Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 January - 2 February 2005
Issue No. 727
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trepidation in Jordan

Jordan, alarmed by the prospect of a Shia-dominated government brought about by next week's election in Iraq, anxiously awaits its eastern neighbour's political fortunes, writes Mohamed Abu Ruman* from Amman

Statements issued by King Abdullah of Jordan to The Washington Post in December triggered widespread controversy in Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world. The Jordanian monarch expressed his apprehensions over the prospect of the rise of a pro-Iranian Shia theocracy in Iraq. According to reliable information, he said, more than a million Iranian Shias had infiltrated into Iraq in order to sway the outcome of the forthcoming Iraqi elections, augmenting the likelihood of the emergence of a "Shia crescent" in the region. He urged the Iraqi Sunnis to participate in the polls. If they do not make a strong turnout they risk marginalising themselves as a factor for shaping the future of Iraq, he warned adding that time was of the essence in view of Washington's determination to press ahead with the elections at the scheduled time on 30 January.

The Jordanian monarch's statements raid a number of questions over his country's relations with Iraq and Iran. As his remarks suggest, the regional power struggle has converged upon Iraq where the interests and channels of influence of many neighbouring countries intersect. Iran, playing the Shia card, has clearly won the battle of influence over Iraqi Shia, especially now that the Shia establishment as epitomised in Al-Sistani, the Daawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) emerged victorious over the Sadr-led insurgents in Najaf.

Tehran and the Iraqi Shia establishment are keen on democratic elections which, because of Iraq's majority Shia population, promise Shia control over key positions in government. Iran, with the support of the Iraqi Shia establishment, appears to be moving towards a more conciliatory stance towards the US military presence in Iraq.

In contrast, Jordan and the countries of the Gulf are alarmed by the prospect of a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. The Gulf countries have sizeable and influential Shia populations, which had already begun to stir before the American occupation of Iraq, aggravating these governments' anxieties over their political stability, national security and interests. Saudi Arabia has a large Shia minority concentrated primarily in the east of the country.

Having long complained of political persecution, this segment of the population has recently begun to press the government for civil and citizenship rights. Riyadh responded by granting Saudi Shia the right to representation in the National Dialogue sessions. The Shia in Kuwait and Bahrain have been similarly active, while a significant segment of the Qatari population is of Iranian origin.

Jordan has several reasons to fear the prospect of a Shia government in Iraq. Iraqi Shia harbour little affection for Amman, a longtime ally of the former regime in Baghdad and always a beneficiary of crises in Iraq. Such sentiments have been made explicit in numerous statements and articles issuing from Iraqi Shia media sources. Like the countries of the Gulf, Jordan too fears that a theocratic-like government to the east would rock domestic stability, because of the incentive this would give to the Muslim fundamentalist groups which form the major opposition bloc in Jordan.

Jordan also believes that its economic interests are jeopardised by growing Iranian influence in Iraq. The Jordanian economy benefited greatly from the Iraq-Iran war, as it did in the wake of the second Gulf war. Moreover, contrary to expectations, the recent war in Iraq has boosted the economy in Jordan as a result of the influx of money fleeing the political instability and security breakdown in Baghdad. The visible building boom and intensive investment activity by Iraqis in Jordan are among the phenomena that have prompted the Financial Times to describe Amman as the temporary capital of Iraq.

It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why Jordan has pinned its hopes on the Iraqi Sunni, as is abundantly apparent in the statements of the king as well as those of Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Al-Maliki who warned that the Arab identity of Iraq was in danger. However, the Iraqi "Sunni opposition" to the American occupation and to the American-run political process in which framework the forthcoming elections are being held presents a problem. As allies of the US, Jordan and the Gulf countries have refrained from meddling in Iraq. It was only when the prospect of a Shia government loomed that these countries began to appeal to the Iraqi Sunnis to participate in the elections, having failed to persuade Washington to postpone them.

Iraqi Sunni participation in the elections, Jordan and the Gulf countries hope, will work to temper the Shia character of the forthcoming Iraqi government and generate political balances that will hold out a chance for allies within the new regime so as to offset Iran's expanding influence. In addition, these countries are under considerable pressure from the US to use whatever influence they have with Iraqi Sunnis in order to weaken the tenacity of the resistance, which has turned the US occupation into a political and economic nightmare rather than the boon that American companies had hoped for.

However, developments in Iraq strongly suggest that Jordan and the Gulf countries have failed to persuade Iraqi Sunnis to take part in the elections. The persistence of the Sunni armed resistance indicates that relations between these countries and Sunni clan leaders are weak at best, especially when compared to the Iran-Shia connection. As the situation stands, therefore, one can envision two possibilities for the near future. The first is that the elections will take place successfully, giving rise to a Shia-dominated government. In this case, if the Allawi electoral list prevails over the Islamists, at least Jordan and the Gulf countries will breathe easier. The second possibility is that the election process aborts precipitating the collapse of the American political project for Iraq and raising the spectre of civil war along ethnic and sectarian divides. In this event, these countries will most likely remain neutral, although if they do attempt to intervene it will naturally be on the side of Iraq's Sunnis.

The central problem, consideration of which helps understand the ramifications of the Jordanian king's remarks to the Washington Post, is that Iraq's neighbours have conflicting interests in Iraq. At the same time they appear at odds with themselves over how precisely to address the issue. While attempting to strengthen their hand in Iraq they -- including Iran -- are simultaneously trying to placate Washington. What they have not done is an attempt to pool their efforts towards formulating a project for national concord acceptable to all parties and groupings in the Iraqi political spectrum so as to avert a scenario reminiscent of Afghanistan or Lebanon.

* The writer is a Jordanian political analyst.

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