How Saudi Arabia pushed Iraq into Iran’s arms

Editor’s note: The United States has long struggled to separate Baghdad from Tehran, trying to orient Iraq more towards moderate states in the Arab world. Katherine Harvey, the author of “A self-fulfilling prophecy: the Saudi struggle for Iraqasserts that US efforts have failed in part because of Saudi Arabia’s counterproductive policies. Riyadh, she argues, has pushed back against Iraqi rapprochement efforts, bringing the country closer to Iran.

Daniel Byman


Nearly 20 years after the invasion of Iraq and more than 10 years after the initial US withdrawal, the standard narrative of the Iraq War is now well established. President George W. Bush ordered the invasion in hopes of finding weapons of mass destruction and establishing democracy in the Middle East. Sunni and Shia insurgencies immediately erupted, facilitated by Syria and Iran. Iraqi Shiites came to power and moved away from the Arab world towards Tehran. Nouri al-Maliki, considered a sectarian ally of Iran, became prime minister and cemented Iraq’s position in an Iranian regional axis. After the US withdrawal in 2011, Iraqi Sunnis rose up against Maliki, providing an opening for the Islamic State to eventually take control of a third of the country.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, barely features in most accounts of the Iraq war. The few commentators who mention it explain in passing that the late King Abdallah despised Maliki and therefore refused to get involved. The absence of a Saudi presence in Iraq – the Saudis only began to engage after Abdullah’s death in 2015 – contributed to the widespread perception that the Saudis had little influence and were not not really a factor in Iraq during those years.

But this version of events is, quite simply, wrong.

First, it is essential to point out that Maliki was not an Iranian loyalist. He was not a model of virtue – as prime minister he was authoritarian and often took very bigoted positions – but he was an Iraqi nationalist. The irony is that Zalmay Khalilzad, then U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, quietly backed Maliki’s first run for prime minister because, of the viable candidates, Khalilzad felt Maliki would be the most acceptable to the country’s Arab neighbors. ‘Iraq. Like most Shiite Islamists who took positions of power in post-2003 Iraq, Maliki had fought Saddam Hussein’s regime from inside Iran in the 1980s. But his time there l left embittered towards the Islamic Republic, which manipulated, repressed and even killed members of his Dawa party. Many Dawa members saw themselves as a group of Iraqi exiles, not an Iranian tool. At the end of that decade, Maliki left Iran for Syria, where he remained until the 2003 invasion. A Lebanese journalist who interacted with Maliki during those years reminded me how Maliki didn’t like Iran at that time.

As a condition of his support, Khalilzad made Maliki agree that as prime minister he would engage with the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Maliki visited the kingdom on his first trip abroad as prime minister in July 2006. But it seems likely that Maliki would have prioritized engagement with Saudi Arabia even if he hadn’t promised Khalilzad. As one US official who interacted with Maliki at the time explained to me, “Maliki was not pro-Iranian. He understood the need to balance Iran. And he understood that Saudi Arabia was the first address” to do so. Maliki himself told me that he chose Saudi Arabia for his first trip abroad because he believed the symbolism of an Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister visiting the center of the Sunni Arab world would help quell the rising tide of sectarianism in Iraq. Sami al-Askari, a confidant of Maliki, told me that Maliki chose to go to Saudi Arabia because he wanted to signal that Iraq was basically an Arab country.

On this trip, Maliki was warmly welcomed by Saudi leaders and met with King Abdullah, but afterwards Abdullah refused to meet him again. Abdullah called Maliki a liar who made promises to him which he did not keep and became convinced that he was an Iranian agent. All my sources told me that Abdullah believed Maliki had lied, but none of them – including Americans, Saudis and Iraqis who interacted with the Saudi king and his top advisers – could ever tell me what Abdullah believed Maliki had lied about. Abdullah’s claim was very vague and I never found any evidence to back it up. What I discovered was that many aggrieved Iraqis had access to Saudi leaders, and at least some of them appeared to have passed disinformation to the Saudis, alleging that Maliki was carrying out Iranian orders. Perhaps this misinformation was the source of Abdullah’s assertion.

The truth is, as a Saudi royal family insider told me, Abdullah “couldn’t understand” what was happening in Iraq those years. For decades, Saudi leaders have been convinced that Iran has expansionist designs in the Arab world and viewed Arab Shiite communities as potential pawns of Iran – a standard stereotype of Shiites among Sunnis. Given these beliefs, the Saudis concluded almost as soon as the Saddam Hussein regime fell that the United States had delivered Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. Abdallah was deeply upset by American efforts in Iraq – efforts that naturally brought the Shia majority to power – long before Maliki became prime minister. Maliki merely served as a convenient scapegoat for Abdullah’s anger.

These beliefs blinded Abdullah to the steps taken by Maliki in his first government to pursue an independent path from Iran. In 2008, Maliki undertook Operation Charge of the Knights, which targeted Iranian-backed proxies and won him major applause from Iraqi Sunnis and US officials. In 2009, he refused to join an Iranian-backed electoral coalition to form his own nationalist slate for the 2010 legislative elections. To clarify, Maliki was not anti-Iranian. Iran necessarily has significant influence in any Shia-ruled Iraq, and Maliki wanted a positive relationship with Tehran. In his first government, he never came out explicitly against Iran. But he was also prepared to resist Iranian pressure, as he had done before the 2010 elections, to ensure that his country did not become subservient to Tehran.

Meanwhile, from 2006 to early 2009, Maliki attempted to establish an opening to Saudi Arabia, but with less hope of success. While the Saudis have refused to engage, many of Iraq’s other Arab neighbors have begun to do so. In 2008, senior officials from Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Lebanon visited Baghdad. But with the Saudis so indifferent, there was only how far these other Arab states were willing to go. Nor could the United States change the Saudis’ calculation – the Bush and Obama administrations both tried, and failed, to push Abdullah to engage.

The problem was that Abdullah’s rejection of Maliki ended up producing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abdullah refused to engage with him or have anything to do with his government because he believed Maliki was an untrustworthy Iranian agent – but that’s Abdullah’s refusal to accept him. which eventually pushed Maliki towards Iran.

Many Iraqis have come to view Abdullah’s intense hostility to the new Iraqi order, symbolized by his rejection of Maliki, as a Saudi intent to reverse Shia ancestry. Iraqi Shiites, fearful of losing their newfound political power, began to feel deeply threatened by the Saudis. Saudi Arabia reportedly began funding Maliki’s political rivals as early as 2007. In particular, Abdullah backed Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former Baathist who had served as Prime Minister of Iraq in 2004 and 2005. For many Iraqi Shiites, Allawi represented a return to the old Iraq. order. Abdullah’s support for Allawi in the 2010 elections led Maliki, in a reversal of his earlier behavior, to seek Iran’s assistance following those elections to retain the prime ministership. The Syrian civil war then cemented the alliance between Maliki and Iran. Maliki was convinced that the Saudis were working to overthrow not only Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, but also his government in Baghdad. His government therefore facilitated Iranian aid to Assad because they believed that if Assad fell, they would be next.

Maliki’s concern seems to have been justified. Whatever the Saudis did in Iraq during those years, an insider in the Saudi royal family told me that “Abdullah was prepared to do whatever it took to get rid of Maliki.”

Middle Eastern commentators frequently point out that Iran sees itself as responsible for four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa. At least in the case of Baghdad, it was not clear that a Shiite-ruled Iraq would fall into Iran’s orbit. For years, Maliki tried to establish independence from Iran. He changed course not out of affinity with the Islamic Republic, but because of the deep alienation he felt towards Saudi Arabia.

This pattern repeated itself in Yemen and Lebanon. The war the Saudis unleashed against the Houthis in 2015 turned the group’s limited ties with Iran into a real alliance. Recent Saudi measures against Lebanon, such as the imposition of an export ban and the expulsion of its ambassador, do little to improve the ability of Lebanese political factions to stand up to Hezbollah, but aggravate the already considerable economic misery of the country. In all of these cases, Saudi Arabia’s approach has been doomed to failure. The Saudis pushed these countries back while the Iranians simultaneously pulled them in. The Saudis almost never pass up an opportunity to label the Iranians expansionists, but they themselves have been responsible for fueling much of Iran’s expansion. This has been their self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

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