Following the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States’ invasion of Iraq in March 2003 marked one of the opening salvos of what has so far turned out to be a conflict-ridden 21st century. Whereas the 1990-1991 Gulf War was heralded by then-President George H. W. Bush as the founding moment of a “New World Order,” as Washington successfully mobilized a vast United Nations-mandated coalition to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the second Gulf War epitomized the emerging instability in the international system caused by the excesses of America’s “unipolar moment,” the retreat of multilateralism, a Global South increasingly critical of Western-led initiatives, and the rise of non-state actors and terrorist networks.
Although the highly controversial and ill-fated 2003 U.S. invasion had the merit of ending Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, 20 years on, Iraq remains mired in a range of daunting challenges. Extreme weather and adverse climate events are the latest additions to a long list of seemingly intractable problems in the country's economic, demographic, security, governance, and political spheres. At the political level in particular, rifts within the Iraqi Shi’a camp are a testament to unrelenting polarization that may lead to violence.
Iraq’s internal cleavages have been predictably exploited by external actors. For years now, the Middle East has faced the double challenge of intensifying inter-state competition precisely at a time when state governance is fragile or contested. As a result, Iraq’s geopolitics has been largely defined by weakness, division, and foreign interference.
Against this backdrop, any discussion about Iraq’s future must be tempered by a heavy dose of realism: domestic instability will remain systemic, to a degree at least. Yet it is also important to acknowledge — and encourage — the still fragile but hopeful signs of de-confliction and de-escalation. These include the important efforts that a number of international actors as well as the government in Bagdad itself are making in the direction of turning Iraq from a battleground — literally and figuratively — into a platform for regional engagement.
Baghdad Conference multilateral format
Dynamics around the Bagdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, launched a couple of years ago, are among the most interesting ones. The format, which has seen high-level meetings in Iraq in 2021 and in Jordan in 2022, promises to mitigate instability by moving from zero-sum competition to a positive-sum game in which much-needed synergies are reaped by Iraq and its neighbors.
Much more than an international donor conference, the diplomatic gathering aims to foster stability through economic and environmental cooperation. It reflects the recalibration of U.S. power in the region and France’s aspiration to enhance its profile and influence in a post-American Middle East. French President Emmanuel Macron has played a key steering role from the early stages, mediating among different parties and leveraging the conference to broker or publicize a growing agenda of French-led initiatives in the region, including investment projects in Iraq’s infrastructure and energy sectors worth billions of dollars, in addition to humanitarian relief projects and support for Iraq’s strained health care system.
The Bagdad format is also unique in that it is open to Iran’s participation. While Tehran has for now showed only limited willingness to engage, using the gatherings to voice long-held grievances, Iranian and Sunni leaders have met on the margins, a possible sign of thawing tensions. As Iranian-Saudi relations evolve, direct contacts between Tehran and Riyadh could take place in the context of the conference.
In turn, some of Iraq’s Arab neighbors are becoming significantly invested in the diplomatic process, starting with Jordan and Egypt (the latter is set to host the conference this year). In addition to supporting the Bagdad Conference, they are taking tangible steps toward consolidating a tripartite alliance with Iraq as a way to overcome the legacy of complicated bilateral relations with their neighbor.
Among other projects, conference participants are undertaking initiatives to connect their power grids (though an oil-rich country, Iraq has been struggling with electricity needs), diversify the local economies (which in the case of Iraq remains heavily focused on the hydrocarbon sector), boost Iraq’s fossil fuel exports to its neighbors, while tackling together the growing challenges of a fast-changing climate, from water scarcity to soil degradation. In some ways reminiscent of the tripartite initiative that led to the establishment of the Arab Cooperation Council in 1989, the recent uptick in Egypt-Jordan-Iraq engagement is a welcome step toward stabilizing Iraq by leveraging regional cooperation. Like its 1989 equivalent, the focus is on the economy rather than on defense, although sensitive discussions are inevitably taking place in the security realm as well, starting with counter-terrorism cooperation.
As a matter of fact, what may end up weakening or even derailing this and other promising dynamics of dialogue around Iraq is precisely the weight that geopolitics still bears on what remain for now embryonic and very fragile cooperative structures. While Washington has praised the resumption of regional dialogue around Iraq, the Biden administration has by and large continued former President Donald Trump’s policy of rallying a Sunni front willing to work with Israel on Iran’s containment. Even as Iran’s influence on Iraq has somewhat decreased compared to years ago, the inclination may be to turn any available multilateral setting to directly or indirectly pressure Iran, with little regard for what Tehran’s retaliation could mean for Iraq’s only partially recovered stability.
For sure, Iran’s military cooperation with Russia in the war in Ukraine, and the ongoing repression of its citizens following the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, have further cemented the Islamic Republic’s reputation as a rogue state willing to foster instability in multiple regional theaters — and therefore an actor that needs to be contained. Even the otherwise cautious Macron has taken a firmer stance against Iran of late. Yet a policy of containment alone may not be enough. And bloc-building may turn out to be a not fully achievable goal as the recent China-brokered détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia shows.
The EU’s potential role
In a regional context that will continue to be dominated by old and new antagonisms, with actors such as China increasingly tempted to step in where the West has failed, the U.S. and Europe will have to put as much effort into taming problematic regimes as on improving the prospects for the region as a whole. Such a dual-pronged approach is crucial to avoid the Middle East and North Africa sliding into further economic and social distress, which would in turn fuel even greater inter-state competition.
Europe may have an important role to play in supporting a new geopolitics for Iraq and for the region, aimed at bridge- rather than bloc-building. Already involved in the Bagdad Conference — the EU’s High Representative Joseph Borrell addressed the forum last December — the European Union could do more to embed Iraq in initiatives and networks that would more firmly anchor the country’s future to the Euro-Mediterranean space. Iraq’s participation in formats such as the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), for instance, should be given serious thought, even though membership would not be a game changer in the short term in light of the limited prerogatives the UfM has been endowed with.
Since its founding in 2008, the UfM has mainly been a forum for economic and social dialogue, and it has struggled to openly address any of the region’s underlying security issues. Nevertheless, Iraq’s association with the UfM (or even full membership given that non-Mediterranean European countries are already represented) could provide a low-key way to further bind Iraq to its regional neighbors (Egypt, Jordan, but also Turkey, Israel, and other MENA member countries such as Lebanon) while providing it with a stronger link to the EU.
The UfM’s engagement with Iraq could specifically tackle the environmental-energy-security nexus. It could broaden some of the initiatives currently explored by Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq in the fields of climate adaptation and energy diversification, offering additional European resources to those already mobilized with the help of France in the context of the Bagdad Conference. This could possibly lead to projects of regional scope around critical issues such as water management, which will be a litmus test for MENA’s ability to either come together or further fall apart.
This and other proposals, for instance to further multilateralize regional investment and enrich the EU Strategy for Iraq with a stronger regional economic development component, should animate the discussion around Iraq’s future in the coming months.
A time to reflect and an opportunity to act
As the anniversary of the 2003 U.S. military operation approaches, and with events in Ukraine providing a daily reminder of the horrors associated with military conflict, any contribution to replacing a geopolitics of confrontation with one of engagement should be welcome. Despite its recent tumultuous history — or perhaps precisely because of it — Iraq should be front and center as part of a new positive regional agenda. With the right vision and sufficient political will, the EU, together with the U.S. and relevant MENA partners, can be a lead promoter of this new approach.
Domènec Ruiz Devesa is a Spanish member of the European Parliament and a Vice Chairman of the EP delegation on relations with Iraq. Emiliano Alessandri is a non-resident scholar with MEI and an expert on Euro-Mediterranean relations with a focus on North Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly their own.
Photo by Royal Hashemite Court/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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