Pakistan Monthly Review
AN INDEPENDENT SOCIALIST JOURNAL
Nothing human is alien to me – Karl Marx
Volume 1, No. 9, September 2019
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Iran’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict and its zealous support for Shi’ite movements in the Middle East are part of a long term strategy through which Tehran seeks to establish a permanent foothold in Arab countries either with a Shi’ite majority or a significant Shi’ite population 1. Owing to the demographic distribution in the region, the majority of the Middle East’s Shi’ite population is concentrated in a hypothetical ‘crescent’-shaped region, which begins from Lebanon and includes Syria, Iraq and Bahrain. Officially, Iran is yet to declare the formation of a Shi’ite crescent as a foreign policy objective, but Tehran’s expanding influence in the region has been a cause of concern for Sunni Arab elites. The Sunni Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, view Tehran’s geopolitical sway as a threat to the existing regional order and accuse the Iranians of fomenting trouble in the Arab world by allying themselves with dissident Shi’ite communities. From an Iranian perspective, the alleged threat of a ‘Shi’ite Crescent’ is merely the result of Arab misinterpretation of Tehran’s strategic goals 2. Iran’s drive to establish friendly regimes in the Middle East has less to do with ideological reasons and is essentially a pragmatic move to balance the presence of US troops in the region 3. Also, the Middle East’s Sunni-Shi’ite conflict can alternatively be understood primarily as an inter-Arab affair, as Shi’ites in the Arab world protest for greater rights and representation in the region’s Sunni dominated regimes.4
The term ‘Shia Crescent’ was first used by Jordan’s King Abdullah in 2004 5, in the backdrop of looming parliamentary elections in Iraq. Tehran had intervened heavily in the run up to the 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections and its support for sectarian Shi’ite factions had resulted in Sunni political parties boycotting the polls. The 2005 Iraqi elections resulted in victory for the Iran-backed Nouri al Maliki, whose sectarian policies instigated a bloody civil war in the country and sowed the seeds of the rise of ISIS in the region 6. After the rapid collapse of the Iraqi Army in the Sunni-dominated Anbar and Mosul provinces, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards helped elements of Iraq’s Army and allied Shi’ite militias to eventual victory over ISIS forces in the country.
Though Tehran’s anti-ISIS operations appeared to have consolidated its position as the dominant external power in Iraq, recent events point to growing tensions between the two Shi’ite neighbours. Iran’s perceived dominance in Iraq has come under threat from the growing profile of Iraq’s Shi’ite nationalists 7, who are now questioning Tehran’s unparalleled sway in Iraqi internal affairs. The Shi’ite nationalists in Iraq are led by firebrand cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose Saairun alliance emerged as the largest coalition group in the 2018 parliamentary elections. Once a hardliner and considered close to Iran, al Sadr has of late successfully reinvented himself as a nationalist politician with constituencies across the political spectrum. Ideologically, the Saairun coalition includes political parties representing supposedly conflicting interests. The inclusion of the Communist Party of Iraq in the alliance 8 is one such example. Al Sadr’s pragmatic brand of politics and his populist appeal have also found support amongst Iraqi Sunnis who view him as a rare Shi’ite political ally not toeing the line of Tehran. Emerging as a major threat to the Iranian position in the Middle East, al Sadr has demanded the expulsion of Iranian officials from his country and called for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al Assad 9. Unlike other Shi’ite politicians in Iraq, al Sadr is well regarded in the power corridors of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both Sunni regional powers.
Iraq’s apparent tilt away from Iran stems from a multitude of historical factors and a common collective experience of the region’s Arab population. Historically, Baghdad was the centre of the mighty Sunni Abbasid Empire, which remained at loggerheads with the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty, based in modern day Iran. The tragic collapse of the Abbasids in 1258 was followed by the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which too placed Iraq as a front line region in their countless wars with the Safavids. The defeat of the Ottomans in the First World War marked the beginning of the modern Middle East, as territories that were part of the Ottoman Empire were divided into two major zones of influence by victorious imperial powers under the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement 10. As a consequence, southern Iraq and Jordan came under British influence whereas Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq went to France. The agreement initially suggested an international administration for Palestine, but the region was placed under a British Mandate in 1920. Soon after, rival Jewish and Palestinian factions clashed with one another. The British policy of turning a blind eye to if not encouraging Jewish migration into Palestine under its Mandate marks the beginning of the Israel-Palestine problem that exists to this day. The clandestine Sykes-Picot agreement, known formally as the Asia Minor Agreement, has its genesis in the pre-war discovery of vast oilfields in the Middle East by the European colonial powers. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain began work on two separate oil pipelines 11 originating from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. The British pipeline passed from Kirkuk to the modern-day Israeli city of Haifa, whereas France’s pipeline stretched from Kirkuk till the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The two pipelines, which cut across the entire region, constituted the basis on which the British and French would divide the Middle East into separate artificial protectorates. Disregarding demographic polarity in the newly created zones, the victorious colonial powers installed loyal monarchs in the region to maintain their influence 12. Iraq remained under the grip of the pro-British King Faisal until 1958, when Arab nationalist officers of the Iraqi Army, inspired by the revolutionary rhetoric of Gamel Abdel Nasser, overthrew the monarchy and established the Iraqi Republic 13. Internal divisions within the new military leadership of Iraq led to years of political instability, which was finally resolved after General Ahmed Hassan al Bakr of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party captured power in July 1968. Saddam Hussein, a close aide of General al Bakr, had played a key role in the 1968 coup and slowly began to accumulate greater power. Eventually, Saddam Hussein forced al Bakr to resign and assumed formal control in 1979. In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution’s chaos, Saddam Hussein launched a massive surprise invasion of Iran in September 1980, anticipating a swift end to the conflict. Despite some initial successes and massive material support to Iraq from the Sunni Arab monarchies, the Iranians fought the Iraqi Army to a standstill after eight long years of bitter fighting. Bilateral ties remained tense 14 until the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime was toppled by an American-led invasion in 2003, after which the Iranians ironically managed to massively increase their clout in Baghdad.
Throughout much of Iraq’s eventful past, the destiny of its people has been tied closely to that of the larger Arabic-speaking world, and Iranian influence in the country is a fairly recent phenomenon. Despite the fact that Iraq has a majority Shi’ite population, it has much in common with other Sunni Arabs in the region, such as a shared language and a history of mutual cooperation spanning centuries. More importantly, Baghdad seeks to gain much needed material benefits by developing closer ties with the Arab world, particularly the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc. Previously, Tehran’s monopoly in Iraqi affairs meant that the GCC states had viewed Baghdad with suspicion 15, but events of late point to a warming of relations. The GCC’s de facto leader Saudi Arabia, while taking note of the changing political climate in Baghdad, has recently signed an unprecedented agreement with Iraq for mutual intelligence sharing 16. High level Iraqi delegations also visited Riyadh in April 2019 to discuss GCC investment for the recovery of Iraq’s war-torn economy and the rebuilding of its infrastructure. The increased Iraqi-GCC contact has culminated in the two announcing the start of a joint five year plan 17, which would focus on deepening security ties, more trade and encouraging citizen contact.
The Iraqi-GCC rapprochement, though a significant development, should not come as a surprise. Contrary to popular perception, alliances in the Middle East are organised primarily on calculated considerations of national interest and not on sectarian lines. A case in point is Hafez al Assad’s decision to ally Syria with Tehran in the 1970s decade. Hafez al Assad was a member of the minority Alewite Shi’ite sect but the reason he cultivated a close alliance with the Iranian regime was to offset the growing influence of Saddam Hussein. Far from being Tehran’s proxy, Hafez al Assad’s Syria practiced a fiercely independent foreign policy and the late secular strongman was careful not to let the Shi’ite Islamist Iranians gain a foothold in Damascus. Likewise, Azerbaijan, despite being an ethnically Persian and Shi’ite majority nation, has maintained an intimate relationship with both Western powers and Sunni states in the region 18. The Middle East’s alliance system is best explained by Gregory Gause of the Brookings Institute, who describes the prevalent dynamics as constituting a new ‘cold war’, similar to the one the region went through in previous decades 19. The 1950s and 60s had witnessed a scramble for regional control between conservative monarchies and the emerging socialist republics. The monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, sought to offset revolutionary and anti-colonial notions championed by Egypt’s Nasser, leading to a period of sustained tension between the two camps 20. Egypt’s catastrophic defeat in the 1967 Six Days War along with Syrian and Iraqi opposition to Nasserist hegemony ultimately defused tensions with the region’s monarchies and ended the lengthy conflict. The modern Middle East shares startling similarities with the environment of the 1950s and 60s. According to Gause, the two main protagonists, Saudi Arabia and Iran, seek to influence the domestic affairs of weak regional states. Sectarianism is often employed as a tool in the influencing game, but both rivals have compromised on the principle in their quest for alliance building 21. The Iranians have successfully courted GCC dissident Qatar, whereas Saudi Arabia is seeking to develop deeper ties with Iraq and had previously enjoyed a cordial relationship with Yemen’s Zaidi Shi’ite dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Sectarianism is a more profound factor in states with weak institutions such as Lebanon and Syria, whereas countries in the region with a developed state apparatus have managed to keep the issue in check.
The case of Kuwait is a glaring example of how a Middle Eastern state with a rentier economy and sensitive demographics has proved to be both internally stable and resistant to outside influence. Like other GCC states, Kuwait is ruled by a conservative monarchy and the majority of its citizens are Sunni Arabs. However, the country also has a large Shi’ite population, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of its citizens. The fragile sectarian dynamics of Kuwait make it particularly susceptible to instability and its geographical proximity to both Iran and Saudi Arabia position it as an ideal battleground for regional control. The Kuwaiti leadership has succeeded in avoiding such a scenario by engaging in a careful balancing act and initiating domestic political reform to mitigate public dissent. Although a member of the GCC and considered close to the Saudis, Kuwait has maintained a healthy relationship with Tehran 22 by refusing to become embroiled in regional proxy conflicts such as the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. On a number of occasions, the Kuwaitis have demonstrated maturity and skillfully played the role of a mediator in the region 23. On the domestic front, Kuwait has transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a semi-parliamentary system. The unelected Kuwaiti emir still holds the most authority, but the country’s parliament is by far the strongest in the Gulf region and has wide legislative powers. Kuwait’s experience provides valuable lessons to vulnerable Middle East states such as Iraq on the need to strengthen state institutions so that domestic players do not invite foreign interference. Likewise, Kuwait’s co-opting of its significant Shi’ite population 24 into state institutions is a framework that can be followed elsewhere in the region with large sectarian minorities. Again, this holds true especially for Iraq, which has a sizeable Sunni population that feels alienated from the country’s mainstream 25 . Finally, Kuwait’s delicate handling of its bilateral ties with regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia is another example for Baghdad to follow, especially at a time when the country is engaged in a lengthy period of rebuilding.
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