Complex Dynamics of Iran’s Regional Relations: Riyadh, Cairo, Baghdad

Observers from across the political spectrum have seemingly reached a consensus that despite a détente with Riyadh, the Arab world’s dominant power, Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and most other regional countries remain tense and ineffective. Furthermore, Iran’s relationship with Iraq, which should theoretically benefit from several factors conducive to positive engagement, is notably fragile. This instability has been exacerbated by the prolonged Gaza conflict and the actions of Iran-supported resistance forces.

The cancellation of the umrah pilgrimage for Iranians, despite Saudi officials’ insistence on non-political reasons, has sparked analysis of the post-détente strength of Tehran-Riyadh relations. Similarly, the Saudi Arabia Investment and Business Forum in Istanbul, which drew significant Saudi investment into Turkey, has raised questions about the true nature and various dimensions of the rejuvenated Tehran-Riyadh relationship. Reformist analysts, who have recently been advocating for a balanced and realistic foreign policy, conclude that despite the Ra’isi administration’s claims of increased alignment with Islamic nations and neighboring countries, political-economic cooperation has been limited. Even conservative outlets acknowledge that economic relations with Syria, despite Iran’s substantial investments during the conflict there, have yielded far less economic benefit for Iran compared to other countries like Turkey—hence, the calls for economic and cultural diplomacy with Damascus. In the case of Saudi Arabia, although the Hamas-Israel conflict initially seemed to bring Tehran and Riyadh closer together over the issue of civilian casualties in Gaza, the underlying rivalry and strategic disputes between the two nations persist. For example, there is a growing understanding that Riyadh and other Arab nations have not ceased their normalization efforts with Israel. Meanwhile, Riyadh, advocating for a two-state solution for Palestine, continues to deepen defense relations with Washington and expand its nuclear program amid persistent worries over the activity of resistance forces in the region.

While improvements in relations with Egypt have not materialized beyond media headlines, relations with Iraq have been particularly affected by the Gaza war. Iran’s missile attacks in Iraq, purportedly targeting Israeli spies, have cast a pall on Tehran-Baghdad relations. Although the Iranian secretary of the Supreme National Security Council visited Iraq to ease tensions and ensure the return of the Iraqi ambassador to Tehran, the Iraqi foreign minister’s demands for an apology and proof of Israeli espionage indicate that relations are not as cordial as Iran portrays. The Kurdistan region, in particular, poses a challenge for Iran due to its support for U.S. forces and a potential alliance with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Hardline observers have been particularly concerned about Ilham Alyev’s meeting with the president of the Kurdistan region at the Munich Security Conference, among other meetings with implications for Iran’s security.

Iran’s desire for the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the end of U.S. influence in Iraq faces the reality that Iraq, unlike the Islamic Republic, is not inherently anti-U.S. The government and broader Iraqi elites often align with Washington due to mutual interests and fears of repercussions. A conservative Iranian think tank emphasizes that the presence of U.S. troops is secured by numerous agreements, suggesting Tehran should not anticipate a short- or medium-term departure—highlighting the importance of vigilance against security threats, including economic challenges emanating from Iraq. The think tank further cautions that Iraq’s condemnations of U.S. strikes against resistance forces should not be interpreted as alignment with Iran’s stance. Instead, it advocates for a more realistic perspective on U.S.-Iraq relations and the status of resistance forces in Iraq. Conservative outlets also note the precarious position of Iran and resistance forces in Iraqi public opinion, which can be easily swayed by media narratives or protests, such as those in October 2019. In a recent interview where he characterized the state of relations with Iran as “still damaged,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein emphasized that the majority of the Iraqi populace is opposed to Iran’s activities in his country. He highlighted a significant shift in diplomatic approach, noting that unlike in the past, where such concerns were addressed privately between officials from both countries, Iraqi authorities are now bringing these issues into the open. “We require a different kind of relationship with Iran,” he said, underscoring the need for a respectful attitude towards Iraq.


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