The first day of talks is to focus on the International Compact with Iraq, the five-year reconstruction plan for the country announced on March 16, with the centerpiece being the signing of a debt-relief accord. While the May 4 meeting will focus on Iraq's security situation and the reconciliation process.
Iraqi officials have placed high hopes that such an international gathering will help end the political stalemate in Iraq and the cycle of bloodshed. Wa'il Abd al-Latif, a member of Iraq's parliament, said such a large turnout from the international community was an "indication that a large number of world states seek to support Iraq," state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 29.
Iraq's government, which is seen by many Sunni nations as not doing enough secure the support of disaffected Sunnis in Iraq, is facing growing regional isolation.
"This is a good opportunity for Iraq to improve its situation in the areas of reconciliation, government work, economy, and the use of plans and programs, the implementation of some of which requires international support," al-Latif said.
Iran Makes Up Its Mind
After weeks of uncertainty, Iran finally decided to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during an April 29 telephone conversation that Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki would represent Iran at the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings.
The decision is considered a major breakthrough since Iran is seen as one of the keys to stabilizing Iraq. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of supplying arms and training to Shi'ite militias in Iraq. They have also asserted that some of these weapons have been used in attacks against U.S. forces.
Iran's previous reluctance to attend the meeting stemmed in part from its anger over the detention of five Iranian diplomats by U.S. forces in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil in January. The United States accused the Iranians of being intelligence operatives, a charge the Iranians deny.
Furthermore, Tehran fears Washington may use Iraq as a staging ground to instigate regime change in the Islamic republic.
Iraqi officials hope the meetings will give the United States and Iran an opportunity to settle their differences for the benefit of Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said there was a "high possibility" that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mottaki could hold bilateral talks on the meeting's sidelines, a possibility that he said that may lead to a breakthrough, the Fars News Agency reported on April 29.
"I think it's important," Zebari said. "It would be a major breakthrough and any reduction in tensions will positively impact the situation in Iraq. We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores on other agendas at our cost. Really, this has been harming us, damaging us a lot."
Saudi Arabia Speaks Out
Several of the Arab nations expected to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings are predominately Sunni Muslim and view Shi'ite Iran's growing influence in Iraq as a threat to regional stability. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the most vocal regional critic of Iran's growing stature in the Gulf.
On April 26, the Iraqi daily "Al-Zaman" reported that al-Maliki had been informed by Saudi officials that King Abdullah was too busy to meet with him during his latest regional Arab tour to drum up support for the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings. A Saudi diplomat indicated that al-Maliki was rebuffed in part because of "his negative position toward some groups [in Iraq], his bias toward other groups, and his actions in allowing Iran to have a greater role in Iraq."
While the Iraqi government tried to downplay the snub, U.S. Secretary of State Rice acknowledged there are indeed Saudi concerns about Iraq's leadership, CNN reported on April 29.
"There's no doubt that the Saudi government has concerns about the process of reconciliation in Iraq," Rice said.
The fact that al-Maliki was snubbed only a week before the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting by a highly influential regional nation speaks volumes. Not only does the incident underscore the Kingdom's unease over the Iraqi government's close ties to Iran, but it essentially sends a signal that the Saudis do not believe al-Maliki has the will or ability to broker a political solution to the ongoing conflict in Iraq.
Moreover, it is also a reflection of the growing regional isolation of Iraq's government, which is seen by many Sunni nations as not doing enough secure the support of disaffected Sunnis in Iraq.
Furthermore, the incident is seen as a major blow to U.S. diplomatic efforts to garner greater support among regional Arab states to help solve Iraq's problems. David Satterfield, Rice's senior adviser on Iraq, has been in the region for nearly two weeks, meeting with Arab leaders to drum up support for Iraq in the run-up to the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings.
A Proxy War?
This is not the first time the Saudis have voiced concerns about Iraq's leadership, particularly with respect to Iran's influence. Indeed, there have been murmurings in the Arab and international press that the Iraq conflict may eventually develop into a proxy war between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia.
On November 29, 2006, the then-director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, Nawaf Obaid, published an opinion piece in "The Washington Post" suggesting that if the United States withdrew troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia would arm Sunni Arabs to counter Iran's alleged support of Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Obaid was subsequently fired for his comments.
Two weeks later on December 13, "The New York Times" reported that Saudi King Abdullah echoed this notion to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney was in Riyadh on November 25.
The two-day meeting with more than 60 representatives is itself an important accomplishment, but agreeing on a comprehensive framework to assist Iraq may be the difficult part. As the Baghdad security operation enters its third month, one thing seems clear -- Iraq cannot be stabilized by force alone and a political solution is needed to end the conflict.
Therefore, a broad diplomatic strategy encompassing Iraq's regional neighbors is needed for Iraq to arrive at any political solution.
While Iran's decision to attend the meeting is seen as a positive development, its presence does not necessarily guarantee success. In fact, Tehran might be participating purely as a public relations move. By attending the meeting, Iran will be seen as trying to be part of the solution to Iraq's problems rather than acting as a hindrance. This is all the more important since Iran is being increasingly isolated by members of the international community for its controversial nuclear program.
Al-Maliki was in Cairo last month drumming up support for the conference (AFP)
The meeting may also result in the United States and Iran engaging in the highest-level bilateral talks in 27 years. However, this possibly historic occurrence could overshadow the main aim of the talks -- providing greater assistance to Iraq.
Another ominous indication that the talks may end without any significant breakthrough is the already suspect views taken by certain Arab nations toward Iraq even before the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings have even started.
And Saudi Arabia is not the only problem. Kuwait is expected not to forgive the $15 billion Iraq owes the Gulf state. This would constitutes a blow to what Washington believes is an important strategy to help Iraq stand on its own feet financially -- debt forgiveness.
Senior State Department aide Satterfield acknowledged in a State Department communique on April 30 that a more robust dialogue was needed between Arab nations and Iraq and greater Arab diplomatic representation was needed in Baghdad.
"Clearly, a better dialogue needs to be established both ways between Iraq and its Arabic neighbors," Satterfield said. "It's been a problem as it would be a problem for us or for any other country in terms of second- and third-hand information flows, often with a deliberate slant or interpretation applied."
It is difficult to guess whether the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings will produce a breakthrough, but judging from past international meetings on Iraq, we might expect a lot of rhetoric and little action. Moreover, in the end, the onus falls on Iraq's shoulders to initiate a breakthrough. It has yet to pass a comprehensive and equitable hydrocarbon law, and it has yet to reverse the de-Ba'athification process. Many U.S. and Iraqi officials believe legislation in both areas would go a long way toward reducing sectarian tensions and would help Iraq move toward reconciliation.