by Nick Ottens
Saudi Arabia warned against sectarian “extremism” in neighboring Iraq last week when thousands of Sunnis took to the streets to protest against the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, the kingdom’s foreign minister, told a new conference in the capital city of Riyadh, “We are convinced that Iraq will not stabilize until it starts handling issues without sectarian extremism… Until these issues are addressed, we don’t think there will ever be stability in Iraq, which pains us.”
Does it? It’s hard to take the prince’s word for it. Saudi Arabia was accused of fomenting sectarian unrest in Iraq during the American occupation and currently supports the Sunni uprising against the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. Saudi officials have suggested that Iraq’s Maliki is little more than a puppet of Iran’s, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis and competitor for hegemony in the Middle East. According to a diplomatic cable that was published by WikiLeaks, the former head of Saudi intelligence described Iraq’s prime minister as “an Iranian 100 percent” in conversation with American officials.
Considering Saudi support for Sunni uprisings in both western Iraq and central and eastern Syria, its ultimate aim may be to erect a majority Sunni state encompassing Al Anbar Province and the Euphrates’ river valley. The region is home to two to three million people and could be a stable nation-state, unlike the artificially composed multiethnic Iraq and Syria which are unfortunate leftovers from the colonial era. Moreover, it would put a Saudi proxy between Iran and its only Arab ally, assuming Assad’s regime survives as an Alawite or secular state on the Mediterranean.
Even if such a scheme doesn’t seem too far-fetched under the present circumstances, Iraq poses a more immediate challenge to Saudi Arabia as a recovering oil producer. Last month, it said it would “never cut production” after an unproductive OPEC meeting. Falah Alamri, Iraq’s representative to the cartel, added: “Some countries that have increased their production in the last two years, they should do so.” A clear reference to Saudi Arabia which lifted output last summer to a thirty year high to compensate for Iranian exports, depressed by Western oil sanctions.
Iraq has since overtaken Iran as OPEC’s second largest producer, but it remains exempt from its quota, granted when the country was recovering from war. Saudi Arabia is still the region’s largest oil exporter.
Oil may be the glue that can hold Iraq’s three factions — Shia, Sunnis and Kurds — together, but when Saudi Arabia pushes it to limit production, Maliki has less money to spend around and threatens to lose the Kurds who have already begun exporting oil independently of the central government to Turkey. Without the Kurds to balance the two Muslim groups, it’s difficult to imagine Iraq not splitting into three.
Without the American military presence to contain the sectarian fault-lines, different conflicts came to the forefront again last year. The central government is at odds with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, not only over Kurdish oil exports — which authorities in Baghdad insist are illegal — but territory just south of the Kurdish provinces where Kurds live but do not enjoy autonomy. Both governments deployed troops to the area in November of last year. Regional president Massoud Barzani, who earlier criticized what he described as Maliki’s increasingly “authoritarian rule,” vowed that the Kurdish paramilitary would deter Baghdad’s “militarism.” The latter argues that security forces were sent to suppress an upsurge in violence, including shooting and bomb attacks while have killed dozens more since.
Maliki’s government doesn’t have anything to gain in an escalation of the violence but cannot very well relent at the same time. The premier’s coalition is fractured. He is trying to reach out to Sunni politicians as well as militant Shia who are perceived to operate under the command of the cleric Muqtadā al-Ṣadr, but his administration faces corruption charges on top of the usual difficulty of forging consensus. Striking a deal with the Kurds could aggravate Sunni fears of isolation. Giving in would weaken Maliki’s prestige and undermine his chances in the next election.
For the moment, neither side is happy with his policy. Both Kurdish and Sunni politicians blocked a cabinet meeting earlier this week in a show of support for the anti-Maliki demonstrations. “They don’t see a response from the government to the demands of the protesters… or to accepting power-sharing,” said one lawmaker.
For the Iranians, it’s a precarious balancing act. Maliki’s is probably the most sympathetic government they can get in Baghdad while Iraq is united. The prime minister spent two decades in Iran while Saddam Hussein was in power. He has taken Iran’s side with regard to the conflagration in Syria, being the only Arab leader not to call on Assad to step down. Sunni secession would leave Iran with a far less powerful neighbor and break the overland link with its allies in Damascus and Lebanon (Hezbollah).
The Saudis are equally apprehensive, if less about the prospect of Iraqi dissolution than their current position. The Saudi-backed government in Lebanon was undermined by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah two year ago. It saw an Iranian conspiracy in the Shia revolt in Bahrain last year.
There was no evidence of Iranian involvement in the island nation’s “Arab Spring” uprising. Rather, the Shia majority rose up against the Sunni regime at a time of region-wide unrest. Even if the toppling of the Bahraini monarchy may have served Iran’s interests, allegations of Iranian conspiracy probably said more about Saudi fears than Tehran’s methods. The most provocative thing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did last year was visit the tiny Persian Gulf island of Abu Musa which is also claimed by the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf Cooperation Council states, led by Saudi Arabia, condemned Ahmadinejad’s trip and are working with the United States to erect a missile defense shield between their countries to deter Iran.
The Iranian-Saudi cold war has assumed global dimensions. Saudi Arabia and the United States suspect Iran of involvement in the death of a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in May 2011. A junior Saudi diplomat was killed in Bangladesh in March of last year. “Gang” members were convinced of the crime. Saudi Arabia is currently believed to be arming the Syrian opposition, something foreign minister Saud described as an “excellent idea” last February. Iran supports Assad with advisors, intelligence and weapons.
Iraq is caught up in this regional power-struggle, but hardly the helpless victim. Radical Sunni groups welcome Saudi financing while Maliki is glad to have Iran’s support. With the United States, Saudi Arabia’s principal ally, highly unlikely to return to the country in a military capacity, however, the future of Iraq probably depends less on foreign intrigue than internal pressures.
As noted, Iraq’s borders are partly the result of European imperialism in the Middle East. There is no such thing as an “Iraqi people,” there are only people living in Iraq. Consolidating them in a single polity may at one point have served the interests of European states; their dissolution may actually bring some quiet in relations between the region’s major powers today.
The formation of separate Shia and Sunni states should ease region-wide tension between the two groups. (Although an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq is likely to stir Kurdish separatist movements in Syria and Turkey.) Iran and Saudi Arabia will have one less place to fight over. The end of Iraq as we know it won’t be the end of their hostile relationship. Indeed, such separate Iraqs could easily fall victim to the influence of their respective protectors. But at least the people there will be less likely to have to live through another war as neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is quite prepared to risk that.
Emma Sky and Harith al-Qarawee, “Iraqi Sunnistan? Why Separatism Could Rip the Country Apart—Again“, Foreign Affairs, 23.01.2013.