its project of linking Iraq with the resistance axis. That was evident in Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian’s statement, in which he firmly rejected foreign interference and presence in the region, particularly the US. He politely denounced not inviting Syria to this event. Tehran believes that Iraq can play a role in the rapprochement and normalization of relations between Iran and Gulf states, a top priority for the new Raisi government. On the other hand, Turkey no longer feels comfortable with the French role in particular. In his statement, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, stressed the need for ending foreign interference in regional issues.

Overall, al-Kadhimi was the main beneficiary of the relative success of the summit as it consolidated his position abroad, the geopolitical vision, and his survival chances at the domestic front. Major historic meetings took place in Baghdad on the sidelines of this gathering. Qatar’s Emir Tamim met the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and the Ruler of Dubai. He also met the Iranian foreign minister. The conference offered a unique chance for representatives of the most influential regional countries (except Israel) to meet face-to-face in Baghdad.

However, the conference lacked a specific agenda as the primary goal for participants was to show support for Iraq. In other words, support for Iraq was the point that all participants agreed upon but had varying interpretations for such support and its means. While most representatives have recognized the importance of dialogue and peaceful solutions to regional issues, they have differed on focus areas and how to address them. The final declaration of the conference expressed this “bottom line” in terms of its support for Iraq and its valuable role in providing a common ground in the global and regional environment for enhancing political, economic, and security partnerships, adopting constructive dialogue, and consolidating understandings based on common interests. However, it did not define specific obligations about the most controversial issues, nor did it decide to institutionalize this summit.

There are two points of particular significance: First, the summit’s success lies in its convening, not in its concrete outcomes. Second, the post-summit path and its possible institutionalization will depend to a great extent on Iraq’s diplomatic efforts and its ability to maintain the momentum, convince other parties of the feasibility of this new framework, and expand its membership.

Post-summit expectations

Following the conference, we can expect two paths going forward:

First, this summit could provide a basis for a new regional institutionalized structure. Such an arrangement can include Iran, Turkey, and major Arab countries, providing a framework for solving key regional issues similar to other structures in East and Central Asia. This is a likely scenario, particularly in light of current regional developments. This will be particularly true if an agreement is reached between Iran and the US on returning to the 2015 nuclear deal. Such a scenario would also occur if the chances of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement increase and if the possibilities of military confrontation in the region diminish.

This framework can also serve as a platform to resolve other regional issues, including Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. It can also address security relations, confidence-building measures, economic cooperation, and climate change initiatives. This possibility depends on the progress in Vienna nuclear talks, their outcome, and the nature of the next Iraqi government. It will also depend on whether it will be a continuity of the current cabinet or be closer to Iran that lacks the neutral role that the al-Kadhimi government currently enjoys.

Second, the conference can only represent a casual event that was meant to show support for the al-Kadhimi government without proving its relevance as a new structure to organize regional relations. This scenario is possible if a pro-Iran government is established in Iraq, or nuclear talks fail in Vienna, and tensions rise once again in the region.

Conclusions

The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership represented a relative success for al-Kadhimi’s government that seeks to play a more effective regional role, bridge differences among competing regional actors, and establish common grounds for partnerships that can help establish a new regional structure. Iraq’s quest was helped by the acceptance al-Kadhimi enjoys at regional and international levels and his success in keeping his country away from regional axes. He also managed to sponsor secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Additionally, France adopted this initiative to play a bigger geopolitical role in the region, filling the void left by the US’s declining role in the region and seeking new economic opportunities.

The most significant outcome of the summit was perhaps the convening of the conference itself and the possibilities it created for dialogue between key regional actors. It reflected international support for al-Kadhimi and his political legitimacy. On the other hand, the shortcomings included the absence of presidents and top leaders of some influential countries, including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and the lack of a clear agenda with no agreement or the next step to take.

The possibility of turning the summit into a permanent institutional framework will depend on whether al-Kadhimi will stay in office after the next election and the nature of the new government. It will also depend on the trends in some major regional issues, particularly the Vienna nuclear negotiations and the regional policy to be adopted by Ibrahim Raisi’s government in Iran.

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