The New Iraq: Geopolitical Changes

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Nasser Saghafi Ameri
29 May 2005


Since its formation in 1921 by the British colonial power, Iraq has gone through many upheavals mainly caused by its structural deficiencies or the foreign powers meddling. The downfall of the Baathist regime of Saddam in the spring of 2003 opened a new chapter in the history of Iraq making it possible after many decades for establishment of a democratic and a stable country. Iraq as a multi ethnic/religious country is facing many challenges to achieve its goal to remain a united and a peaceful state. The first steps toward that goal have been taken. The successful referendum for the new constitution and the parliamentary election in December are promising signs. This election will determine Iraq's first full-term National Assembly since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. [1]. Although Iraq's election may be over and Iraqis have elected a government, but a great task lays ahead; formation of a government, rewriting the constitution , building up the army and police, jump-starting the floundering economy and preventing a civil war.[2]

The Sunnis, who are only 20 percent of Iraq's population of 25 million, want a strong central state to protect them and provide more equitable revenue sharing; powerful Shiite and Kurdish leaders want their own regions in a loosely confederated country. The Shiites who represent over 60 percent of the population of Iraq were misrepresented and deprived of their rights through out the history of Iraq. They are now vying for their rightful place in the political scene in Iraq. In a democratic system it would be only natural that the Shiites that have the majority are going to hold a prominent role in the new Iraq.

The Rise of the Shiites:

Establishment of Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, with dominant Shiite ideology rang alarm in the West. The Reagan and Bush administrations viewed the threat from Iran and Iranian-inspired Shiites so acute that the administrations were willing to put aside their distaste for Saddam Hussein's regime and back him in the Iran-Iraq War. The hope was that Saddam would win the war and force a retrenchment of Tehran and Shiite Islamic fundamentalism.

After September 11 it was obviously the Sunni Islamic extremists as the primary U.S. adversary. The U.S. has clearly defined the Sunni insurgents as the enemy. The very same Shiites Islamist parties that led the U.S. to tilt towards Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War are now the America's closest allies in Iraq. In the view of Iraq’s Sunnis, the U.S. has chosen the Shiites over them. This perception is not lost on peoples and governments in the region. The Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and others, have been reluctant to cooperate with the U.S. policies, which would imply reinforcing the Shiites dominated government in Iraq. After the collapse of the dictatorial Baathist regime in Iraq, which was the main source of regional insecurity, some countries tried to hinder the development of relations between Iran and Iraq, in the belief that friendly ties between the two Muslim countries would lead to the formation of a"Shiite Crescent' in the region. Unfortunately, such assumptions have been made under the influence of some neighboring Arab countries, which are actually the main breeding grounds for Arab terrorism in the region and the world. The prospects of a Shiite controlled Iraq at the top of the Persian Gulf and prospect of close links and relations with Iran has caused major anxiety in the Arab world.[3] The Sunni Arabs fear what King Abdullah of Jordan described last December as "an emerging Shiite crescent" -- the possibility of a powerful Shiite government taking control in Iraq and developing a special ties with Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah to create a "crescent" which they perceive to be destabilizing for the Persian Gulf region.

Indeed it was a surprise to many when the Shiites as historical losers in the Middle East who were repressed under the Ottomans, the British and then the pro-Western dictators of the region, are now becoming a new and potent political forces. The victory of Shiite political parties in the elections meant that Iraq would be the first Arab nation to be led by Shiites. The dramatic ascent of Iraqi Shiite Muslims, from long-suffering victims of repression to a force capable of taking the power in one of the key countries of this region, has hit a central nerve in the Middle East balance of power, emboldening Shiites across the region to voice rising demands for their rights and for recognition of their status. The Arab governments are anticipating that the new Iraq will empower Shiite throughout the region, inviting them to question why they too cannot be given a fair share of their country's decision-making.

KUWAIT: In Kuwait, Shiites make up about a third of the population of that country’s citizen population of about one million. But they have complained that they have been deprived of their fair share of seats in parliament and the cabinet. Currently there is just one Shiite in the 16-member cabinet and only five in the 50-member parliament. Like their counterparts across the Arab world, the Shiite community has been emboldened by events in Iraq, where the Shiite majority now leads the government after decades of oppression by successive Sunni-led regimes. Five groups representing Kuwait's Shiite Muslim minority have now joined forces in a bid to boost their chances in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007.

SAUDI ARABIA: In Saudi Arabia, the Shiite population is variously estimated at 1 to 4 million[4]. The Shiites could constitute 20 percent of the citizenry instead of the usually reported 5 to 15 percent by the government. The Shiites form a local majority in the oil rich Eastern Province. From a Saudi point of view, the Shiites of Saudi Arabia are always viewed as potentially fifth column for Iran.[5] But what is more worrisome from a Saudi point of view is the very strong links of the Shiites of al Hasa to Iraq and this helps to explain the extreme Saudi alarm about the rise of Shiites in Iraq.[6] Historically the Shiites have been marginalized in Saudi because of antipathy from the kingdom's dominant form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism.[7] The emergence of a Shiite-led government in Iraq, with which the kingdom shares a long border, has caused a great concern. This may also explain the major support Saudis gave to Saddam in the course of Iran-Iraq war. Many Saudis are convinced that there is a grand Shiite conspiracy to form a contiguous Shiite bloc extending through Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. This supposed bloc would extend even into the Arabian Peninsula, through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia's own Eastern Province, and Bahrain.

Iraq's infant democracy is even a bigger headache for the Saudi royal family.[8] Thus, Riyadh’s ambivalence has in turn discouraged Iraqi Sunnis from participating in the political process and allowed some firebrand Saudi youths to join the insurgency against the U.S.-supported Baghdad government. The Saudi leadership appears to be obsessed with the emergence of a Shiite dominated, pro-Iranian government in Iraq, which shares the largest stretch of Saudi Arabia’s northern border.[9] The Saudi government is particularly sensitive about Shiites autonomy that is concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern province, and any unrest or effort at secession might devastate Saudi oil production. Therefore a year after the war in Iraq, the Saudi government has reached out to Shiite leaders.

BAHRAIN: Bahrain, like Iraq, has a Shiite majority but is ruled by the Sunnis. Despite Bahrain's Shiite majority which is 70 per cent of the population, there is a small Shiite representation in Bahrain's cabinet. According to a recent report by the “International Crisis Group”, the majority Shiite community of Bahrain feels increasingly politically marginalized and socially disadvantaged. Bahrain's Shiites also suffer from sectarian discrimination and tensions. They and are angered by, widespread suspicion among officials and Sunnis regarding their national loyalty and ties to co-religionists in Iraq and Iran. The emergence of a Shiite Iraq, now gives "some sort of legitimacy" to the Shiites of Bahrain like other states in the Persian Gulf.[10]

The Arab League Initiative:

The Arab League representing the Arab World after much hassle finally decided to send its Secretary General Mr. Amr Moussa to Iraq in October 2005. Some experts view this initiative as something of a shift in the Arab world’s perspective on Iraq. Where previously the Arab League had been largely silent on post-Saddam Iraq, Mr. Moussa’s trip is seen also, by some observers as an indication that the Arab world is beginning to grapple with the implications of a democratic Iraq run by Shiites a prospect viewed with concern by some of the Arab world’s governments.[11] Meanwhile, prominent Kurdish and Shiite leaders who lead the government have complained that the Arab league has refused to raise objections to Saddam’s regime brutal treatment of dissident Shiites. They also complained that the League has taken too long to seek a role in Iraq and resented the league's past support for Saddam and are suspicious the body is biased toward Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.[12]

In fact the Arab League conference was a Saudi idea, based on its role in bringing rival Lebanese factions together in 1989 in the Taif accord that ended a 15-year civil war. A neighbor of Iraq, the desert kingdom has been wary that the emergence of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad would shift the sectarian balance of a region long run largely by Sunnis. A Sunni-ruled nation with a sometimes restive Shiite minority, the kingdom was pinning hopes for Iraq's inclusion of its Sunni minority on a national reconciliation conference in Cairo.

The Baathist and traditional Sunni leadership's decision to participate in the poitical process and elections were mostly encouraged by influencial Arab states to guarantee their interests. The Sunnis realized that without participation they would have been completely excluded from crafting the new regime in Iraq. Further more, they became aware that the insurrection was not spreading beyond their own region and that their resistance did not affected the political process which was under way in the larger part of Iraq. Thus, it became evident that without Sunnis participation they would be left with chaos in their own region, isolation from the rest of the country and no political power in the future.[13]

Finally, and following Secretary General Amr Moussa's visit to Iraq a three day conference was held from November 19, 2005 in Cairo with the participation of the Sunni elites and representative of the Shiites and Iraqi Kurds. The United Nations, the European Union and all of Iraq's neighbors also took part in the Conference. Sharp differences manifested themselves in the course of debates but the meeting participants decided to hold a pan-Iraqi conference in Baghdad in February-March 2006 with the aim of finding a broad consensus on the basic problems of the postwar development of Iraq.

The closing statement of the Conference upheld the Sunni demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces, but did not specify when a withdrawal should begin, making it more of a symbolic gesture than a concrete demand that would be followed up by the Iraqi government. Statement offered Shiite politicians concessions, too, by condemning the wave of terrorism that has been aimed at Shiites, condemning trumped-up Islamic theological arguments for attacks on them, and ultimately legitimating the political process that has made Shiite politicians the most dominant political force now in Iraq. Perhaps the biggest winner of the meeting was the 22-member Arab League itself, which has entered the political scene in Iraq after a long stillness hoping to repeat the success of the organization in 1989, when it brokered an end to Lebanon's 15-year civil war in a similar conference.

American Gambit

Since the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, Americans had developed a complex dependency on the Shia. Needing Shiite support, Washington had effectively guaranteed the Shia control of Iraq; a price it was not happy to pay. The American concern was not the Shia per se, but their Iranian allies.[14]

Washington's fear was that containment of the Sunni uprising would
create an Iranian satellite in Iraq. In American view that would have had massive repercussions throughout the region as was seen particularly by Saudi Arabia[15], which fears growing Iranian power. Although the Arab Shia are not identical to Iranian Shia. But since a Shiite government in Iraq could become an Iranian ally it was not the outcome the United States wanted. [16]
The United States was also concerned about Shiite ambitions to transform Iraq from a secular state to an Islamic one. So the United States needed to almost double-cross the Shia without actually doing so -- and cooperating with the Sunnis gave Washington the opportunity to do just that. [17]

Furthermore, in order to creat a condition which allowed the constitution to pass in the Oct. 15 referendum and to encourage most Sunnis to take part in the Dec. 15 polls, Washington championed Sunni interests against the Shia.[18] In this way,the Sunnis using their insurregency card, maneuvered the Americans into a position in which their relationship with the Shia and Kurds would not provide a sufficient base for managing Iraq. The Sunnis created a situation in which the Americans needed the Sunnis in order to pacify Iraq and therefore were willing to protect Sunni interests against the Shia.[19] Furthermore, the United States used the Sunni’s demands as a platform from which to try to reshape the new regime in Iraq so that it had a built-in degree of complexity that would prevent outright Shiite control and Iranian influence.[20]

Facing many hurdles the United States is now aiming to reduces its forces in Iraq as a priority.[21] While, before the war, Washington saw Iraq not only as a likely beacon for democracy but also as potentially a stable source of oil and a well-positioned strategic base, now the ambitions for Iraq are being drastically scaled down in private.[22] A British Foreign Office source is quoted saying: “the goal of the US administration to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East had long ago been shelved.” The Diplomats in the Foreign Office are now working frantically in private on what they refer to as the "exit ticket" from Iraq.[23] Thus, the first priority for the US is withdrawal from Iraq in a manner that George Bush is not seen to have failed. He will have to have at least set Iraq on the road to democracy. The second priority is that, "The US does not want a legacy of Iran having extended its influence over the Middle East."[24]

The United States who initiated and triggered the present process in Iraq has assumed a central role and responsibility for the course of actions shaping the future of Iraq. As evident from the present situation any quick withdrawal of US forces could only contribute to the chaos and possible outbreak of a civil war in Iraq. The other option is gradual and phased reduction of US forces which would be only possible with cooperation and coordination of the next influential country in Iraq, namely Iran. The dilemma that the US is faced is how to solicit Iranian cooperation without giving it due credit and recognition. The announcement that US ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad is going to start direct talks with the Iranians was interpreted as a sign of Washington’s return to Realism in its foreign policy. However, the impediment for normalization of relations with Iran remains unchanged. Beside the legacy of post Islamic Revolution in Iran there are other issues such as Iran’s nuclear program that looms in the background. There is already a kind of linkage between Iran’s nuclear capability and the regional security role it can play. Thus, Washington's willingness to acknowledge Iran's regional influence and a constructive role it can play for the regional peace and stability is the only imaginable incentive ( possibly in the context of a ‘grand bargain’) that can induce Iran to cooperate for the US “exit strategy “.

Future Out Look:

There is a re-composition or realignment now taking place in the Middle East, where Iraq has become one of the focal points. Despite recent historic referendum on a new constitution in Iraq the country looks fragmenting, not pulling together, and halting its disintegration does not seem to be an easy task. In fact most Sunnis who voted in the referendum tried to derail the constitution and they remain hostile to the occupiers, partly out of rage at being ousted from their traditionally dominant position in Iraq and partly out of nationalist sentiments. The insurgency has become deeply rooted in central and northwestern Iraq including Greater Baghdad.[25] Thus, the successful adoption of the constitution and December parliamentary elections are yet to prove that it would end the challenges to the territorial integrity of Iraq. However, it seems that whatever course the new Iraq would take in the future, the impact of events following April 2003 in the region is irreversible. That implies unprecedented changes in the region since the victory of Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. This of course, could bear wide changes in the geopolitics of the region. In the new Iraq, the rise of Shiites and Kurds to power would strongly influence the outlook of Iraq’s foreign policy and would similarly affect regional countries policies toward Iraq. The new changes in Iraq are thus perceived differently by each of the regional countries.

ARAB STATES: As for the Arab states of the region the present developments in Iraq seems not to be much favorable. With the rise of the Shiites and especially the Kurds in Iraq the fervor of Pan-Arabism will be on decline. Furthermore, the Arab governments of the region shall be inclined to address and take into serious consideration the grievances of their minorities especially the Shiites. With the new developments following Iraq’s liberation from Saddam’s tyrannical regime, the Arab countries are now in a position of choosing to resist any changes for the better in their political system, and consequently being prone to greater pressure from abroad for imposition of a democratic system. Or, to volunteer for a democratic government with equitably sharing power with other minorities especially the Shiites. [26]

The issue of new Iraq is perceived differently in the two non-Arab neighboring states of Iran and Turkey.

TURKEY: For Turkey the empowerment of Kurds in Iraq is an unwelcome process that began from the end of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. This makes Turkey vulnerable to more demands by its large Kurdish community of 12 million for autonomy. The developments in Iraq could have also adverse effects on the not long established strategic ties between Turkey and Israel. For instance it is argued that while Turkey fears the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the same possibility seems favorable for Israel from its security standpoint. [27] Therefore, Turkey has been alerted about the revival of the old ties between Israel and Iraqi Kurds, which dates back to the early 1970’s.[28] Also, the prospects of presence of the American forces in Iraq in the foreseeable future diminishes Turkeys pivotal role as the main US ally and as the host to major American bases in that country.

IRAN: For Iran things are quite different, apart from potential Kurdish problem similar to Turkey, but with a different nature and scope, Iran is perhaps the only regional country who perceives the developments in the new Iraq most positively. From the outset, Iran took the opportunity to support the new Iraqi government who were among its old allies from the time they struggled together against the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.[29] That was while other Arab countries in the region – except Syria –were hand in hand with big powers in the other camp helping Saddam’s regime. At present, the security and stability of the new Iraq is considered as a priority for the Iranian government. They perceive that an insecure Iraq can bring negative consequences as it can attract terrorists and be a pretext for allowing foreign troops to continue their stay in the country, which is opposed to Iran’s policies.[30]

Meanwhile, the new Iraq could become one of the main gateways for Iran to the Arab world. This is to be considered as a very positive development for the security of the region, since in the past it was mostly the Baathist regime in Iraq that stood in the way for friendly ties between Iran and other Arab countries of the region. Furthermore, development of this new relationship between Iran and Iraq might have two other implications for Iran’s foreign policy: First, by having a friendly country on its western borders after many decades of hostility and mistrust, Iran will have the opportunity for a more inward looking policy by giving priority to its economic development plans and to fully utilize its trade and transit potentials. Second, the new Iraq as close friends of both Iran and the United States could serve as a buffer in the present stormy Iran-American relationship and possibly could become a venue for the normalization of their relations in the future.

[1] - The Sunnis turnout in the election did not mean the minority, which historically ruled Iraq, has fully rejoined the political process. They voted largely to ensure major changes and "get back the rights that they perceive as being lost after the down fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. See, Robin Wright, Bigger Hurdles for U.S. In Iraq's Next Phase, Washington Post, December 18, 2005.

[2] -Ibid

[3] - See, Michael Moran, The Arab League and Iraq, The Council on Foreign Relations, October 20, 2005.

[4] - Iraq’s interior minister, Bayan Jabr quoted saying: “There are four million Shiites [in Saudi Arabia] who are treated as third-class citizens.” See, Simon Henderson,A Bedouin on a Camel? Saudi Foreign Policy and the Insurgency in Iraq The Washington Institute for Near East Policy , PolicyWatch #1036 ,October 5, 2005

[5] - Remarks made by Juan Cole at the Middle East Policy Council:’ A Shia Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.?’ Washington, D.C, October 14, 2005

[6] - Ibid

[7] - As was reported by The New York Times, "There has been no Shiite cabinet minister, and only one Shiite ambassador—to Iran. Shiites are kept out of critical jobs in the armed forces and the security services. There are no Shiite mayors or police chiefs, and not one of the 300 Shiite girls' schools in the Eastern Province has a Shiite principal." See, Neil Mac Farquhar, ‘Saudi Shiites Look to Iraq and Assert Rights’, The New York Times, March 2, 2005.

[8] - Simon Henderson, Saudi Elections in Regional Perspective: The Shiite ‘Threat’ Theory, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 9, 2005.

[9] -Ibid.

[10] - See, Crisis Group’s Report on ‘Bahrain's Sectarian Challenge’, Middle East Report N°40, Amman/Brussels, 6 May 2005.

[11] - Michael Moran, Op cit

[12] - AP dispatch from Baghdad on 20/10/2005

[13] - For more on this see, Robin Wright, U.S., Saudi Arabia Inagurate New 'Strategic Dialogue’, Washington Post, November 13, 2005 and George Friedman, The Iraqi Election's Effects, from Washington to Tehran , The Geopolitical Intelligence Report, Stratfor, 12/21/2005

[14] - George Friedman, The Iraqi Election's Effects, from Washington to Tehran , The Geopolitical Intelligence Report, Stratfor, 12/21/2005

[15] -For instance Prince Saud al-Faisal Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said the US ignored warnings the Saudi government gave it about occupying Iraq. Prince Faisal also said he fears US policies in Iraq will lead to the country breaking up into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite parts. See, Tom Regan, The 'myth' of Iraq's foreign fighters, The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2005

[16] - George Friedman, Op cit

[17] - Ibid

[18] - The most glaring example of this was Bush phoning the leader of Iraq's Islamist Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and urging him to make concessions to Sunni demands in order to break the deadlock in the constitutional negotiations.Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite member of the constitutional committee, said Aug. 26 that Bush asked Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to accept compromises that deal with purging the Baath party from public life. See, George Friedman, Op cit.

[19] - It should be noted tha the Sunnis have not yet totally discarded the insurgency as their only bargaining chip, but have only demonstrated that they can moderate it. Thus the more al-Zarqawi does, the greater the U.S. dependency on the Sunnis. The Associated Press reports that CSIS believes most of the insurgents are not "Saddam Hussein loyalists" but members of Sunni Arab Iraqi tribes. They do not want to see Mr. Hussein return to power, but they are "wary of a Shiite-led government." Tom Regan, Op cit.

[20] - See, George Friedman, Op cit.

[21] - Americans expected far more success as a result of the years of costly effort, given what they were told in early 2003 when the U.S. took military action against Iraq. By fall 2006, if not sooner, US voters will be demanding much clearer answers to such questions. See, Wayne White, Iraq in 2006: Year of Decision, Middle East Institute, January 4, 2006.

[22] - Tom Regan, The 'myth' of Iraq's foreign fighters, The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2005

[23] - See, Ewen MacAskill, Lofty ambitions reduced to one: Iraq must not be seen as a failure, The Guardian, Sept 22, 2005

[24] - Ibid

[25] - Dilip Hiro,’Iraq Life After the Constitution’, YaleGlobal, 20 October 2005

[26] - The fears that are mainly prompted by the allegations that the Shiites would become Iran’s fifth column are baseless and mostly expressed out of rage and protest to a trend that might eventually lead to Iran’s prominence in the region or as a pretext for denying the Shiites from their lawful rights in different Arab countries. In fact, many Shiite Arabs are known to consider themselves as much Shiite as Arab. Therefore, wisdom calls for the Arab countries to seek reconciliation with their Arab Shiite brothers at this historical juncture and not to alienate them further by denying their rights.

[27]- See, Mustafa Kibaroglu, Clash of Interest Over Northern Iraq Drives Turkish-Israeli Alliance to a Crossroads, The Middle East Journal, Volume 59, Number 2, Spring 2005.

[28] - Israel went along with the US and Iran- during the reign of the Shah- who rendered military support to the Kurdish Iraqi freedom movement against the regime of Saddam in Iraq.

[29] - Scott Peterson gives a historical background to the present friendship between the leaders of new Iraq and Iran; ‘Iran flexes its 'soft power' in Iraq’, The Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2005.

[30] - See the interview of Iranian Charge D’Affaires in Baghdad with IRNA , Iran News November 2, 2005, p.3.

* This paper was published in Quaderni Watch, No. 36, ‘The New Iraq Stabilization, Reconciliation, Institution Building and the Regional Scenario’, ISPI , Milan, November 2005.