What began as groundbreaking in the northeastern corner of Iraq with 300 Iraqi, Sunni and Shiite, dissidents and intellectuals uniting to move forward and join the Abraham Accords, has become, in less than one week, a polarizing event in Iraq. Since then, the central Iraqi government has issued arrest warrants for nearly all 300 participants, and many pro-Iran factions issued strong condemnations of calls for normalization. Given the high stakes in Iraq, not to mention the parliamentary elections in less than two weeks, the controversies over normalization with Israel are inching closer towards the hard Arab-Iranian fault line.
The conference, called “Peace and Recovery,” was held in the Kurdish capital city of Erbil with over 300 attendees, including many prominent names with strong ties to tribal leaderships. The sudden event shocked Iraqis and non-Iraqis alike. Following the news, several demonstrations denouncing the conference took to the streets. The leader of the Sadrist Shia movement, Muqtada Al-Sadr, urged the government to arrest all those involved. MPs from Al-Hashd Al-Shabi, the coalition of pro-Iranian militias, branded the participants “traitors.” In turn, Baghdad quickly responded by issuing arrest warrants for those who participated in the conference.
It is unclear what will become of the participants. Some of them already retracted their statements and asked for forgiveness from the public. Others are likely to be protected by their privileged position in the hierarchy of tribal leadership, but others might not be so lucky. The Iraqi penal code, 201 of the year 1969, punishes the promotion of “Zionist principles” with the death penalty. It is highly doubtful that the Iraqi government would apply such a law, but pro-Iranian militias might take the law into their own hands. The conference, unintentionally, provided an opportunity for Shia and pro-Iranian militias to double down on its “axis of resistance position,” and reiterate their commitments to the Palestinian Cause.
There are many questions looming about the organization and timing of the event. The scale, the organization and the type of participants all suggest that this was an orchestrated event. Elements from the US and the UAE, not from Israel, seem to have been involved. But all questions aside, the incident shows that normalization with Israel has indeed become the shibboleth separating between the Arab block and the Iranian-led block.
This reverses direction from the 20th century Arab geopolitical symbolic approach when anti-Zionism constituted the focal point around which Arab states defined the regional order. In other words, the conflict over Zionism remains the defining institution of regional political life. The conference in Erbil might have been less in support of Israel than a denouncement of Iranian militias, which indicates just how much control the Islamic Republic of Iran has over the government of Iraq. This also demonstrates peace with Israel remains immensely complicated by different national and regional agendas.
Whether the event was formed by the confluence of a regional Emirati and domestic Iraqi agenda is irrelevant to the fact that the Middle East is indeed changing. Israel may be the center of Middle Eastern symbolic politics, but the direction of the symbolism is changing. As the Abraham Accords have shown, a vote for normalization is a vote for a certain conception of the regional order of the Middle East.
This is a positive development that serves both American and Israeli security interests. Israel and the United States must support the rights of Arab dissidents to eschew anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It is a moral imperative to support the rights of the 300 Arabs who came together to express favorable opinions of Israel, who personally put their own careers and lives in jeopardy.
On September 17th, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a White House address, talking about encouraging more nations to join the Abraham Accords. The first step here would be to intervene with the Iraqi government and make sure that these 300 brave dissidents and intellectuals are, at the very least, not penalized for their immense courage and bravery.
New Fault Lines in the Middle East
The Sept. 2001 Hijacking of the World Conference Against Racism
Help us work to ensure that our policymakers and the public receive the EMET- the Truth.