Since the fall of the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has played a vital role in the making of the new ruling elite in Iraq as part of what is called “political Shiism.” Iraqi Shiite parties, despite their cooperation with the US occupation, had strong ties with Tehran, making Iran one of the main players in the Iraqi political arena. Saudi Arabia had good ties with prominent Sunni political movements and some secular Shiite political figures, and this gave Riyadh leverage in Baghdad for some time, but not at the level Saudi officials desired.
Later, mainly after the US withdrawal from Iraq and the start of the conflict in Syria, things changed drastically, and with the Islamic State’s occupation of Mosul and Iraqi provinces such as Anbar, Iran emerged from being the regional country with the upper hand to being the only influential such hand in Iraq, starting to win hearts and minds.
But still the hearts and minds of the Iraqis aren’t united; differences among political factions aren’t new, and elections are on the doorstep. Saudi Arabia’s new approach might this time be to play in Iran’s backyard and invest in Shiite religious groups rather than just Sunni movements and secular Shiites in Iraq.
Such a move could give Riyadh additional cards to play whenever a table is set and could be Saudi Arabia’s way of accepting an Iranian role in Yemen by imposing the kingdom as a new player in Iraq.