Iraq like a boiler set at fire

Azerbaijan, Baku, Nov.15 / Trend /

Azer Ahmedbeyli, Trend analytical centre expert

In process of the current Middle East geopolitical revision Iraq is literally in the spotlight. Despite some semblance of stability in the country, Iraq is like a boiler under which the fire was set and is being maintained and which one day will explode. Further developments in the region and the fate of the country are greatly connected with the policy towards neighbouring countries. One must not forget that Iraq’s real enemy is inside the country. It is the ethnic and religious split of Iraqi society. While this remains, Iraq will stay vulnerable and others will make use of it. There is unlikely any chance for Baghdad to remain a neutral observer of events or to engage in double dealing.

Iraq and the Gulf monarchies

Iraq’s political convergence with the Gulf monarchies is declared as one of the strategic priorities for ensuring U.S. interests in the region and supporting the regional security in the report for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations of what the U.S. Congress called ‘The Gulf security architecture: partnership with the Cooperation Council’ published in June this year.

The authors of the report advise the U.S. to pursue a policy of Iraq’s gradual reintegration into the Arab fold which will take Baghdad out of Iran’s influence.

Gulf countries are always wary of their neighbour as the dominant military power in the region. They always hope for external support in the event of a conflict or a war. As well, there was always some distance between them due to sectarian differences.

On the night of August 2, 1990, when Iraq occupied Kuwait and called it its ninth province, estrangement turned into hostility. Around 20 years have passed. The Iraqi regime has changed, but coldness and watchfulness remained. This was evident in March this year at the Arab League summit in Baghdad. Most heads of the Gulf States did not turn up, including the King of Saudi Arabia – the leading country in the Cooperation Council. The official excuse of non-participation was security reasons, although Baghdad then took unprecedented measures.

However, the U.S hopes that the visit of Kuwait’s Emir to Iraq for the first time after the war and its involvement in the March summit will help solve the issues of border demarcation, war reparations and the disposition of missing Kuwaiti citizens. That is, it will create an opportunity for the general rapprochement of the parties and Iraq’s presidency at the Arab League for the first time during 20 years to help turn its political course from Iran towards the countries of the Cooperation Council.

If one tries to describe relations between Iraq and the Arab Gulf countries in a word, ‘estrangement’ would be the most appropriate.

Iraq and Iran

Despite a long and bloody war recalled by the generations in both countries and despite existing differences, relations between the two countries are developing much more intensively and closely than with the Gulf monarchies. The religious identity between Shiite Iran and Iraq, where Shiites make up about 65 per cent of the population, is said to have been one of the main reasons.

Many questions, ready to become ‘problems’ between the two countries, are not inflated due to Iran and settled quietly without a hullabaloo. Iran’s reaction to the recent case of a forced landing of its plane, flying to Syria, was much softer than the Russian reaction to Turkey’s similar actions.

Iraq forced an Iranian aircraft to land after it received relevant instruction from the U.S. government. Iranian Foreign Ministry representative only said that one should not yield to the anti-Iranian sentiment of the Western countries and called on Iraq to be vigilant and not change its foreign policy in favour of the West’s plans.

Some experts believe that the Shiite leadership in Iraq that came to power with the help of Iran does not flatter itself particularly on Iran’s friendship and enjoys the Islamic republic’s favour for strengthening its own power. Loyal Baghdad in turn, is a must for Iran in the current confrontation with the West. In other words the two countries at this historical stage support each other, based on the purely practical reasons. The religious factor is of not so much importance that is attributed to it.

There are many unresolved issues between the two countries. There is the delimitation of the disputed territories (the 1975 Algiers Agreement), and the disputed oil fields on the border of the two countries (Fekka oil region) and claims to the construction of dams by Iran on rivers flowing to Iraq, leading gradually to desertification of the eastern provinces of Iraq. There is also the issue of the activity of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran in Iraq, engaged in subversive activities against the Islamic Republic. Recently, their main Camp Ashraf was closed and members of the organisation were moved to the Camp Liberty outskirts of Baghdad with a subsequent departure to a third country, but Iran insists on their arrest and arraignment.

However, economic relations are on the rise and in terms of trade turnover, Iran is the second trading partner (after Turkey) for Baghdad. This year according to the forecasts, the figure will hit $12-$15 billion – a record figure for the two countries.

Describing the relationship between the two countries, I would use the expression ‘unadvertised alliance’.

Iraq and Syria

The current situation in Syria is fraught with continuous threats to the Baghdad administration. This is in the first place the impact of the Syrian opposition consisting of the Sunni, on changing the sectarian balance of power in Iraq and the possibility of undisguised drawing of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds together. Any of these factors could eventually shake the position of the current government and this is why Baghdad has nothing to do but to support the Assad regime, although it has formally declared it does not support any of the parties to the conflict.

Therefore, at the aforementioned conference of the League of Arab States Iraq rejected demand of the Gulf States on Assad’s resignation as president and necessity of weapon supply to Syrian opposition. Therefore, Baghdad intensifies control on its border with Syria to curb the influence of external Sunni factor, including Iraq’s Sunnis who fled to Syria over a period, in order to prevent its activation inside the country. Therefore, the Iraqi government provides financial support to the Syrian government.

It is difficult to assess the relationship between the two countries amid bloodshed in Syria and terror acts in Iraq, but today it is perhaps preservation of the status quo.