Winds of change

In recent months, newcomers entering Baghdad via the international airport and those who wander around the international zone and its five-star hotels could not fail to notice the ongoing activity of restoration and modernization. The project is supervised by a high-level committee, chaired by Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshyar Zebari, that is tasked with preparing to host the Arab Summit in Baghdad next month.

More than $450 million have been allocated for these preparations. Tight security measures are also planned. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and several other top officials have pronounced Iraq ready to host the summit. Although the meeting is projected to have a full and diverse agenda, Iraqi interest is in the event itself, which is expected to mark a new phase in Iraq-Arab relations. Its success will send a loud message that Iraq has crossed the river and is on the way to regaining its status as a stable and prosperous state that plays a key role in the region.

Iraq’s relations with the countries of the region have gone through several phases since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Contrary to Iraq’s other neighbors, Iran welcomed the formation of the new, friendly, Shiite-dominated government in Iraq post-2003. Economic relations improved quickly, with Iran second only to Turkey as regional exporter to Iraq. At the same time, Iran assisted anti-American militant groups in Iraq, thus contributing to undermining the country’s security situation. Completion of the withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011 (as established by the 2008 security agreement between the United States and Iraq) is anticipated to further improve Iraq-Iran relations, particularly with regard to the already diminishing Iranian support for militant groups. Iraq’s assurances that it will not permit an attack to be launched from its territory against Iran and will not tolerate the existence in Iraq of the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq terrorist organization have further eased Iranian concerns. Both governments have expressed their willingness to cooperate and use diplomatic means to resolve issues such as the 1975 agreement, water disputes, oil fields on the borders, and Iranian claims for compensation for the 1980-88 war.

Turkey has in recent years overcome its concerns about the status of the Kurdistan region within Iraq. Security arrangements between Iraq and Turkey concerning the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) have reassured Ankara. Economic relations with Turkey have developed significantly since 2003; Ankara’s annual exports and projects in Iraq are at $10 billion and rising. Iraq exports daily around half a million barrels of oil–produced at the Kirkuk oil fields in the north–through Turkey, and plans are afoot to construct additional export pipelines for Iraqi gas and oil via Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey’s water policies have significantly reduced the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates into Iraq–a challenge to bilateral relations that may become exacerbated in the coming years.

At the top of Iraq’s foreign relations priority list is Kuwait. A condition for Iraq to be removed from UN chapter seven status (hence to fully restore its sovereignty) is resolution of its disputes with Kuwait: war compensation, recognition of borders, and the fate of Kuwaitis missing since the 1990 Iraqi invasion. A recent exchange of visits by leaders of the two countries indicates the willingness of their governments to move forward despite the difficult political situation in both countries.

While there are huge opportunities for expanded economic relations between Iraq and most other Arab countries, political relations do present a challenge. They were bad during the Saddam era and did not improve after his fall. But as the security situation began to improve after 2008, Iraq-Arab relations also slowly progressed. The Arabs seemingly recognized that the new political system in Iraq had survived, and concluded that it is better to engage positively rather than remain passive or respond aggressively. During the 2010 Iraqi national elections and the ensuing coalition negotiations, Arab countries engaged actively to influence the results and counter Iranian influence. Early this year, several Arab leaders including Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, the Egyptian foreign minister and the Kuwaiti prime minister visited Baghdad to discuss issues of mutual interest and ongoing preparations for the upcoming summit.

While Iraqis look toward improving relations with the countries across their borders, they are also watching the political tsunami that is overwhelming ruling regimes in the Middle East. Will these changes speed up or slow down the process of Iraqi regional integration? What will be the impact on Iraq itself? Answering these questions may be difficult in these turbulent times, but the winds of change bring hope.