Global Policy Forum

The Uncertainty of Iraq's Transition


By Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

Power and Interest News Report
July 26, 2004

The form of a future Iraqi state is uncertain primarily because of the conflicting aspirations of the three major political communities in that country. The majority Shi'a will be satisfied only if they play the dominant role in the new Iraq, the Kurds are determined to hold on to the autonomy they have gained since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, and the Sunni Arabs are struggling to regain the power that they had before the fall of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime.

The ways in which the three communities move to fulfill their aspirations will be the major determinants of whether Iraq becomes a strong federation, a weak confederation or a set of mini-states. Which sides will bargain for compromise and at what points, and which sides will draw bright lines in the sand and where is as yet unclear. That basic uncertainty is compounded by resource issues and external powers with interests in the country.


Although the Iraq war was fought mainly for strategic reasons -- to achieve a decisive foothold in the Middle East for the United States -- it also aimed at putting Iraqi oil resources more securely in the service of Western economic interests for influence over pricing and the particular benefit of American and British oil companies. As is the case for America's other war aims, its resource objectives are unlikely to be met in great part. Plans to privatize Iraq's oil industry were set back by the announcement in June by its oil minister that the transitional regime would move to revive the country's National Oil Company, created by the Ba'athist regime in 1972.

It is to be expected that any regime or regimes that succeed the transition will seek jealously to guard the country's oil resources. Beyond that general interest, there is a tangle of potential conflict. Iraq's oil fields are concentrated in the south and north of the country. The south presents a simple picture -- it is the heart of the Shi'a community. If the Shi'a are not satisfied with the shape of a new Iraq, they can split off and take the revenue of the southern fields for themselves.

The north is more complex -- the fields are outside the Kurdish provinces, but they are located in areas with large Kurdish populations and are coveted by the Kurds. The maximum aim of the Kurds is to annex the oil fields to their provinces and monopolize their revenues. As a second-best alternative, they will fight for a greater share of those revenues.

The Sunni Arabs, who are in the oil-poor center of Iraq, want to hold on to the northern fields and -- as has been consistently the case throughout Iraq's history -- have a greater interest in a united Iraq than the other two communities.

The distribution of oil revenues can be the deal maker or deal breaker of an Iraqi state. On the one hand, a strong federation with a centralized oil policy is to the advantage of all the communities. On the other, that solution will not work unless each party is satisfied that it has been treated justly. Depending on the willingness to compromise, oil resources will be a factor favoring strong federalism or weak confederation tending to dissolution.

In order for Iraq's oil revenues to flow sufficiently to benefit its communities, the oil industry's infrastructure must be modernized and protected from sabotage, and exploration and development must proceed. Until the insurgency is contained, those pre-requisites will not be met. In the present chaotic situation, every outside corporate and state actor with an interest in Iraq's oil is jockeying for advantage, yet is unable to move decisively pending political stabilization, if it comes.

France and Russia have contracts dating from the former Ba'athist regime. British and American corporations want to shoulder the French and Russians aside. The Japanese, Canadians and even smaller powers like the Czechs also want a piece of the action. The Turks have suggested that treaties negotiated after World War I entitle them to a share of revenues from Iraq's northern oil fields. None of the external actors is certain with whom it will eventually have to deal and on what terms, encouraging each of them to hedge their bets and court different factions, which increases uncertainty.

External Powers

Often bound up with oil, the strategic interests of a number of foreign powers encourage them to try to influence the form that an Iraqi state will take after the transition, intensifying instability and uncertainty.

Iran has thus far been the biggest winner from the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, gaining greater leeway to pursue its nuclear program, new influence over Iraq's Shi'a south and prospects for the revival of its bid for hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Iran can be expected to support the moves of Iraqi Shi'a to dominate an emerging Iraqi state and, if that fails, to encourage the formation of a Shi'a mini-state that would be dependent on Iran for protection. Like the Iraqi Shi'a, the Iranians have been playing a waiting game, letting the transitional process work to possible Shi'a advantage. But if Iraq's Shi'a were to become disaffected with the process, Iran would become more assertive.

To the west of Iraq, the Syrian regime has the overriding interest of preserving its hold on its own population. Confident that the United States is not prepared to pursue a military path to regime change against them, the Syrian Ba'athists aim to make the American occupation of Iraq as unsuccessful as possible in order to discourage future interventions. The Syrians can be expected to keep their borders as open as possible to insurgents and to provide covert material support to insurgent groups. American economic sanctions against Syria are mainly symbolic and pose no threat to the regime. A Kurdish population, which is increasingly restive, is a more serious issue, pulling Syria toward collaboration with Turkey and Iran, prefiguring a partial realignment of alliances throughout the Middle East. Forced by the balance of power to concentrate on self-protection, Syria is a defensive destabilizer.

As Seymour Hersh has reported, Israeli security elites are worried by the rise of Iranian power and have been cultivating the Kurds in order to keep the Iranians off balance, straining Israel's alliance with Turkey. Operation Iraqi Freedom has left Israel with less security in the region, forcing hard choices. How far Israel will go to support Kurdish aspirations is uncertain, but the stage is being set for a proxy conflict between Syria backing the Sunni Arabs and Israel backing the Kurds. Israel would like to deal with a unified Iraq that was disciplined by the United States, but it is not confident of that outcome and would welcome a weak confederacy or a break up as a second-best alternative.

Turkey is determined to do what it can to reduce the power of the Iraqi Kurds so that they will not inspire and support its own restive and rebellious Kurdish minority. The Turkish regime has been clear that it will resort to military means to protect its interests as a last resort and has positioned itself as the protector of the Turcoman minority in Iraq's north. Turkey has vital economic relations with Iraq and, like Israel, would prefer to deal with a pro-Western unified Iraqi state. Unlike Israel, Turkey cannot countenance a break up of Iraq that would make Kurdish autonomy or independence permanent. Like Syria, Turkey resists Kurdish expansion in northern Iraq, but, unlike Syria, Turkey has an interest in Iraq's stability.

Jordan, another neighbor with a vital trading relation with Iraq, backed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and then was forced to submit to American influence. Oil poor and relatively weak militarily, Jordan is reliant on American protection and shares an interest with the United States in a unified Iraq under generally secular rule that follows Western policies. The Jordanian regime has suggested that it would help train Iraqi security forces for the transitional regime if it is invited to do so. Yemen, which has submitted to American influence in the conflict with Islamic revolutionaries, has made a similar offer. Neither Jordan nor Yemen will play a decisive role in the direction of Iraq's transition, but they are, though reluctant, among America's few assets.

The Islamic revolutionaries who have infiltrated the insurgency are a further destabilizing factor in the transition, having an interest in fomenting civil disorder and gaining from it bases of operation for relaunching their struggle to overthrow secular regimes and regimes that collaborate with the West in the Middle East. Their power will rise or fall depending on the failure or success of the transition in producing a stable Iraqi state.

The simultaneously parallel and conflicting interests of the regional forces impinging on Iraq's transition add to the uncertainty surrounding its outcome. Each player is constrained by the others and often by its internally conflicting objectives. No player has control over the struggle between Iraq's three major communities, the results of which cannot be determined. Rarely is there such complexity in a political situation, offering fertile ground for miscalculations on all sides. Each player is at once drawn to hold back and to plunge in. Such a conjuncture of power and interest militates against stability on the whole and discourages the economic investment that would work in favor of a unified Iraq.

Powers from outside the region -- the United States with its military presence and financial aid, and other industrialized states that are potential sources of aid and investment -- pin their hopes on a secular regime with Shi'a leadership presiding over a strong federation bolstered by compromises acceptable to the three major communities. At present, their most satisfactory option is the continuation of the transitional regime, maintaining current Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as its head. The prospects for that outcome would be enhanced by the willingness and ability of the industrial powers to provide effective aid, and on American commitment to give robust military support to the transitional regime. It is not clear that either of those conditions will be met, leaving the future of Iraq in the hands of its three contending communities, pushed and pulled from side to side by the country's regional neighbors.

The presence of its occupying army in Iraq gives the deceptive impression that American influence will be paramount in the transition. The behavior of Iraq's regional neighbors indicates that their policymakers have not been deceived. Iraq is up for grabs.

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