Iraq: A New Reality

GLOBAL CENTRE STAGE

For a failed, non-united, hastily constructed and wounded country like Iraq, there is no other way than to accept a new reality – disintegration into three states-Kurdistan, Sunni Iraq and Shi’ite Iraq, writes Hossein Aghapouri

The dynamics of the emergence of new ‘nation-states’, national identity and nationalism have inspired two academic schools. The school, known as ‘primordialism’ is comprised of scholars who consider the nation to be an ancient phenomenon. For this group, nationalism represents a ‘specific political effect of the nation, a vehicle for realisation of its historical rights to a national identity.’ The other school, known as ‘modern’ or ‘constructivist’, considers nationalism as the base and the ‘prima causa’ of a nation or national identity. In this view, the nation is an effect of nationalist politics, a political invention, and hence, a modern construction.

Contrary to the primordial perspective that locates national identity in history, the modern school suggests that nationalism and nation building truly began to emerge since the end of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, and the beginning of the 20th century in the Middle East region. From this perspective, the notion of nation is not only a cultural-historical proposition, but is also a legal and political concept which emerged through the creation and development of print media.

Essential Elements for Nation Building

Both groups believe in some basic common issues for a nation or nation-state, whether rooted in history or a modern construction. These common features include history, language, geography, and the most important of all, ‘thinking and believing in unity’, and cooperating in unity and oneness. The more these above mentioned elements exist in a nation’s building process, the more successful the nation will be in bringing unity, prosperity and development. On the contrary, with regard to those countries in which their nation building has the least or the minimum of these basic elements, their nations have suffered from civil wars, corruption, discrimination and despotism to a greater degree.

Almost all of the failed and less successful states in today’s international world have passed through a mistaken or incorrect process arising out of experiencing the results of such policies. The failed and less successful states in the Middle East are the best example of building nation-states based on less than genuine or authentic factors rather than real, common features influential in building nation states. Iraq is one of the best examples among failed states in nation building.

The Establishment of Iraq

During the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1916, Great Britain and France divided parts of power vacuum territories between themselves through a clandestine treaty called the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The agreement resulted in the division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine into various French and British-administered areas. Thus, these countries were constructed arbitrarily according to the will of Great Britain and France, rather than out of respect for the people’s demands in these countries.

Since the establishment of Iraq, successive central governments in the country have tried to maintain relative stability via the use of force. Until the US invasion in 2003, this force and discrimination against Kurds and Shi’ites was applied by the Sunnis. The fall of Saddam Hussein raised expectations of the emergence of a semi-democratic Iraq through the election process and democratic mechanisms. Yet, in the end, the Shi’ites became dominant and tried to monopolise power by marginalising other religious and ethnic groups such as Sunnis and Kurds.

Post Saddam Era: Shi’ite Domination and Iran’s Role

One of the outcomes of Iraq’s domestic disunity is that politics has always led its elites to turn to external powers for support in domestic affairs. Iran, which previously had hostile relations with Saddam Hussein, gained immensely following the withdrawal of the US army from Iraq. Iran infused its Shi’ite allies in central power in Baghdad, preventing the US from controlling Iraq after Saddam, and leading to an expansion of its influence throughout the country1.

The Islamic state of Iran focussed on soft power mechanisms throughout its Shi’ite sphere of influence, utilising economic, political and military implementations to promote its political and ideological agenda. A pro-Iranian Iraq has also helped Iran escape the increasingly progressive, severe international sanctions on the regime2. Hence, Iran’s strategy for Iraq is to maintain the geo-political status-quo. To what extent Iran succeeds depends on other regional factors such as the crisis in Syria and the Israel-Hezbollah/Hamas problems, as well as the internal question of its waning economy resulting from the nuclear wrangle with the international community.

Sunnis and Kurds Marginalised

For the Sunnis, who possessed the most critical axes of power throughout the history of Iraq, the feeling of marginalisation by their Shi’ite rivals has been interpreted as political death. In addition to the Sunnis, who are reluctant to stay within a Shi’ite dominant political structure, the Kurds have claimed their own semi-autonomous region and have been enjoying their Kurdish government. Thus, they have been able to survive, even though their political existence is not dependent on Shi’ite policies in Baghdad. Furthermore, the Kurdish aim of independence is not a new demand. Although it has not been declared as obvious in recent days by Kurdish leaders, it has existed throughout the history of Iraq and other countries with Kurds.

Interests of Secular Turkey and Sunni Saudi Arabia

Until several years ago, Turkey denied any Kurdish identity and was reluctant to recognise the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraqi Kurdistan. During the AKP government, Turkey attempted to bring about a paradigm shift to the Kurdish question inside the country, and particularly towards the Kurdistan Region in north of Iraq. Turkey established an alliance with the Iraqi Kurds during the past several years leading to the Kurdistan Region becoming one of its strategic economic partners3. The recent exploration of oil and gas reserves in the Kurdistan Region has encouraged Turkey to create a closer alliance, especially with the Kurdistan Democratic Party as it represents the leading Kurdish party of the region. In addition to energy interests, Turkey considers the current Kurdistan Region or the future Kurdistan country as a moderate or secular buffer zone against Sunni Islamic extremists, as well as its historical rival, Shi’ite political ideology led by Iran.

Sunni Saudi Arabia is another influential regional power in Iraq’s politics, but its interests clash with Shi’ite Iran and aligns with Turkey. The enduring power-game between Iran and the Saudi Kingdom, based, in part, on the opposing religious ideologies of Shia and Sunni, has certainly played out in post-Saddam Iraq. Furthermore, Saudi’s leaders have to deal with internal pressure from Islamic Salafi clerics to be more involved in Iraq to defend its Sunni population. In a broader historical and ideological context, Saudi’s religious goals in Iraq run parallel to the Turkish aim of increasing its influence in the region, like the great Ottoman Empire. The greater the power vacuum in Iraq, the more forceful the competition becomes between Turkey/Saudi and Iran.

A Realistic Outcome

These contesting perceptions alongside ethnic/religious geopolitics of various countries have turned political contours into bloody ethnic and religious disputes, and wars. Today, the failed state of Iraq is close to complete disintegration. Social services are inadequate; the threat of terrorism is overwhelming; security does not exist; living standards have dropped considerably; and sectarian violence is predominant. Moreover, the involvement of almost all neighbouring countries and international powers means that Iraq has become the backyard for confrontation between Shi’ite-Iran and Sunni Arab/Turkey.

Iraq, today, faces a new reality. For such a failed, non-united, hastily constructed and wounded country, there is no other way than to accept this new reality – disintegration into three states – Kurdistan, Sunni Iraq and Shi’ite Iraq. People in Iraq have suffered more than enough. Hopefully, the chaos arising out of the birth of new entities will not last long and the transition to a new order, peace and stability will be achieved with a lesser degree of violence and bloodshed, and some humanity.

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Author

Hillel Frisch

Hossein Aghapouri is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relation at the University of Auckland. References : 1. Frederick W. Kagan et al, Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq and Afganistan: A Report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War. Accessible at : http://www.aei.org/files/2012/05/22/-iranian-influence-in-the-levant-egypt-iraq-and-afghanistan_171235465754.pdf 2. Ibid 3. Gareth Stansfield, “The unravelling of the post-First World War state system? The Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the transformation of the Middle East,” International Affairs 89: 2 (2013) 259–282.

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