BAGHDAD — Amid rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, one country has stayed noticeably out of the fray.
Wedged between the two foes, Iraq is concerned that the conflict between its neighbors could further destabilize the country, where the fragile government is battling the Islamic State.
Iraq’s Shiite-led government is in a delicate balancing act between its chief allies in Iran and the U.S.-aligned Saudi royals, who wield influence over the region’s Sunni populations, analysts say.
Iraq’s top diplomat said from the Iranian capital on Wednesday that Iraq was ready to mediate the dispute, which flared after Saudi Arabia executed an outspoken Shiite cleric, Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on Saturday. Protesters stormed two Saudi diplomatic compounds in Iran, prompting at least six Arab governments to sever or downgrade ties with Tehran.
But even as Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari offered to help facilitate talks, demonstrators in central Baghdad had gathered for the fourth day to denounce the Saudi government.
“There is a lot of pressure for the Iraqi government to pick a side” in the fight, said Ahmad al-Mayali, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
“The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia has the potential to very strongly influence events on the ground in Iraq,” he said.
On Thursday, Iran accused the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi rebels in Yemen of carrying out an airstrike on its embassy in the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi spokesman for the coalition said the report was under investigation. Iranian state television also said Thursday that the country was banning goods imported from Saudi Arabia, although trade between the two countries is already low.
The rivalry between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy has fueled sectarian violence across the region for years. But the current crisis is the most serious dust-up between the two sides in decades.
Sunnis make up about 40 percent of the Iraqi population, and about 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites. The two groups fought a bloody sectarian war in 2006-2007.
In recent years, the Shiite population has dominated Iraqi political institutions, and Sunnis, once favored by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, were alienated from the central government.
In the meantime, Iran emerged as “the most influential player in Iraqi politics,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University.
“Iraq is the fault line between Arabs and non-Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites. It was supposed to be a melting pot,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an Iraqi lawmaker and former national security adviser. “But now, this diversity has become a vulnerability for us.”
Iraqi officials say they have moved to defuse the crisis between their two neighbors in recent days, condemning Nimr’s execution as a “crime” but also resisting calls from Shiite hard-liners to expel Saudi diplomats from the country.
Saudi authorities opened the country’s first embassy in Baghdad in nearly 25 years last Friday — one day before Nimr was killed. But earlier this week, leaders from some of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militias publicly urged the government to close the Saudi Embassy and execute Saudi prisoners detained in Iraq on charges of terrorism.
The militias, many of which are supported by Iran, have gained considerable influence as formidable forces capable of fighting the Islamic State and could push the government to take a harsher response, analysts said.
Iraq has assured the Saudi government that its embassy will be protected, even if many in the government view the cleric’s execution as a deliberate provocation against the region’s Shiites, officials here said.
Iraq’s government, too, has long resented the Saudi government for allowing Saudi citizens to cross the border to fight with insurgents in Iraq, including for the Islamic State. But despite links between Sunni tribes on both sides of the Iraq-Saudi border, the kingdom does not hold sway with Iraq’s Sunnis, analysts say.
“Riyadh is limited in its ability to influence events in Iraq,” said Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East and North Africa at the political risk firm Eurasia Group, based in New York.
Still, “tensions between Sunni and Shia parties in Iraq will rise” as they come down on different sides of the conflict, Kamel said.
But no matter what, Iraq is likely to suffer from the regional feuding, Rubaie said.
Sectarian conflagration in the region “will not translate into blood and explosions in Tehran or Riyadh,” the lawmaker said. “It will translate into blood and destruction in my country.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.