By Katherine Harvey, Bruce Riedel

In April, the information that Iraq was mediating between longtime rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran captivated Center East watchers. Iraq’s new position as a Saudi-Iran middleman comes because the Saudis have taken concrete steps lately to construct a significant relationship with their northern neighbor, resembling reopening their border final November for the primary time since 1990. But whereas the brand new Saudi-Iraq relationship is certainly noteworthy, Iraq has concurrently been forging a regional partnership with two different Arab states: Egypt and Jordan. Certainly, Baghdad hosted a summit in late June attended by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and King Abdullah II of Jordan. It was the fourth time leaders of the three international locations have met collectively since March 2019, and the primary time on Iraqi soil. It was additionally the primary go to by an Egyptian president to Iraq in additional than 30 years.

At first look, a partnership grouping collectively Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan seems moderately unusual. One commentator, not with out cause, known as it an alliance composed of the “area’s odd fellows.” Nevertheless, Iraq has traditionally had necessary financial relationships with each Egypt and Jordan, and in reality the three international locations — together with North Yemen — got here collectively in a really short-lived partnership known as the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC) from 1989 to 1990. Immediately, like 30 years in the past, financial cooperation lies on the coronary heart of the trilateral relationship. However then and now it has additionally had strategic objectives. And in the long run, the brand new partnership probably heralds a much more bold mission to carry collectively not simply Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, however the international locations of the Levant extra broadly.

Again to the Future

Iraq’s shut financial ties to Egypt and Jordan date to the 1980s, in the course of the Iran-Iraq Warfare. Jordan grew to become Iraq’s financial lifeline at the moment, serving as a conduit for imports and oil exports by way of the port of Aqaba. Jordan additionally acquired most of its personal oil, extremely backed, from Iraq. King Hussein was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s closest ally on the time, visiting Baghdad typically in the course of the battle. Egypt, in the meantime, noticed greater than a million of its residents relocate to Iraq in the course of the 1980s to fill jobs made vacant by the mass conscription of Iraqi males into the armed forces — so many who Iraq constituted Egypt’s largest supply of remittances.

Quickly after the top of the battle, the three international locations, joined by North Yemen, fashioned the ACC. Every had a political motive to forge the pact. All wished allies to stability towards the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi-led alliance of the six Gulf monarchies created in the course of the battle. Saddam owed the Saudis billions of {dollars} in loans from the battle, whereas Amman and Sana’a had longstanding issues about Saudi expansionism and interference of their inside affairs.

Nonetheless, financial cooperation fashioned a central pillar of the formation. The ACC was envisioned as a mechanism to extend commerce amongst member states, in addition to to facilitate labor actions, notably from Egypt and Jordan to Iraq.

The ACC had barely launched earlier than it fell aside as a consequence of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. However even in the course of the 1990s, whereas Iraq confronted an onerous worldwide sanctions regime, commerce between it and Egypt and Jordan continued. Iraq continued to be Egypt’s second greatest export market, beneath the U.N. Oil-for-Meals Programme. Jordan remained depending on Iraqi oil, which it continued to obtain with U.S. acceptance. King Hussein solely very reluctantly broke together with his long-time good friend, Saddam, when Washington agreed to welcome Jordan again as an in depth ally.

Not surprisingly, due to this fact, Egypt and Jordan had been among the many first Arab states to construct ties to the brand new Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion. In 2005, then-Jordanian Prime Minister Adnan Badran grew to become probably the most senior Arab official to go to Iraq for the reason that invasion; three years later Abdullah was the primary Arab head of state to go to. Egypt and Iraq reestablished commerce ties in 2004. The next 12 months Cairo despatched an envoy to Baghdad, though tragically the Egyptian diplomat was assassinated by al-Qaida in Iraq a couple of weeks after his arrival. The Jordanian embassy in Baghdad was additionally among the many first targets of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The event of Iraq’s financial relationships with Egypt and Jordan was considerably hindered by its sectarian civil battle of the 2000s and the rise of the Islamic State group within the 2010s. However lately, the three international locations have once more taken significant steps to rebuild financial ties. In 2017, Egypt started to obtain oil from Iraq, after its oil provide was minimize off by Saudi Arabia. Jordan started to take supply of Iraqi oil in 2019. Since a minimum of 2017, the three international locations have anticipated endeavor a serious joint vitality mission, linking Iraq’s oilfields in Basra to Aqaba by way of pipeline, which might be additional prolonged to Egypt. In the meantime, Iraq has additionally seemed to Egyptian and Jordanian firms for the huge reconstruction tasks it might want to undertake to get better from 4 many years of wars. There are additionally plans to join Iraq to Jordan and Egypt’s electrical energy grids to cut back its dependence on electrical energy exported from Iran.

Nonetheless, all three international locations are cash-strapped — a serious problem for his or her ambitions. On the finish of final 12 months, Egypt and Iraq agreed, in impact, to commerce Iraqi oil for Egyptian reconstruction help. Within the longer run, the three international locations might want to look to exterior events for financing.

Whereas Iraq is heading to elections this fall, most of its leaders seem enthusiastic in regards to the partnership’s financial promise. Discussions for the mission had been already underway in the course of the premiership of Haider al-Abadi. Subsequently, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, on his first journey overseas as prime minister in March 2019, attended the primary trilateral summit in Cairo. President Barham Salih met with el-Sissi and Abdullah in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. Normal Meeting, in September 2019. Present Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi headlined Iraqi attendance on the third summit in Amman in August 2020.

A New Levant?

Financial cooperation is the driving drive behind the formation, however as in 1989, every of the three has a political incentive to come back collectively. Iraq needs to diversify its regional relationships past Iran — although you will need to emphasize that Baghdad doesn’t goal to develop its relations with its Arab neighbors on the expense of its relationship with Tehran. Iraq needs pleasant relations with each. The Iranians, for his or her half, would possibly really look favorably on Iraqi financial cooperation with Egypt and Jordan – if, down the road, they may also be capable of profit economically. In contrast, if Egypt and Jordan, and for that matter america, search to make use of the formation as a method to isolate Iran, Tehran will undoubtedly sow issues. The extent to which Iran could also be allowed to learn will finally rely on the result of its ongoing negotiations with the Biden administration.

Egypt and Jordan, in the meantime, need to scale back their dependence on Saudi Arabia. For Jordan, that is notably crucial following stories of Saudi involvement in a latest conspiracy to destabilize the nation and substitute King Abdullah with former Crown Prince Hamza. The brand new formation would give Jordan, in addition to Egypt and Iraq, larger leverage vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the opposite Gulf international locations.

However probably the most vital, if nonetheless implicit, political goal could also be to offer a method in the long run to rehabilitate Syria. Leaders from the three international locations have begun to name their formation “the brand new Levant,” or “al-Sham al-Jadid” in Arabic. Sham is a reference to town of Damascus, and extra broadly to Syria and the Levant. By definition, there can’t be a brand new “Sham” with out Syria. Maybe unsurprisingly, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan have let or not it’s identified that partnership of their new bloc will likely be open to different international locations within the area, with out specifying which. Actually, this side of the brand new formation additionally has roots within the short-lived ACC experiment. ACC member states didn’t view their partnership as unique, and there was some anticipation that Syria and Lebanon might need joined in some unspecified time in the future.

The Egypt-Iraq-Jordan formation is in some ways the resurrection of the outdated ACC, which was disrupted for 30 years by instability and battle in Iraq. The U.S. has welcomed and will proceed to assist this rising partnership of three of its shut companions within the area. Within the longer run, if Syria and Lebanon are invited to hitch, U.S. assist can be sophisticated by the continuation in energy of Bashar al-Assad, rightfully seen as a battle prison. Nonetheless, the “new Levant” mission might finally function a method to undertake the huge reconstruction wanted in Syria and to cut back the appreciable financial distress of the individuals there and in Lebanon.

After a decade of battle in Syria, and 4 many years of battle in Iraq, there has by no means been larger want for a brand new imaginative and prescient for the area. The nucleus of a brand new starting would possibly simply lie in an financial partnership first launched greater than 30 years in the past.

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