Global Policy Forum

Sovereignty: Now the Games Really Begin


By Ehsan Ahrari*

Asia Times
June 30, 2004

The overt United States occupation phase of Iraq came to a close on June 28, but its stealthy phase is still continuing. The holding of the transfer of sovereignty ceremony two days earlier than its original deadline of June 30, and the decision to keep it short and simple, were in recognition of the extremely precarious security situation that prevails in Iraq. If it was the beginning of a momentous chapter in Iraq, the secretive, quiet and an uneventful departure of the former Iraqi administrator, L Paul Bremer, did not show it. In the present phase, the activities of the five actors - the US, Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Iraqi insurgents - will not only play a major role in determining the stability of Iraq, but also in formulating the prospects for the legitimacy of the interim government. At least for now, that government is seen as a puppet and a supplicant of the US, at a time when anti-Americanism is on the rise, not just in Iraq, but also across the Middle East.

The Bush administration changed its strategy in Iraq from a largely unilateral occupation - even though a number of nations have their forces present - to a presumed strategy of multilateralism before handing over the authority to an interim government. In that strategy the United Nations and the new Iraqi interim government were given a visible role. However, the very modality of the participation of the former representative of the world body, Lakhdar Brahimi, in the selection of the personnel of that government demonstrated that the UN remained indubitably squeamish about challenging the-behind-the-scenes scheming of Washington in that process.

The lingering question was how independent the interim government was going to be of US pressure and manipulation after it takes charge. Then, some representatives of that body had to go to the UN Security Council and personally assure the doubting permanent members - China, France and Russia - that they will indeed exercise autonomy, and thereby establish legitimacy. For a majority of Iraqis, the ball is now very much in the court of the new government. It must establish that it is not merely a willing supplicant in carrying out the wishes of its Western master. The continued escalation or de-escalation of violence in Iraq in the coming months will prove whether the interim government will fail or succeed in that test. The interim government will be in charge until Iraqis vote in a general election, which must take place by January 31 next year, according to a UN Security Council resolution.

In the meantime, three actors - Iran, Turkey and Israel - are already involved in a dangerous game of promoting their clashing strategic presence and agendas, thereby making Iraq a highly unstable place. Of the three, Iran's presence or maneuverings are the most ancient ones because of Iraq's historical role as the theological center of Shi'ite Islam. As such, Iran regards its role in the future political dynamics of its neighbor as genuine, and highly warranted. What is not clear, however, is what role Iran should play in influencing the nature of the future government in Iraq: whether it should push for a theocracy a la the Islamic Republic, or a moderate Islamic government? From the vantage point of the Iraqi Shi'ites, there is no overriding evidence that they want the creation of an Iran-style democratic theocracy, which is more theocratic than democratic, given the heavy-handed performance of the hardliners regarding political reforms. Even if the notion of separation of religion and politics were to prevail in Iraq, Iran would still play a crucial role in the power play inside Iraq, a reality that is deeply resented by the US and Israel. As a tactical move, Washington must now connive in the Israeli maneuvers to frustrate and undermine the Iranian schemes to enhance its own influence in Iraq, since the success of Israel will be complementary to the American clout and presence in Iraq, or at least so hope Bush officials.

Israel was playing a behind-the-scenes role in helping the Kurds undermine the Saddam Hussein regime for many decades. Since the Kurds hated Saddam as much as did the Israelis and the Americans, there was a powerful basis for that nexus among the three. But another major regional player, Turkey, watched that nexus with considerable consternation.

For Israel and the US, the prospects of the creation of an independent Kurdish state, while Saddam was in power, was a source of enormous comfort, and a driving force for destabilizing and eventually bringing an end of that dictator's rule. However, from the Turkish vantage point, the end of Saddam's regime did not have to result in the creation of an independent Kurdistan, which neither Turkey nor Iran wished to see materialize.

As the Turks envisage it, the creation of an independent Kurdistan means a resurgence of the Kurdish aspirations within their borders for increased autonomy, or even a potential seceding of the Kurdish populated areas of Turkey with Kurdistan. Besides, Turkey has always envisioned a small and independent Kurdistan as a pawn that would be exploited at will by all regional powers, especially Israel. If Israel were to play a crucial role in creating an independent Kurdistan, it would become a willing participant in the regional balance of power-related activities of the Jewish state. Such a potential was not going to be tolerated by Turkey, which aspires of becoming a regional hegemon, the current Kemalist tradition of isolationism notwithstanding.

For Iran, the creation of an independent Kurdistan means another independent Sunni state, and an entity that has the historical basis to be anti-Iranian, given the long-standing hostility of and antipathy to Iran against Kurdish autonomy and independence. Thus, it is easy for Iran and Turkey to cooperate in nipping in the bud all potential for the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Even Iraqi Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani opposed the interim Iraqi constitution, which gave the Kurds veto power. It can be argued, however, that al-Sistani's opposition was focused on safeguarding the Shi'ite power and dominance in the future government of Iraq, and was not necessarily based on theological differences between Shi'ites and Sunnis of that country. As long as the emergence of an independent Kurdistan remains a tenable option, Turkey and Iran are likely to set aside their competitive agendas of regional dominance and focus on eliminating all prospects of the Israeli presence and influence in northern Iraq.

From the preceding emerges a delineation of an intrinsically intricate and clashing strategic perspectives of the US, Iran, Turkey and Israel. The latter two countries have hitherto found many reasons to cooperate in the past. On the Kurdish issue, however, the government of Turkey is as unequivocal about foreclosing all prospects for the creation of an independent Kurdish state, as the government of Israel is about upholding them. Consequently, the Turks have made a decision to minimize the presence of Israeli operatives of Mossad as a condition for cooperating with the beleaguered Bush administration in Iraq. However, Ankara will hold its diplomatic fire for now to see whether Washington will bring pressure on the Israelis to deescalate their activities in Iraq. Besides, Turkey needs all the American support in persuading the Europeans to expedite its membership in the European Union. The US-Turkish strategic agenda has to be pursued with utmost care, but Ankara is in no mood to allow Israel any upper hand in Iraq.

But the Americans view the Israeli presence, not as much aimed at facilitating the emergence of an independent Kurdistan as applying pressure on Iran to minimize its influence in Iraq. More important, the US government could as a last resort hope that Mossad could blow up Iran's nuclear plant at Natanz, a facility that is generally regarded as aimed at manufacturing weapons-grade uranium. The Bush doctrine has fallen on hard times, given the current deteriorating situation in Iraq and in the wake of the continuing intransigence of North Korea to agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Washington could be hoping for an Israeli "miracle" in putting an end to Iran's nuclear aspirations, much in the same way an Israeli air raid destroyed the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq in early 1981.

The Iraqi insurgents may or may not have a comprehensive comprehension of the interplay among these countries inside Iraq, or their clashing and competitive agendas. All they want to do for now is to kill as many Iraqis and Muslim "collaborators" and Western occupiers as possible. They have recently added a new wrinkle to their long-standing strategy of making Iraq a living hell for the outside forces and "collaborators" by taking hostages and beheading them. That objective is clearly aimed at creating a stampede of foreign forces and international entrepreneurs from Iraq.

If the end of occupation on June 28 meant the emergence of a sovereign interim Iraqi government, that reality has not yet materialized, at least not in the eyes of a majority of Iraqis. The most complicating factor for the interim government is not to appear as a pawn in the hands of the Americans, Turks, Iranians, but especially the Israelis. However, with everything else that it must accomplish in the meantime - the most important of which is the ability to reestablish or sustain basic services and oil distribution facilities and reduce the unemployment rate, which is reported to be between 30-60% - the interim government is indeed faced with an awesome, and potentially insurmountable, task.

The interim government in Iraq must do all it can to persuade the Iraqis that the current phase is not the extension of American occupation under another name. At the same time, the continued presence of foreign forces will constantly serve as a reminder that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and President Ghazi al-Yawar are wrong in their claims of being either sovereign or independent of the Americans. In the meantime, the insurgents will also do all they can to prove the new Iraqi rulers wrong.

About the Author: Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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