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Can Iraq Mediate in Yemen?

Although the official truce between the internationally-recognized government of Yemen and the northern Houthi rebels expired in October 2022, a de facto ceasefire remains in place in most of the country. While violence has not completely stopped, its levels have remained very low compared to the height of the war, and the decrease in collateral damage to civilians and noncombatants has allowed for the resumption of some humanitarian aid programs. Yet while this relative calm is convenient for the warring parties, it does not guarantee that fighting will not return to Yemen in the future. Mindful of the lack of progress on peace negotiations this summer, combined with Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi recently warning that Yemen’s current truce will not hold if Saudi Arabia does not meet Houthi demands, there are valid concerns about where Yemen’s no-war, no-peace situation is headed.

Against this backdrop, a potential new mediator has emerged in the discussions between the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and outside forces: Iraq. On July 23, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein offered to mediate in Yemen’s ongoing ceasefire talks while his Yemeni counterpart Ahmed bin Mubarak was visiting Baghdad. “Iraq is ready to help in this matter,” Hussein said at a press conference. “We have good relations with all parties. We can use our influence for stability and security in Yemen, and we can act on a regional level.”

Baghdad’s Diplomatic Approach to the Region

In recent years, Iraq has stepped up as a regional mediator, helping countries in the region mend fences as part of the broader regional rapprochement in the post-2021 era. Along with China and the Sultanate of Oman, Iraq played an extremely important role in bringing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran to their recent diplomatic agreement. That process began in April 2021, with rounds of Saudi-Iranian bilateral talks hosted in Baghdad. At that time, Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi leveraged his close relationship with Riyadh and Tehran to act as a venue for talks between the two regional powers. Iraq also played a role in facilitating the Syrian regime’s restoration of relations with Arab states and general reintegration into the Middle East’s diplomatic fold.

With this in mind, to what extent can Iraq build on its past diplomatic maneuvers and achievements to play a constructive mediator role in Yemen? It is fair to consider how Baghdad’s relative closeness to Tehran will impact the equation. Since Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani succeeded Kadhimi last year, Iraq’s government has undeniably become more beholden to the Islamic Republic. The close alignment between Baghdad and Tehran could create the impression within the pro-government camp that Iraq is unsuited to effectively mediate in Yemen, given Iran’s sponsorship of the Houthis. The Houthis’ cozy relationship with certain pro-Iranian actors in Iraq—particularly within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a loosely organized group of pro-Iranian militias that have sometimes openly supported the Yemeni rebels—could contribute to perceptions that the Iraqi government is not sufficiently neutral to mediate between Yemen’s different factions.

On the other hand, the pro-Iranian political order in Baghdad could have positive consequences for the prospects for successful mediation between the Houthis and their Yemeni adversaries. “The real value of Baghdad’s offer to mediate lies precisely in its close links with Iran,” Elisabeth Kendall, mistress of Girton College at the University of Cambridge, told Gulf International Forum. “One of the weakest points in efforts to negotiate peace in Yemen has been the international community’s lack of leverage over the Houthis. If Iraq can use its influence with Iran, this could have knock-on effects for bringing the Houthis to a compromise solution.”

Regardless of how Iraq’s relationship with Iran influences the equation, some experts point to other issues that could limit Baghdad’s means to help the Yemeni factions move toward a lasting peace. One is Iraq’s relatively low level of influence in Yemen. “While Iraq aspires to be a regional [mediator], it frankly seems to lack the necessary capacity and influence,” said Veena Ali-Khan, a Yemen researcher at the International Crisis Group, in an interview with the Forum.

Thus far, the single largest foreign player in Yemeni diplomacy has been Oman, which is relatively trusted by the various sides and has devoted substantial diplomatic energy into winding down the conflict. Muscat refused to join the Saudi-led Arab military coalition fighting the Houthis in 2015, opting to maintain its traditional neutral foreign policy stance toward the conflict. In the earliest stages of the war, Oman began hosting talks between different Yemeni and foreign actors. This highly sophisticated and multi-pronged approach has led to surprising successes; Omani mediation has clearly helped to lower the level of violence in Yemen, and Muscat has played a major role in supporting the Yemeni people with humanitarian assistance.

It would be difficult to imagine Iraq replacing Oman as the main foreign diplomatic mediator in the conflict. The Sultanate’s stakes in Yemen are much higher than Iraq’s, given the potential for spillover across Oman’s borders. Additionally, Muscat has an existing track record of diplomacy in Yemen and has earned high levels of trust from nearly all parties in the conflict. Crucially, by all appearances, Omani mediators remain committed to resolving the crisis, eliminating the need for a replacement power. But neither the Omanis nor the Iraqis view the diplomatic challenges in Yemen as a zero-sum game, and Muscat and Baghdad would not be competitors in Yemen’s political arenas. Instead, their efforts could easily complement each other—and if they could achieve a lasting peace in Yemen, the broader Gulf region would be far better off for it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: Iraq, Yemen

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Emily Milliken is the Senior Vice President & Lead Analyst at Askari Defense & Intelligence, LLC, an Arlington, Virginia-based program management and consulting company. Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as an analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.


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