Recent media reports suggesting that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman plan to pay a historic visit to Iraq has alarmed Iran and its Iraqi allies. Baghdad and Riyadh have not confirmed the reports, but Iranian-backed politicians and militia commanders in Iraq have launched a campaign against the Crown Prince’s potential visit, rejecting latest steps by the Baghdad government to improve ties with Riyadh and questioning the timing of bin Salman’s trip ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections. While Tehran and its allies are worried that warming relations between Baghdad and Riyadh would undermine their influence and interests in Iraq and the broader region, many prominent Iraqi Shiite leaders believe closer ties with Riyadh would significantly benefit sectarian harmony, political stability and economic recovery in the war-ravaged country.  

Anti-Saudi campaign 

As soon media outlets reported that bin Salman would travel to Baghdad and the holy Shiite city of Najaf, Iran’s allies in Iraq declared that they would not welcome the Saudi Crown Prince’s visit, accusing Saudi Arabia of promoting instability in Iraq. The al-Sadiqoun bloc, the political wing of Iranian-sponsored Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia group in the Iraqi parliament, said his group opposed bin Salman’s visit to Iraq and criticized Iraqi Shiite leaders who had recently visited the Kingdom to improve bilateral relations between the two Arab countries. Separately, the State of Law Coalition led by Nour al-Maliki, who is close to Iran and has been accused of marginalizing Iraqi Sunnis during his term in office, cautioned Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi against forging close relations with Saudi Arabia. In Najaf, some Shiites also carried anti-Saudi banners in public places.

Reactions in Iranian media

Likewise, Iranian outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) expressed the worry that bin Salman’s visit may be an effort to counter Iranian influence and shape the Iraqi parliamentary elections slated for May 12. “Bin Salman is trying to organize Iraqi political forces who are allied with Riyadh and the recent reports about the opening of Saudi consulates in Iraq indicate that Al Saud have plans for Iraq’s political future,” IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency wrote this week. “Is the aim of this trip to strengthen ties with Iraq, or distance it [Iraq] from Iran?” asked another article in Tasnim, entitled, “What’s bin Salman seeking in Iraq?”

Tehran’s worries

What particularly worries Tehran is the fact that senior Iraqi Shiite clerics and politicians have lately welcomed closer ties with Riyadh.

Last year, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Riyadh twice. And earlier this month, Abadi hailed improving relations between the two countries and emphasized that Baghdad is keen to further strengthen its relations with Riyadh in all fields, particularly in trade and commerce. Baghdad hopes that Saudi Arabia will play a significant role in Iraq’s reconstruction process.

Similarly, Saudi Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih made a high-profile visit to Iraq in October and called for closer economic cooperation between the two countries. As state-to-state relations are warming up, Saudi companies have lately shown interest in investing in Iraq as well. Last year, Saudi Arabia resumed its flights to Iraq after 27 years.

Some Iraqi outlets have claimed that bin Salman might open Saudi Arabia’s consulates in Basra and Najaf during his trip. Iranian outlets have repeatedly expressed concern about Saudi Arabia’s expanding diplomatic presence in Iraq.

From Tehran’s view, Riyadh’s diplomatic offensive in Iraq is aimed at countering the influence of Iran and its allies. Tehran also believes that these efforts by Riyadh are made in a close coordination with Washington as part of a broader strategy to push back against Iran’s regional role.

Prominent Iraqi cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July raised a great deal of concern in Tehran. After Sadr’s visit, Iranian outlets cautioned that the Saudi government was attempting to court Iraqi Shiites to influence Iraqi politics and counter Iranian interests.

Iraqi Sunni leaders also see the latest thaw in Baghdad-Riyadh ties as an encouraging sign. Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni lawmaker and former defense minister, said bin Salman’s visit would be “a historic trip to herald a new phase of peace and coexistence among Muslims in the region, away from rivalry and sectarian conflicts.”