Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Geopolitical Fight Club: Why Iraq Must Square off with Saudi Arabia

| Mar. 26, 2018

The defeat of ISIS has opened a new chapter for Iraq in the already dense and complicated geopolitical saga of the Middle East, providing an important opportunity to resolve sectarian tensions and rebuild Iraqi state and society once again. The abating of the extremist jihadi threat is a clear and momentous victory but also fraught with risks that could potentially lead to reversion of a bloody and protracted conflict. From the rapid reconquest of northern Iraq and strategic successes across the border in Syria, Shi’a armed groups directed and trained by the Iranians have proven to be effective boots on the ground in shaping the new geostrategic realities. These battles have pitted global Wahhabi jihadists against transnational Shi’a fighters in places like Syria and Iraq—representing the globalization of religious sectarianism in flashpoints across the Middle East.

These armed conflicts exacerbate challenges in a region already fraught with serious escalations of sectarian rhetoric and violence and highlight the importance of sectarian de-escalation in any fruitful move towards rebuilding Iraq as well and lowering regional tensions between Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. The role of Iraq’s revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is highly influential in Iraqi politics, will be crucial in this peace-building process. Nevertheless, there is only so much that can be done as a moderating force unless serious progress can be made both towards interfaith dialogue between Sunnis and Shi’as and conflict resolution between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the broader regional context.

Post–ISIS Iraq

Iraq is a key piece to the regional sectarianism puzzle. It was the 2003 American toppling of Saddam Hussein, which brought to power the Arab world’s only Shi’a-led government and upended the sectarian political geography in the Middle East. Regionally, it disrupted the balance of power as Iraqi Shi’as assumed governance in an Arab world dominated by Sunni elites. It also enabled Iran and Iraq to forge close ties, which strengthened the Axis of Resistance and Iran’s geopolitical sway. These developments play into many Saudi concerns and narratives of a powerful Iran and a rising “Shi’a crescent.”

Domestically, within Iraq, a decade of ineffective and corrupt state-building plagued by an anti-American insurgency, destructive Sunni-Shi’a tensions, and neglect towards Sunnis, lower-class Shi’a, and other marginal groups hallowed out the Iraqi state. The success of ISIS was in part enabled by a weak Iraqi state. The Iraqi army effectively melted away in the face of two thousand ISIS insurgents advancing on Mosul in 2014, and radicalization among Iraqi Sunnis created a degree of sympathy for the cause of ISIS initially.

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For Academic Citation: Mohseni, Payam and Seyed Ammar Nakhjavani.“Geopolitical Fight Club: Why Iraq Must Square off with Saudi Arabia.” The National Interest, March 26, 2018.