Iraqi Responses to P5+1 Talks Reveal Frustrations
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has prioritized bringing a range of international diplomatic and cultural events to Iraq as a means of demonstrating newfound stability and projecting regional significance after nearly a decade as playing field rather than player. This week, negotiators from the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany gathered in Baghdad to continue discussions with Iranian negotiators over Iran’s nuclear program. The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Policy Baroness Ashton and Sa’id Jalili, secretary general of Iran’s National Security Council, led the talks. The P5+1 talks, which began on May 23rd and were extended for a second day, were held only weeks after Baghdad hosted the Arab League summit.
Both prior to and during the talks, Iraq’s president and Foreign Ministry officials emphasized Iraq’s importance in the Middle East and the international community and the government’s willingness to facilitate a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Outside the state’s diplomatic personnel, however, responses to Iraq’ hosting the talks provide glimpses into the intensification of a protracted political standoff.
The Maliki camp’s public statements on the talks sounded much like those of President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari both prior to and during the talks. Maliki spokesman Ali Moussawi portrayed Iraq’s host status as a break with Iraq’s past as an international pariah under former President Saddam Hussein, emphasizing the country’s new role as “a constructive, positive country that has a new character.” Moussawi called the meeting “an opportunity to showcase Iraq's real face, as a country looking for stability and development,” at the same time demonstrating the nation’s emergence from the region’s margins as an “important country” with a “positive role.” Moussawi echoed Zebari, who on Wednesday declared that bringing the talks to Iraq was “a clear message to the world” about its place in the region.
As Iran’s neighbor, Iraq has a very real stake in the Iranian nuclear issue and its potential for bringing international conflict to Iraq’s borders. Zebari was quick to note that Iraq has a “real interest” seeing the issue resolved, while Talabani expressed his hope to Sa’id Jalili, Secretary General of Iran’s National Security Council, that the meeting would bring significant steps towards solutions to the issue. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, too, stressed to Al-Iraqiyah Television the Iraqi government’s desire to see rapprochement between Iran and the West and its wish to see conflict in the region avoided. As limited progress began to suggest that talks would stretch into a second day, both Zebari and Dabbagh insisted that Iraq would be willing to host further rounds of negotiations if required.
While Iraq’s foreign policy corps and the Maliki government enthused about the prospect of further talks, however, Maliki’s political opponents denounced the meeting as an attempt to distract attention from the domestic political crisis. Leading Iraqiyya member Dhafir al-Ani was most explicit, accusing Maliki of procrastination and obfuscation that prioritizes the external over the domestic. Ani noted Maliki’s “unprecedented keenness” in finding solutions to “the problems of others” – whether the Iranian nuclear issue or the future of the Assad regime in Syria – while refusing to engage in mediation with his partners in government. On Thursday, Kurdistan Alliance MP Mahma Khalil warned not only Maliki but all of Iraq against concentrating solely on the P5+1 talks, arguing that Iraq’s “internal crises” required more attention within the country than external issues. While noting the importance of good relations with Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran, Khalil questioned the overwhelming political and media interest in P5+1 at a time of domestic political tension.
Perhaps the most telling response to the talks inside Iraq came from Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who criticized the decision to hold the meeting in Baghdad, rejecting any attempt to “involve Iraq” in the dispute. In what appeared to be a plea for Iran not to intercede on Maliki’s behalf, Sadr expressed his concern for Iraq’s independence and the pressures that might be placed on the country should it be drawn into the Iranian case, insisting that “the government should consider its people before it considers its neighbors.”
The P5+1 and Iranian delegations will move on to Moscow in mid-June for the next round of talks, despite Iraq’s offers to host them again. The Maliki camp, meanwhile, appears set on its course of focusing on its neighbors, even as political turmoil continues in Iraq: the day after the P5+1 talks concluded, Dabbagh told Al-Sumaria that Iraq is willing to host a conference “attended by all the conflicting parties in Syria.”