Back to square one
National unity appears threatened by revelations concerning agreements signed during Lebanon's recent period of polarisation, reports Omayma Abdel-Latif
Millions of Iraqis flocked to the polling stations on Sunday to choose 325 out of the more than 6,000 candidates for the country's parliament. Iraq changed overnight in 2003, and it has changed incrementally over the course of the seven years since. Sunday's elections will therefore serve as a useful instrument to gauge the extent and direction of change as the country enters a new and pivotal phase in its modern history.
However, the results of the elections will reflect not only the balance of power between the various political contingents inside Iraq, but also the balance of power in the region. Iraq's Arab neighbours may be close geographically, but they are more remote than ever from the political scene in Iraq, and it is Iran and Turkey that have taken the lead in the contest to expand their influence in Iraq and the region as a whole.
At first glance Tehran's and Ankara's involvement seems unprecedented in the history of Iraq. However, a closer look reveals that both countries have long taken extensive turns in leaving their imprint on Iraq. In quite a strong and tangible way, therefore, Iraq can also be regarded as a thermometer of the regional ambitions of Iran and Turkey and as a mirror of its political surroundings.
An examination of the regional dimension of the Iraqi elections, as shown in the Turkish-Iranian rivalry over Iraq, is of considerable use in contextualising the elections and their results in a way that makes fuller sense of the rival candidates and political parties.
In view of the complexity and historical depth of the subject, and the conflicting Iranian and Turkish roles and interests in Iraq, it is useful to break the subject down into components and discuss them separately. Having done this, these components can then be restored to their original context, in order to draw conclusions regarding the evolution and characteristics of what might be called the regional engagement in Iraq and to shed light on the laws that govern it.
HISTORY OF THE IRANIAN AND TURKISH ROLES IN IRAQ: Control over Iraq has always been a prerequisite for an Iranian regional role. All of the Iranian empires, from the Medes (c. 600 BCE) through the Persian and Parthian Empires (c. 500 and 100 BCE, respectively) to the Sassanid Empire (which survived until the seventh century CE), annexed Iraq to their political rule and economic dominion.
The connection persisted even after the Islamic conquest of Iran, when the country was geographically and administratively linked to Iraq during the first Islamic Empire. Much of what is present-day Iraq was incorporated into the Great Seljuq Empire, and the same applied during the time of the Safavid dynasty that ruled Iran from 1500 to 1722. Even after the Safavids fell, and before the Qajar dynasty came to power in the late 18th century, Iraq remained of crucial importance to Iranians for several reasons.
Prime among these was the fact that Iraq was an obligatory transit route for Iranian commerce westwards towards the Levant and the Mediterranean. In addition, Iran, which was relatively poor in natural resources compared to its large population, was heavily dependent on Iraqi resources. For Iranians, therefore, control over Iraq was something like an existential imperative regardless of the policies and outlooks of the different regimes that came to power in Iran.
Yet, the Safavid dynasty stood out from its predecessors with respect to the Iraqi connection, for this was the dynasty that changed the official religion of the Iranian state from Sunni to Twelver Shia Islam in the early 16th century. This conversion was essentially driven by the desire to draw a political line between the Safavids and their foremost regional adversary, the Ottoman Empire, which subscribed to Sunni Islam and which had recently established itself in Istanbul.
This offers tangible historical evidence for the fact that the Iranian-Turkish regional rivalry predates the sectarian divide between the two countries and that it has long intensified or relaxed in keeping with the tenor of the two countries' respective national interests and regional ambitions. Moreover, as a result of the Sunni to Shia conversion, Iraq acquired an additional importance to Iran on top of its geopolitical importance, as Iraq is home to the mausoleums of the Shia imams descending from the Prophet through Ali. Therefore, control over the holy places in Iraq remained a pillar of the legitimacy of Iranian rulers from 1500 until the establishment of the Iraqi kingdom in 1921.
It is said that the word history is derived from the Latin historia, meaning narrative or the relating of incidents. In that spirit, the story behind this legitimacy can be abridged. In the early 16th century, the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas traveled by foot from his capital Isfahan to the sacred thresholds of the holy city of Najaf in order to "sweep the grave of the Leader of the Faithful Ali Bin Abi Taleb." Henceforward, he bestowed upon himself the title, "The dog at the threshold of Ali," thereby engraving upon Iranian history and currency a claim on southern Iraq and an eternal aspiration for regional power in which influence in Iraq forms an essential ingredient.
Meanwhile, Turkish influence in Iraq dates back to the late 14th and early 15th centuries when the Kara Koyunlu (Black Sheep) Turkoman tribe controlled most of what is present-day Iraq. In 1446, the Kara Koyunlu was defeated by the Ak Koyunlu (White Sheep) Turkomans, who seized control of the area. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire succeeded in bringing most of what is present-day Iraq under its hegemony. Nevertheless, Iran under the Safavids managed to reassert its control over Iraq in the periods from 1508 to 1533 and from 1622 to 1638, and from the latter date until British forces entered Iraq in 1918 the country remained a battleground in the contest between the Ottomans and the Iranians for regional influence.
This conflict was brought to a brief halt in 1747, when Mameluke officers of Georgian origin seized control of Iraq. In 1831, they were defeated by Ottoman forces and Iraq was once again brought under Ottoman rule. This lasted until the aftermath of World War I, when Britain and France put into effect the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement, in accordance with which these two colonial powers divided up the former Ottoman Empire, which, of course, included Iraq.
Perhaps one of the most succinct testimonies to the centrality of Iraq in the Iranian-Turkish regional rivalry is the fact that Iran and Turkey signed 14 treaties pertaining to the borders of Iraq in the course of three centuries. Foremost among these were the Treaty of Amasya (1554), the Treaty of the Emir (1562), the Treaty of Sraw (1618), the Treaty of Zuhab (1639), The Treaty of Shirvan (1736) and the Treaty of Ardrom (1823).
THE 2003 REGIONAL BALANCE IN IRAQ: Before the US occupation of Iraq, the Arabs had zeroed in on minor issues pertaining to the Iraqi situation. At one point, they were urging the Saddam regime to reject the pretexts offered for an attack. At the next, they were demanding inspection of Saddam's presidential palaces. Meanwhile, the Arabs lost the most from the subtraction of Iraq from the Arab equation in the region. Faced with mounting pressure from the then zealous neo-conservative administration in Washington, they opened their land, sea and air routes to the invading forces, allowing the US-British military machine to sweep into Iraq, overthrow the Saddam regime and eliminate the Arab factor from the regional balance of power.
The 2003 invasion and subsequent US-British occupation of Iraq catapulted the region into a new and different era, characterised by the transfiguration of the geopolitical map of the Middle East. To put it briefly, until 2003 Iraq was part of a political framework called the Arab regional order. Although drained and enfeebled by the protracted international blockade that had been in force since the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in the 1990s, Iraq until that point had been the forward bulwark against the expansion of Iranian ambitions.
In addition, having signed understandings with Ankara regarding the pursuit of Kurdish insurgents inside the territories of both countries, and as a result of Turkey's essentially westward-looking forward policy, Iraq until 2003 was the fulcrum of the balance between Turkey, which at the time had no desire to play a regional role, and Iran, which was at the time unable to assert itself directly in Iraq. Beleaguered though the Iraqi regime was at that point, weak though its hold on Kurdistan and the south might have been, the mere survival of the regime forestalled any explosion that would reverberate throughout the regional order.
The Arab countries lost the most from the disruption of the regional system that came with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The collapse of that system created a power vacuum that they could neither fill nor circumvent, since they had given their complete, unequivocal and unconditional stamp of approval to the invasion.
The second loser from the occupation of Iraq was Turkey, firstly, because of the impact the Kurdish revival in Iraq would have on the Kurdish question in Turkey, and secondly, because of security threats from Iraqi territory. A third reason for Turkey's loss of influence came because, with the US now on the ground in Iraq, Ankara could no longer act as proxy; and a fourth reason had to do with the sudden and rapid expansion of the influence of its historical adversary, Iran, in Iraq.
THE IRANIAN ROLE IN IRAQ IN 2010: With its occupation of Iraq, the US laid the final stone in its encirclement of Iran. At the time of the invasion, US forces were stationed in Turkey to the northwest within the framework of NATO, in the Gulf to the south, in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the southeast and east, and in Central Asia to the north. Yet, in spite of the magnitude of this unprecedented threat, Iran succeeded in expanding its political sway westwards as never before in its modern history since the creation of the Iraqi kingdom in 1921.
Through the deft and comprehensive deployment of an array of political, intelligence, economic and sectarian tools, Tehran deftly turned the precarious situation in Iraq into political gold. This success reflects a deep understanding of the Iraqi sociopolitical and demographic make-up. It was Iran that effectively put into play a new theory on Iraq's sociopolitical divides, transforming the Arab majority/Kurdish minority ethnic duality that had prevailed until that point into the Sunni/Shia/ Kurdish triad that since then has come to prevail not only in the Iranian and American approaches to Iraq, but also in the outlook of the majority of Iraqi political forces themselves.
As has become patently evident, this new formula for the Iraqi demographic mosaic offers Iran the greatest advantage in the competition to influence the political process in Iraq, in view of its strong sectarian bond with the Iraqi Shia and its linguistic and historical bonds with the Kurds. So strongly did Iran believe that this tripartite formula served its interests in Iraq and its greater strategic interests that Tehran pushed for its incorporation into the new constitution, in order that it would be established as the basis for power-sharing in the new post-2003 Iraq.
Iran also proved adept at applying the laws of unity versus conflict. While it had shared the American desire to topple the Saddam regime, it was equally if not more determined to complicate the American mission in Iraq. Iran had been the US's most fervent, if silent, partner until the occupation of Iraq. Without firing a shot, it reversed the partial victory that Iraq had scored in the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 into a total victory for Iran in 2003. Then, instead of sinking into complacency following its relief from the perpetual threat represented by the Saddam regime, Iran quickly seized upon the American predicament in Iraq in order to strengthen its hand with regard to its nuclear ambitions.
As Tehran became more deeply involved in the Iraqi domestic fray, it held four rounds of talks with the US in the Green Zone in Baghdad, signaling that it and the US were now neck-and-neck as the strongest players in Iraq. A glance at Tehran's political alliances in Iraq is sufficient indication of the sway Iran has acquired there. The Iranian umbrella covers the major Shia forces, such as the Council for the Islamic Revolution, the Daawa Party and Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, and even prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki eventually fell into line after having tried to maintain a diplomatic distance while flirting with certain Arab governments.
Iran's brief incursion into Iraqi territory to seize the Al-Faka oil fields offers a clear gauge of how strong the Iranian influence is among these circles and even in Kurdish circles. Not a single Shia or Kurdish official condemned the Iranian action. As this incident occurred less than three months ago, it also serves as an indication of how the general pattern of allegiances stood on the eve of the Iraqi elections.
According to the prevalent reading in this region of the sectarian politics in Iraq, the law outlawing the Baath Party and the attempt on the part of Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal Al-Lami to eliminate Saleh Al-Mutlaq and his coalition aimed at excluding Sunni Arabs from the political process. While this may appear to be the case on the surface, closer inspection reveals that there was a deeper motivating force that transcended domestic sectarian politics inside Iraq and served Iran's higher interests.
Simply put, this force operated in accordance with the following cause-and-effect reasoning: eliminating and marginalising the Sunnis would provoke them to acts of violence; this violence would cause the collapse of the political process; this would in turn exacerbate the Iraqi quagmire for the US, and consequently US forces, heavily embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, would not be able to launch a military offensive against Iran.
Since Turkey started to play an increasingly influential role in Iraq, Iran (which has the longest border with Iraq) has begun to draw closer to Turkey (which has the shortest border with Iraq) in the hope of containing Ankara's influence and restricting it to the Kurdish question and the fate of Kirkuk. Decision-makers in Tehran know that strong as their hand is in Iraq they cannot take on the US, the Arab countries and Turkey all at once. Contrary to the commonly held impression among its adversaries in the region, Iran is as capable of recognising its limitations as it is of assessing and capitalising on its strategic advantages.
THE TURKISH ROLE IN IRAQ IN 2010: If Turkey was a major loser from the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, it has since become a minor winner. The reversal in Turkey's fortunes in Iraq is largely due to the fact that Turkey now economically dominates the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, due to its ownership of a significant share of the market in this region, the heavy flow of Turkish imports, direct Turkish investment in major infrastructural projects, and, last but by no means least, the fact that Turkey is the transit route for Iraqi Kurdistan's petroleum exports.
Clearly Turkey's interests in the region now extend beyond pursuing Kurdish Labour Party insurgents into the rugged Qandil mountains, and these interests have given it considerable political leverage in Iraq.
In addition, while Turkey has traditionally enjoyed strong relations with the Turkoman in Iraq, it has recently also developed relations across the whole range of ethnic and sectarian communities. These extend not only through the various Sunni factions, but also to Shia Arabs through its close relations with prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, Muqtada Al-Sadr (who received a Turkish commitment to help rebuild Sadr City while on an official visit to Istanbul) and Al-Hakim. The fact that these figures are currently also in the orbit of Iranian influence does not mean that Ankara is trying to lure the Arab Shia away from Iran. But there can be no doubt that Turkey is using its economic clout to influence the calculations of these parties.
Indeed, it is the economic angle, as opposed to the sectarian one that Iran uses, that has enabled Turkey to become the second-most influential player after Iran in Iraqi electoral politics. The whole of Iraq, and not just Kurdistan, offers a market where Turkish products have a competitive advantage that they do not necessarily have in Europe, while Iraq's energy resources are of prime concern to Turkey, not only because of Turkey's increased dependency on oil and gas to feed its growing industries, but also because the pipelines that pass through Anatolia strengthen Turkey's strategic importance.
The Turkish return to Iraq also serves Turkey's security interests. The more Turkey can influence developments there, the more the country can contribute to setting the regional agenda and the more this will enable it to push the frontlines of its defence further and further away from its territorial boundaries.
CONCLUSIONS: Iran's rulers have been obsessed with securing and expanding a regional role for their country since the establishment of the modern Iranian state. Iraq, as a field for Iranian attempts to extend the country's influence, has been a thermometer for gauging Iran's regional ambitions almost since the dawn of history.
Turkey, too, has an extensive history of involvement in Iraq. Mosul, Baghdad and Basra -- the cities that define the contemporary political triangle in Iraq -- were part of the Ottoman Empire until the British occupied Baghdad in 1917, after which Iraq was severed from the Ottoman dominions in accordance with the Sykes-Picot accord.
Iraq was the chief arena for the regional contest between the Safavid and Ottoman dynasties. The fact that modern- day Turkey and Iran have reached an understanding based on common interests in Iraq and the neighbouring area does not indicate that this ancient polarity has been consigned to the past and that the two countries are now about to forge a strategic alliance. Rather, it simply means that the old rules and ways of waging their age-old contest are no longer applicable in the 21st century.
Until 2003, the Saddam regime functioned to keep a cap on internal tensions, preventing them from spilling over the borders, as well as containing Iran's regional ambitions and meeting Turkey's national-security needs to a reasonable extent.
The US-British occupation of Iraq brought an end to the then existing Arab regional order. Although the "moderate Arab axis" that centred on Egypt and Saudi Arabia has continued to make attempts to reach a minimum level of engagement in Iraq, these have not had a tangible effect. Iran has emerged as the clear and uncontested winner from the US occupation of Iraq because of the removal of the barrier to its westward drive. Turkey has emerged as another loser, if not as grave a loser as the Arabs, for security-related reasons.
Since 2003, Iran has successfully established its presence in Iraq, gaining the strongest influence it has had in that country in its modern history. At the same time, it has sought to aggravate the American predicament in Iraq in order to forestall an American military campaign against Iran and to compel Washington to negotiate with it over the Iranian nuclear programme and the formalisation of an Iranian regional role.
Iran and the US have certain common interests and concerns in Iraq. For example, both countries are adverse to a strong central government in Baghdad and to the rise of a powerful Sunni-dominated army that could threaten its neighbours. Iran's Iraqi allies now occupy the positions of power in Baghdad, specifically in the area where US and Iranian interests intersect.
Iran also sees new and favourable prospects in the current elections, in which its obvious local adversary is the Iyad Allawi coalition.
Turkey will be one of the foremost beneficiaries of the gains won by the parties that oppose a federal Iraq. Turkey's local adversaries are the two Kurdish parties and the Al-Hakim coalition, which support the idea of a federation, a formula that would create an independent Kurdistan, which Turkey would regard as a threat. Therefore, every parliamentary seat these parties lose is a victory for Turkey.
Iran, meanwhile, has transformed its strategic position from that of a country threatened on all sides by American forces to the most powerful and influential regional player in Iraq. More recently, however, Iran has begun to yield some room for Turkey in Iraq, because it cannot contend with all the players simultaneously. Still, we can expect Iran to use softer or indirect methods to keep the Turkish role in Iraq in check.
Turkey has made great strides in improving its regional position since 2004. From being at the receiving end of the Kurdish initiative, it has become an active and effective player in northern Iraq, where it has managed to prevent the Kurds from taking control of the oil-rich Kirkuk area. Turkey has also succeeded in extending its network of relations across all shades of the political spectrum, and it now has at least a minimum input in these parties' political calculations and prospects.
Turkey is a prospective heir to the US forces after their withdrawal from Iraq, and its political connections with Washington place it in a favourable position for this role. The Turkish role in Iraq also intersects in some respects with Arab interests, which favour a strong central government, a unified Iraq and the prevention of Kurdish attempts to annex Kirkuk to autonomous Kurdistan.
Turkey has had some influence on the current elections in the light of its support for the factions that oppose partition or federation and because of its economic weight. However, this influence remains limited in comparison to that of Iran. The conflict of interest between Iran and Turkey does not stem from sectarian allegiances. Rather, both Iran and Turkey have used sectarian cards as a guise for advancing their respective interests and ambitions.
In the light of the foregoing, and contrary to the opinion of many analysts in Egypt and the Arab world, an Iranian- Turkish strategic alliance is unlikely. Rather, the interplay between the two powers appears to be aimed at regulating their competition in Iraq, in order to avert confrontation and zero- sum games. In addition, if Tehran is working to contain Turkey's movements in Iraq, Ankara is also working to gain more ground for itself beneath the cover of Turkish-Iranian cooperation in fighting the Kurds and terrorism and in the transport of Iraqi and Iranian gas and oil through Anatolia to Europe.
Whereas Iraq was once a barrier to the push of non-Arab regional powers towards the Levant or the Arabian peninsula, it has now become a staging point for such drives.
The Arabs still have a window of opportunity to influence Iraq, especially if they play upon the discrepancies between the Turkish and Iranian roles. However, if the Arabs fail to develop a proactive policy on Iraq that will transform them from being mere bystanders to at least junior partners in shaping that country's future, even that small window of opportunity will slam shut and Arab interests in Iraq will succumb to a deep slumber.