ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Iraq's Impending Iranian Shift

Iraq's Impending Iranian Shift

19 January 2012

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Prior to the 2003 American invasion Saddam Hussein held Iraq together, implementing the Stalinist program of fear through state sponsored terror to keep everyone in line whether they be Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis or the generally Christian minority groups. The Arab secular nationalist Baath party served as the state apparatus, providing the ideological cover necessary for such an iron fisted dictatorship. Saddam knew that letting up on the reigns of state would only lead to the fracturing of Iraq as a political entity. In the wake of the American military withdrawal (even though there still remain thousands of "advisors" and embassy personnel) the essentially Shiite rule of PM Nuri el-Maliki Iraq may be well on its way to civil conflict or even war, and dissolution. The Kurds, leveraging a broad based autonomy, are independent in everything but name, but they are very peripheral to the Iraqi future and much more relevant to issues involving the Turks.

Center stage are the Iranians. Eastern Iraq with its oil reserves and Shiite majority of some 65% is coveted by Tehran and is quite possibly a bargaining chip already in the works. Iranian relations with the West face continuing crises, in particular the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz to oil shipping and the ongoing nuclear program. The Iranian threat to take control of eastern Iraq is certainly a Western nightmare but pales in comparison with the other two. Will Shiite Iraq be a willing partner in an Iranian alliance? El-Maliki has two choices – work with the minority Sunnis to rebuild a unified, even if not quite democratic Iraq or play the Iranian card.

Iraqi-Iranian relations greatly improved since the Americans announced their pullout but that was before the Syrian uprising. Now mutual need and opportunity are knocking at the door. Today Iraqi airspace and land ties connecting Iran to Syria are of crucial significance. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei cannot afford to lose Syria and making Iraq more important than ever as the overland supply route to their beleaguered ally in Damascus. Without Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah Shiites will remain with barely a re-supply route, leaving a diminished Iranian Shiite influence in that country.

Thereby consolidating Shiite Iraq into a satellite ally becomes a major policy objective for Iran and in today's shifting political constellations, an obtainable one. Surveying the Iraqi political scene the March 2010 elections for a 325 member parliament are instructive. Maliki's "State of Law" or Shiite Dawa Party received 89 seats while the more radical Shiites represented by the Iraqi National Alliance dominated by Moqtada al-Sadr's extremist Khomenist faction took 70. Together these two Islamist factions won 49% of the vote. This can be translated into some 75% of overall Shiite support. Yet in a push for national unity aided by the Americans al-Maliki formed a coalition with the minority and more secular Sunni dominated Iraqiya Party led by Ayad Allawi who won 91 seats. In the last few weeks that alliance is crumbling due to policy disagreements concerning Iran and the issuing of an arrest warrant for party member Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on charges of terrorism. PM Maliki wants a new Shiite Iranian directed Iraq, even if it means renewed conflict. Al-Sadr and the Iraqi National Alliance are becoming natural allies in such a cause even if they are not yet in the government.

Let's recall that el-Maliki fled Saddam's Iraq in 1979 making his way to Damascus. In 1982 during the Iraq-Iran War he moved to Tehran where he worked with the Iranian regime in the hope of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. By 1990 he was back in Damascus strengthening ties between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran with an obvious eye to a future Shiite dominated Iraq as a fourth player in the game. In 2012 the time has come to play that card. With mounting Sunni-Shiite clashes, major bombings on a weekly basis and the need to fully consolidate his regime as a result, time is running out for decision making. The Iraqi Shiite regime needs to sweep away any semblance of democracy and firmly align itself with their Iranian neighbors to survive.

The West stands no chance of halting an Iraqi – Iranian alliance and further radicalization. Already American security contractors and embassy personnel are being seriously harassed as a signal of what can be expected. Europe and North America are on the ropes as a result of the financial crisis and the US is overextended in the unfriendly Afghan and Pakistani environments. The West cannot halt an Iranian move into Iraq, especially if invited in militarily or especially through creeping annexation. A Western bombing campaign could do Tehran serious damage however but Iranian retaliation would prove very costly to the world economy. Overall, the EU – US alliance is far more interested in secure Persian Gulf waterways and the free flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil producing states. Hence the Iranian threat to block the Straits of Hormuz. Obviously Tehran will back down but a trade off may be in the works whereby the Iranians are guaranteed no interference by the Americans in a future Iraqi venture. As the Syrian crisis deepens the Iranians will be increasingly desperate for the Iraqi air and land bridge. At least this will allow them the option of reinforcing the Assad regime and send a message to the Syrian opposition that such an option exists.

Although it is far from clear at the moment, Tehran may even be willing to consider a temporary halt to their nuclear program in return for an agreed upon semi-annexation of Shiite Iraq. This can be expected to take place behind closed doors. Let us not forget, such a move would allow for a re-funneling of Iranian oil through Iraq should there be future sanctions against Iranian oil once Tehran restarts its nuclear program. Just like the North Koreans the Iranians know that to avoid a war, the West will almost always negotiate. This time will be no different.

As for Shiite consolidation of control in Iraq, nothing could be better than Iranian involvement. A clear message will be sent that no "Arab Spring" of individual freedoms or liberal democratic ideals will be tolerated. And as for an "Arab Awakening" it will follow Shiite religious lines with Iranian undertones. Iranian Pres. Ahmedinejad knows how to put down rebellions by using the force he deems necessary and without pandering to Western public opinion. Nuri el-Maliki much prefers the Iranian example of state control as opposed to any advice his Arab brethren may be willing to offer.

PM Nuri el-Maliki is on the threshold of the great Iranian shift. How far he will go is anyone's guess, but whatever distance he strides, for sure will not be in the interests of the US and the western powers.