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President Trump’s Middle East Plan

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Considering what reported in the media, President Trump’s Middle East Plan – not yet fully outlined – is based, according to his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, on four basic principles: freedom of religion, freedom in life and professional opportunities, freedom of movement and freedom of political opinions.

 There are also Opportunities, i.e. the possibility for young people not to be carried away by the conflicts that have ruined their fathers’ lives, as well as Safety and Security – in life and work – for all Middle East citizens.

 Finally, in the Middle East Plan there is Respect among people and Respect for Religions, Parties and ethnic groups. Protestant ethic and business – the classic pair of US foreign policy. Almost a reminder of Max Weber’s book “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”.

 In economic and operational terms, Trump’s Plan focuses on infrastructure, especially in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

 This is the central idea in Trump’s Plan, i.e. diluting, dissolving and finally eliminating the conflict between Israel and its neighbouring Arab States through a vast mass of investment.

 This can create the best climate for a stable peace between the Jewish State and the Islamic (but also secular) universe surrounding it.

 There is no precise data on the investment connected to President Trump’s new Middle East Plan, but the most authoritative and reliable sources mention a total amount of 25 billion US dollars for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be provided over ten years, in addition to an investment of 40 billion US dollars in Egypt, Jordan and, probably, the Lebanon. Said investment shall be made conditional upon  a series of intermediate results to be assessed. Also in these cases, the investment will be made over a decade.

 Currently this is the most certain data available, but there is also news about an investment for the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the rest of the Arab countries of at least additional 30-40 billion dollars, especially in infrastructure.

 From whom does the money come? Mostly from the “rich” Arab countries, but also the USA will contribute to said investment, although we do not yet know to what extent.

 Between February and March, Jared Kushner visited the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain. He met Turkish President Erdogan and then paid a visit to Saudi Arabia -where Kushner has an excellent personal relationship with Mohammad bin Salman – and finally to Qatar.

 Kushner, the soul of President Trump’s Middle East policy, clarified that, in addition to investment, the Plan regards  the borders between the different regions.

  Indeed, Kushner, rather than thinking of new borders, imagines a Middle East “without borders”.

 The usual post-modern myth of no borders, according to which all the borders that separate States are artificial, dangerous, unnatural and always lead to wars.

 Indeed, the opposite is true: wars break out because there are not enough borders.

 According to Kushner, the idea of no borders is associated with an increase in trade and movement of people and, hopefully, with an increase in “opportunities”. It is not true that the countries trading among themselves do not wage wars: just think about the USA and the Third Reich in the Second World War or about the endless British actions in Central Asia and India. Quite the reverse. The more countries trade one another, the more there are reasons to distort or establish strategic hegemony.

 The opportunities mentioned by Kushner are the same  which currently apply to Central African migrants, leaving their countries (which are not “at war”, as European leaders  believe) to reach the EU, or to the refugees of the war in Syria, moving to Turkey, the Balkans and Central Europe. Opportunities without realism. Not even a Hollywood film can turn the tragedy of migration into a market of very easy “opportunities”.

 Obviously the elimination of borders also means the evaporation of the “Palestinian State”.

 Indeed, it will be difficult for the Arab countries to fund  economic reconstruction with Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia does not even want to completely lose the Palestinian strategic asset, just now that Iran is penetrating the political and military system of the Gaza Strip and the PNA’s territories.

 However, even Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is de facto ruling Saudi Arabia, still wants “onesingle  and independent Palestinian State, with Jerusalem as its capital city”.

 It is hard to believe that Saudi Arabia and Israel think like Kushner, the young man in favour of no borders.

 This is exactly the core of the issue.

 If the United States must directly take care of the support for Palestinians, in a context of very delicate intra-Arab and Arab-Israeli equilibria, problems will certainly arise and not only at legal level.

 For example, since March 2018 the Taylor Force Act has laid down that the United States will no longer be in a position to financially support the Palestinian National Authority, since it helps the jihadist terrorists currently detained in Israeli prisons.

 The Act also sets strong limits on financial support for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

 A significant legal impediment for the Middle East “no borders” actions of the current US Presidency.

 Furthermore, the Gulf States are not very happy to fund, almost completely, President Trump’s Middle East Plan and would like a much stronger US financial commitment than the one currently envisaged.

 The Gulf countries and the other Arab countries included in the Trump Plan want to see how much money the USA will make available to its Plan, and only later, where necessary, they will pay their own share.

  President Trump has also organised an “economic workshop” in Manama, Bahrain, on June 25-26, in  which also businessmen and entrepreneurs from Europe will be invited, but above all from Asia and the Middle East.

 The format of the Conference organized in Bahrain has already been decided: Trump’s Administration will invite only Finance Ministers and not the European, Asian and Middle East Foreign Ministers.

 There will also be many and very important leaders of large global companies, from around the world, to discuss mainly investment in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

 President Trump’s Plan, however, was discussed confidentially with 25 of the most important managers of international companies at the Milken Conference held in Los Angeles on April 29-30 last.

 On that occasion, President Trump’s potential counterparts for his Middle East Plan were certainly Ibrahim Ajami,  responsible for the venture capital of Mubadala Abu Dhabi’s largest investment vehicle; Joussef Al Otaiba, the Emirates’ Ambassador to the USA; Khalid al-Rumaihi, the CEO of the Bahrain Economic Development Fund; Ibrahim Salaad Almojel, General Manager of the Saudi Arabia Industrial Development Fund; Deloitte Director Margaret Anderson; Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araùjo and many other managers of investment funds and companies.

 Israel has been invited to the workshop in Bahrain, probably with Finance Minister Moshe Kalon – or others, if there are developments in Israel’s political crisis.

 It should be noted, however, that Israel and Bahrain have no diplomatic relations and this mission would be a strong spur for regularizing relations between the two countries.

 Nevertheless also the PNA is boycotting Trump’s Administration and his Middle East Plan, but the White House has already invited a large group of Palestinian businessmen, who could participate in Manama’s Conference only in a personal capacity.

 The old EU ruling class has reacted to Trump’s Plan in a fully predictable way. It still supports the “two States” solution for Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) – something reminding us of the old Cold War – with a panel of over 35 European leaders, including Massimo D’Alema, Franco Frattini, Ana Palacio and Willi Claes, the former NATO Secretary General.

 In fact, apart from the PNA’s resentment against President Trump’s Administration, in the Plan – albeit only generically outlined – there is no specific rejection of the “two States” solution.

 To tell the truth, currently – as in the past -the survival of the Palestinian State – in its present form – is often prevented by the Arab countries themselves, which are more interested in a stable watchdog on the Israeli border than in a stable country and solution for the Palestinian people.

In the United States, the Democrats’ criticism against President Trump’s Middle East Plan, is focused on three principles. Firstly, Democrats do not accept the “reality on the field”, including Israel’s foreseen annexation of part of the West Bank. Secondly, they reject the ethnic or religious division lines. Thirdly, they refuse to accept Israel’s permanent control of the occupied territories.

 Diminutio capitis for Israel and, according to some analysts, everything will go well. And if the exact opposite were true?

 Nevertheless, at strategic level, even without the occupied territories, the possibility of an attack on Israel from the  East – even hetero-directed – increases vertically.

 Moreover, this has long been happening alsoin the Gaza Strip.

  The opposition to Trump is essentially punitive only vis-à-vis Israel, while it considers the Palestinian region  irrelevant from the military and strategic viewpoints.

 Throughout 2018, as many as 17 rocket launches were carried out on the Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip alone, all of them with multiple carriers – in addition to other military operations from the Palestinian National Authority’s territory in the West Bank, and from there against Israel.

  President Trump, however, can also rely on the fact that the relationship between the Arab countries and Israel has changed radically over the last 50 years.

 Currently four Arab States, namely Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have great ascendancy – also at material level – over the Palestinian organizations, although the strategic interest of a certain Arab world in the PNA and its territories is now minimal.

 Furthermore, unlike the past of the Cold War, both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates currently have ongoing good relations with Israel – albeit inevitably covertly.

 Therefore both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates can currently  exert significant political influence on both Israel and the Palestinians.

 Hence a structural crisis of the US presence in the Middle East, while both Saudi Arabia and Jordan – despite the war in Syria-have never wanted to check the US willingness to hold its positions in the Middle East.

 If the USA leaves the Middle East, Saudi Arabia could play its card for peace with the Jewish State, while the other Arab and Islamic countries interested in the region, namely Egypt, the Emirates and possibly even Turkey, could also play the game of expanding their area of influence, with or without the agreement with Israel – which, however, would be finally inevitable.

 Certainly there is considerable disillusionment of the Arab world with the Palestinians and their “cause”.

 The PNA is a state, economic and strategic failure of  very great relevance. The Saudi Arab world and the Emirates do not want to maintain pressure on Israel indefinitely, right now that the Jewish State- after correctly analysing the new Middle East strategy – has good relations with the Gulf oil powers.

 The Palestinian region could be an inevitable and decisive asset against the Shiite region dominated by Iran.

 In this new system, Israel has the possibility of being less isolated regionally, but also of bearing less Arab pressure for solving the problem of the Gaza Strip, as well as less Palestinians’ international defence.

 In fact, Saudi Arabia and the other allies, including Egypt and Jordan, no longer bet on the Palestinians, given the break between Hamas (which is an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood, as also Al Sisi’s Egypt knows all too well) and Fatah in the Territories.

 The fragmentation of Palestinians stultifies the strategic advantage they can offer to the rest of the Arab world.

 With a view to preventing other countries, especially Turkey and Iran, from being given credit for championing the Palestinian cause, Saudi Arabia and its allies still support the PNA by mouth.

 Hence either a new Middle East Peace Plan, different from the usual one, is devised, or we will fail miserably.

 As usual, the European Union is at least ten years behind, with its “Cold War-style” support for the Palestinians. As if we were still in the period of the Kippur War.

 The United States can solve the Palestinian issue by defusing it, as well as asking the Arab allies to have a different relationship with Hamas and eliminating the new Iranian presence in the region on the border with Israel – apart from Hezbollah, which is another issue.

 Moreover, the no borders myth must be avoided. The region must be well controlled precisely because it will become a place for major investment.

 Finally, it should be established that Israel can expand eastwards, but only in the framework of a new international agreement on the Middle East, which will apply also to  borders, areas of influence, division of international work and investment – also at military level.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Elections, participation and national security

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Democratic establishments in the entire political structures worldwide have been founded based the people’s votes and views. It is for these reasons that people are considered the most main component in political, social, economic and cultural developments.

Normally, the most important component in analyzing the degree of a political establishment’s admissibility and legitimacy can be drawn based on the percentage of the people’s participation in elections to determine their own fate and set the path for future by voting for their own favored candidates. 

The Islamic Republic of Iran, which was established based on the people’s will following the victory of the Islamic Revolution and overthrow of the despotic Pahlavi regime in 1979, is not an exception. The entire affairs in the ruling system in Iran have been founded based to religious democracy. 

According to the Principle 6 of the constitution, the country’s affairs must be handled in accordance to the public votes (election or referendum), based on which the people’s vote plays a pivotal role in how to manage the country. 

In other words, according to an affirmation by the constitution, ballot boxes, as a national covenant is the only way towards materialization of proposed objectives which can meet the people’s demands in all areas. This is the point that has clearly demonstrated its effectiveness over the last 40 years. 

Based on the abovementioned issue, it can be understood that involving people in Iran in managing affairs is of high importance at least from two aspects:

*The people’s active role in envisioning their future and meeting their demands;

*Admissibility of the political establishment and symbol of unity and national solidarity. 

The importance of these two issues will be more obvious when we realize that the concept of national security in a democratic establishment is highly dependent on public participation. It is because these components that guarantee and reinvigorate the national security rely on the confidence principle as the most prominent pillar of the social wealth in any political establishment whose main sign is the percentage of public participation.   

The people’s involvement is only one side of a coin in democratic establishments. The other side of the coin is the role of the ruling system and political structure. The system, in coordination with the people, is tasked to fulfill its role properly.   

Accordingly, as the people’s role in this regard is vital, the role of ruling system is even more vital. 

It should be mentioned that proper fulfillment of roles by a ruling system’s pillars in legislating, supervising and executing affairs are essential in order to meet the people’s demands in the best way possible. In turn, this will ease living conditions, meet the people’s social and economic demands, and prevent spread of corruption and will ultimately bring about social justice.    

From our partner Tehran Times

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Rojavan crisis: A big threat to women’s rights future

Silvia Fornaroli

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A war crime:  The murder of Hevrin Khalaf is a slap in the face for those who believed in the Rojava dream.

On October 12, the Kurdish human rights activist was ambushed, tortured and shot dead on the road to the city of Qamishli. According to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the 35-year-old women was “taken out of her car during a Turkish-backed attack and executed by Turkish-backed mercenary factions” and the killing shows that“the Turkish invasion does not differentiate between a soldier, a civilian or a politician.

The spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) — which groups Syrian rebel factions — said they had not made it as far as the highway known as the M4.“I confirm to you that our forces have not reached the M4,” Youssef Hammoud said to Reuters, denying their responsability for the ambush.

What we certainly know is that the Ahrar al-Sharqiya group entered Syria from Turkey and took control over the area of the M4 highwaywhere other murders took place. Founded in 2016 by some members — including Iraqi commander Abu Maria Al-Qahtani — of the Al-Nusra Front, re-branded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and described as the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the group was originally active in the province of Deir ez-Zor but temporarily managed to seize the territory between Mambij and Qamishli.

The rebels managed to do so due to the vacuum caused by US’ troops withdrawal from northern Syria, that president Donald Trump had announced on October 7.

On September 24, in a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had declared his intention to create a “safe zone” in the border area. His goal was to establish a huge peace corridor in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees that, despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, would surely put the local minorities at risk of genocide. Trump’s betrayal — as Kurdish people describe it — might be a gift to a deep-rooted process of ethnic cleansing or, at the very least, it would lead to a new exodus.

Future Syria party: an attempt to multi-ethnic democracy

Hevrin Khalaf was the secretarygeneral of the Future Syria Party (FSP), a political group born with the aim of overcoming the sectarian divisions that have ravaged Syria during the civil war and unify Arab, Kurdish and Syrian Christiancommunities.

The FSP was established after the capture of Raqqa from the Islamic State and it was created as an ideological partner to the SDF — the Syrian Democratic Forces. Its aim was to build a democratic state that represented all components of Syrian society and to replace Bashar al-Assad’s regime withmulti-ethnic democracy.

Nobody except the Kurds wants the project of a “Kurdistan state” to succeed: they are, in fact, still split up among four countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — , where they have been sufferingbrutal harassment and repression for the past 100 years.

Taking advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war, in January 2014 they managed to carve out a self-controlled area ruled by the PYD — the Democratic Union Party — , which is now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) or Rojava.

Rojava’s territorial expansionhas alarmed Turkey, which firmly opposes the PYD and regards it as an alleged extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),  currently listed as a terroristic group.

The Kurdish-Turkish conflict progressively worsened and in June 2017 tensions flared up on the border with the Afrin Canton — one of the self-governed Rojavan cantons — unitil it became part of the Turkish occupation.

On October 5, Khalaf made some declarations and expressed her concern about Turkey’s imminent intention to invade Rojava again, which would cause in her opinion a potential demographic earthquake.

“During the time (ISIS) held power near the border, Turkey didn’t view it as a threat for its people. But now that there is democratic constitution in northeastern Syria, they threat us with occupation,” Khalaf said referring to the Rojava region.

Women’s rights in peril:

Syrian Women’s Council recently condemned Khalaf’s murder — alongside with the aggressions against unarmed civilians — and called for international action: “We at the Council of Women in Northern and Eastern Syria condemn and denounce this cowardly act against the martyr Hevrin Khalaf.”

Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government has long been accused of limiting women’s rights and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s views on feminism go exactly in that direction. Co-founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) he has combined liberal economic policies with religious conservatism. Although he denies to lead an Islamic party, he has often stated that the AKPhad become a role model for all Muslim countries.

Women’s freedom in Turkey has often collided with the above-mentioned Islamic agenda. On March 8 2019, riot police intervened to block Turkish feminists’ march in central Istanbul, when they were celebrating International Women’s Day. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, as they were accused of chanting and whistling during the call to prayer.

Although they said that those acts were not aimed at the mosque,“They disrepected the Azan (call to prayer) by slogans, booing and whistling,”Erdoğan claimed.

During his administration the AKP leader made numerous controversial comments: on various occasions he advocated for increasing population in Turkey and called on Turkish women to give birth at least to three children.

On November 24 2014, he attended a summit in Istanbul on justice for women where hebasically declared that women are not equal to men and addressed them exclusively as mothers.

“Our religion (Islam) has defined a position for women: motherhood”he claimed to the audience, sparking furious debates in the media. “The fact that a woman is attached to her professional life should not prevent her from being a mother”he added, emphasizing that work should not represent an obstacle to maternity.

He went even further calling women without children “incomplete” and made his position about family planning very clear: contraception was not for Muslim families and birth control was described as a form of “treason”.

In line with these ideas, in 2012 Health Minister Recep Akdag put forward an anti-abortion law plan so that the procedure could belegally restricted or banned, prompting fury among women’s activists.

In terms of gender-based violence, things are not better: according to the Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), in the last six years there has been an increase in the reported case of violence against women. The number of women murdered by a partner or relative is constantly growing as Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu (“We Will Stop Femicide” Platform)reports and its General Secretary Gülsüm Kav is struggling to ask for better protection by the law.

Rojavan utopia: Jin, Jîyan, Azadî

“Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” a Kurdish slogan reads: Women, Life, Freedom.

It does not come as a surprise that the revolution in Rojava— where women arelegally considered equal to men — sounds like a dangerous threat to honor-shame societies. In this regard, de-facto autonomous region — which name literally means “the land where the sun sets” — is a one and only model in the whole Middle East area.

RojavanConstitution, in fact, is characterized by the implementation of direct democracy and confederalism and it “ (…) does not accept the concept of state nationalism, military and religious.

Inspired by the beliefs of American anarchist Murray Bookchin it stresses the importance of “social ecology”, as a fundamental aspect of the revolution: in this regard, the exploitation of natural resources is comparable to the domination of men over women.

Thisutopian political system is established by the so-called Charter of the Social Contract, which promotes — along with ecology and gender equality — self-determination, secularism, cooperative economy and multi-ethnic coexistence.

The emancipation of women is seen as such a key point that one of Rojava’s governing ideologies is the “Science of Women” — or Jineology.

Based on PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s statement“A country can’t be free unless the women are free,” this innovative concept represents a step forward for the women’s liberation movement and it stands in opposition to the sexist paradigm which reflects the subject-object dichotomy “men act, women are.”

The social experiment is the brave response to centuries of oppressive tradition, such as underage marriage, poligamy and patriarchal mentality: these massive changes regard social, cultural and political structures are bright example of authentic modern feminism.

Although the region’s autonomy is not officially recognized by any international state, the PYD entertained some foreign relations; Hevrin Khalaf was often referred to  as “Rojavan Minister of Foreign Affairs” and she was very appreciated for her diplomatic skills.

Women and jihad

Gender equality is behind Rojavan political, social and military upheaval.

In Syria, the armed wing of the PYD is thePeople’s Protection Units (YPG) along with the all-female militia called Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

YPJ combatants have subverted traditional gender roles and stereotypes, fighting sexism and promoting female emancipation; jineology, in fact, is a multi-disciplinary philosophy which permeates every aspect of society, including the military sphere.

Furthermore, in Kurdish community centres they stress the importance of self-defence,in order to practically teach women how to stand against patriarchy-induced abusesand help victims of domestic violence.

Kurdish fighters —  now world-wide famous — have proved that women can be effective soldiers just as much as their male counterparts. The advocacy of women’s rights, in fact, was severely put in danger during ISIL occupation, which represented the greatest possible form of female subjugation.

The armed forces of YPJ played a central role in the liberation process and they stood up against terrorism in very many ways.

Kobanê was the city that involvedthe largestfemale participation: the area, in fact, soon became symbol of the revolution, especially with regard to patriarchal traditions. Some of the fighters were married at a young ageor their husbands were much older than them, they served as nothing more than bodies used for sex and considered just as a vehicle for making children.

“I wanted women to have agency and will, and to build a free identity for themselves”commander Meryem Kobanê said in an interview. The women of the YPJ has tasted freedom and the more they were oppressed the more they developed a strong warrior spirit, to the point that they shared the frontlines with their male comrades.

It seems hard to understand, but while ISIL militants treat women as inferior beings, they also fear them on battlefields. According to jihadist doctrine, in fact, those who die in the name of Allah will be rewarded with 72 virgins, but they will not be admitted to heaven if they are killed by a woman.

Female emancipation in Middle Eastern countries clashes with this contrasting and misogynistic concept also; therefore, jihad represented a crucial chance to women’s liberation.

“Isis would like to reduce women to slaves and body parts. We show them they’re wrong. We can do anything.” Asya Abdullah — Movement for a Democratic Society’s coalition co-chair — said to the The Independent in the middle of the civil war in 2017.

Women’s rights future in Syria:

Kurdish fighters seeked vengeance for those victimized by the Islamic State, but women’s oppression still represents an ongoing problem in Syria.

On International Women’s Day, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)documented the deaths of at least 27,464 females from March 2011 until March 2019at the hands of the main perpetrator parties to the civil war; 11.402 of them were children.

The rate of gender-based violence increased during the years of the conflict, especially in rural territories andin rebel-held areas, where women were particularly targeted, becoming victims of war rape and honor killings. Syrian security forces have been accused of torturing female inmates that — according to human rights lawyerAnwar al-Bunni — were often imprisoned without charges.

Although the condition of women in Syria has improved in many fields, there still is a lot to do in terms of gender equality and experts rate the country badly concerning human rights agenda.

For instance, Syrian Constitution — which is partially based on Sharia laws — does not recognize women as active subjects in marriage contracts, which have to be signed by the groom and the male guardian of the bride, but not by the bride herself.

Hevrin Khalaf was the voice for these women also and her death is now a symbol of the world’s hypocrisy, which is turning its back on her people once again. Today’s crisis is frustrating the efforts ofRojavan revolutionaries and it represents the umpteenth threat to Middle Eastern women’s rights future.

If Rojava’s dream dies, it will be a slap in the face for many of us, but Kurdish activists has long proved the world that turning the other cheek would never be an option.

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The Formation of the Political Elite in Modern Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Factors

Ruslan Mamedov

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Three major events transformed Iraq and the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988 and the Gulf War of 1991, the latter of which led to a change in the domestic policy of President of Iraq Saddam Hussein and thus brought about new dynamics in the relations between the Iraqi government and the country’s ethnoreligious groups (mainly the Shiites and the Kurds). Iraq was under an embargo imposed by the United Nations at the time, which limited access to resource distribution for a part of the elite and, combined with the government’s practices that marginalized a part of the population, led many to flee the country, strengthening the opposition forces in exile. The United States used both economic and military tools to exert pressure on Baghdad. The U.S. military tactics destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and undermined the stable operation of government agencies in the country.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 allowed the American side to exert multifactor influence on the formation of a new elite. Even the technical implementation of the voting process, not to mention the principles of the new Constitution, were dependent on the United States. But the United States had directed the political process in Iraq even before the country adopted its new Constitution in 2005 by creating two key bodies: the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). On June 9, 2004, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1546 that endorsed “a sovereign Interim Government of Iraq” and a “timetable for Iraq’s political transition to democratic government.” [1]

The 2005 election urged forward by the United States established a new political elite that received international recognition but limited legitimacy at home. Since the election was held in a very difficult environment and was boycotted by a large share of the Sunni population, just how representative it exactly was has been called into question.

Following its own logic in relations with Iraq and being embedded in the regional context, Iran decided to use the levers already at its disposal to influence the Iraqi political process and shape a favourable political elite in the country. In fact, this process began long before the U.S. invasion, because movements opposing Saddam Hussein had already been formed and their leaders often lived in Iran. Despite the fact that most religious and political movements in Iraq can trace their origins back to the 1950s or 1960s, as the Islamic Dawa Party, which has become the most formidable opponent of the Iraqi authorities, actually developed during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. The leaders of Dawa, who were in exile, mostly lived in Iran.

Starting in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, the exiled opposition was increasingly influenced and dominated by Kurdish ethnocentric and Shia faith-based political forces. Opposition figures that aspired to keep the vision of Iraqi nationalism homogenous and centralized increasingly gave way to political forces driven by an ethnoreligious agenda [2]. Depending on the political situation, Iran continued to lend limited support to various Kurdish forces opposing the central authorities in Iraq.

After 2003, Shia political forces sought to form coalitions, a key example of which was the alliance between the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in 1982 and had engaged in close cooperation with the United States even before 2003. The key constituency for SCIRI was Iraqis of Iranian origin and the Marsh Arabs that migrated to Iran at times of crisis. Baghdad has always seen these population groups as untrustworthy [3]. SCIRI was headed by representatives of the country’s religious elite – the well-known Hakim family of Shia religious scholars. Support from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani consolidated the position of Dawa and SCIRI in post-Saddam Iraq.

After the United States occupied Iraq, the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the influential Sadr family called his supporters to take up arms against the occupants. His followers formed the Mahdi Army that killed hundreds of American soldiers. The Sadrist Movement attained considerable influence in parliament and represented Shia communities from south and central Iraq, the Marsh Arabs and the Baghdad district of Sadr City (named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who opposed the regime and suffered at its hands) [4]. The Sadrists’ military wing retained considerable influence over the state security system.

Despite having some political clout and a few ministerial posts, the Sunnis found themselves marginalized in the new situation and did not have influence over the decision-making process in Baghdad as the case for, for example, the Nujaifi clan from Mosul. The main forces opposing the United States and the central government in Baghdad were the Naqshbandi Army (which had ties to the former Ba’ath Party) and Al Qaeda in Iraq [5]. Attempts to inject Sunni groups (the Sahwa or the Al-Iraqiya movements, which also included Sunnis) into the political elite were generally unsuccessful.

The ongoing marginalization of the Sunni population by the Nouri al-Maliki government and the radicalization of society, compounded by falling oil prices and the war in Syria, led to the establishment of an alliance of various groups in 2014. That alliance became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS (a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia). The new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who assumed the post in 2014 and represented the Dawa Party, decided not only to fight ISIS, but also to carry out some reforms. His efforts were greatly facilitated by the positions of Tehran and Washington, which have tacitly supported Abadi’s initiatives to form a technocratic government to fight corruption since 2016.

By jeopardizing the patron-client relationship and the distribution of wealth enjoyed by the old Iraqi establishment, al-Abadi fell into disfavour with many, including members of his former party Dawa. As a result, many wanted to oust him from the post of Prime Minister. But Iran and the United States put pressure on their partners within Iraq to prevent that from happening. This led to a reconfiguration of political forces in 2018 that nevertheless preserved the same elite.

The training of new security forces in Iraq by American experts, including in U.S. training camps effectively amounted to training various militias or groups linked with militants from the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army. For them, collaboration with the United States was a matter of pragmatism, since everyone realized that Washington would play a defining role in the future federative Iraq. At the same time, the Shiites, who had become the dominant group in Iraq, were looking to the Iranian model of governance.

The formation of the new political elite in Iraq and the country’s security forces was thus directly dependent on the presence of U.S. occupation forces, the policies of Iran and Iran’s ties with movements opposing Saddam Hussein. The dominant Shia political groups proved to be very diverse and heterogenous, with different political interests and a strong radical influence.

The 2018 Election Results in Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Trace

Stopping ISIS was the main objective for the Iraqi Army. But achieving a national conciliation between the political forces proved to be a key condition for the country where Sunni interests were deeply embedded in the power structure. The “Kurdish issue” also popped up on the agenda. The independence referendum held by the Kurds in territories controlled by Erbil in September 2017 put Baghdad and Prime Minister al-Abadi personally in an awkward position before the 2018 election and lent strength to their political opponents.

Similar to the fight against ISIS, the United States and Iran sided with the central government. This led Baghdad to carry out a military operation to restore sovereignty and even regain control over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. This loss for Kurds – meaning a failure of the referendum – revealed a rift between the two major forces of Iraqi Kurdistan: the Barzani and Talabani clans (the latter was experiencing division itself after the death of former President of Iraq Jalal Talabani). However, this heralded a new stage in the consolidation of power of the central government and even a rise in nationalist sentiment.

A critical event that happened even before the 2018 election was the split within the State of Law Coalition and the Dawa Party, which had been in power since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Most of the seats in parliament were won by the Saairun coalition (also known as Marching Towards Reform), giving it the upper hand in forming the government. The coalition was headed by the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is an extremely influential religious figure. However, this did not prevent his movement from using a nationalist and anti-corruption agenda as a platform. However, the Fatah Alliance (sometimes translated as the Conquest Alliance), a coalition that had been accused of ties with Iran on numerous occasions, finished a close second to the Sadrists, winning almost as many seats in parliament. The Fatah Alliance is believed to have been supported by the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. However, none of the abovementioned parties won a majority in parliament. It was clear that even the most prominent players would have to negotiate a compromise with each other, as well as with less influential forces.

It was more than three months before the new parliament met in early September 2018. The political process stalled as thousands of people took to the streets for rallies and demonstrations, with the biggest protests taking place in Basra. The political forces eventually had to find common ground and start forming a government. Again, it was the intervention of Marja Ali al-Sistani that became the catalyst for agreement.

The first step that signalled the redistribution of power was the election of Chairman of the Council of Representatives (Parliament) of Iraq. On September 15, 2018, the 37-year-old member of parliament from the province of Anbar and member of the Al-Hal (“Solution”) party Mohamed al-Halbousi was elected by a majority (with 167 votes) as the Speaker of the national parliament. Hassan Karim from Saairun took the post of First Deputy Speaker. He garnered an even larger majority than the speaker, receiving 210 votes. On the whole, al-Halbousi can be considered a compromise figure both for Iran and the United States. His first visit, however, was to Kuwait, which hosted the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq early that year. This suggests that the new speaker is counting on the support of the Gulf monarchies and intends to focus on reconstructing the country after the war.

The next step was the election of the president and prime minister. The presidential post had been traditionally held by a representative of one of the largest Kurdish political forces, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Despite the presence of several other candidates on the list, the most likely was former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, considered to be pro-American. Salih was not running as a single candidate for Kurds, as had been the practice since 2003. The very return of Salih to the PUK (he had quit the Union just before the election to form his own party) and the support he received as a presidential candidate were predictable.

But the Iraq Kurds could not agree on a single candidate for president, which, again, exposed a division among the elites. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (Barzani clan, Erbil) nominated Fuad Hussein, the former President of Kurdistan Region. Evidently, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah reached a last-minute agreement on the distribution of power at the federal and regional levels. Barham Salih ultimately became President, and Fuad Hussein became Minister of Finance.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet are a key junction in the power architecture of Iraq, and it was this point that became the focus of struggle. All parties had to trade concessions and search for compromise. A way out of the deadlock was ultimately found, and the solution was not in favour of Prime Minister al-Abadi. Several days before the election it was clear that the pendulum had swung in favour of former Minister of Oil and Vice President of Iraq Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

The country continued to be run based on the quota principle of Muhasasa Ta’ifia, with a member of the Kurdish community as president, a Sunnite as a parliament speaker and a Shiite as prime minister. In reality, the system that had been established remains essential for Iraq. External forces, both in Iran and the United States, continue to work with Shiite political and military groups. They remain an organized force and are viewed as the basis for security and statehood, just as they were before the 2018 elections.

U.S.–Iran Relations under Donald Trump and Challenges for Iraq’s Political Elite

Iraq has traditionally been influenced by the dynamics of U.S.–Iran relations. The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 reduced friction between the United States and Iran, strengthened pragmatic groups within the Islamic Republic, and created relatively favourable conditions for stabilization both in the region and in the Iraqi domestic political process. By the end of 2017, Baghdad had regained control of key cities and settlements largely thanks to the efforts of the al-Abadi government to coordinate the assistance of the two opponents and most important players in the region (the United States and Iran) in the fight against ISIS. However, with the defeat of ISIS and the removal of the topic from the global agenda, the United States and Iran no longer had any grounds for further “silent” engagement, so it ceased.

A new round of confrontation began following the arrival of the Donald Trump administration in 2018 and the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, which put Iraq in an uncomfortable position. The U.S. sanctions against Iran that followed Trump’s decision caused serious damage to the country’s economy and endangered any agreements between Tehran and third countries due to the extraterritorial nature of the sanctions. For example, under the threat of sanctions, the French concern Total withdrew from the largest project to develop the South Pars oil and gas field by selling its stake to the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

Large-scale U.S. sanctions against Iran could cause serious damage to Iraq due to the interdependence of the economies of these neighbouring countries. Iraqi representatives have held regular meetings with members of the U.S. administration, stressing the need for the country to cooperate with Iran. Baghdad has been able to secure several deferrals, and Washington has exempted Iraq from the sanctions regime (for 90 days each time).

Iran continues to be a vital source of electricity for Iraq. However, even though there is a need to replace Iranian oil on the world market – and Washington is working on this task – there is an increasing role for Iraqi oil in it. If the American side decides to stick to its policies, then it can also impose sanctions against Iraq, which will lead to increased risks and instability.

Constant pressure on Tehran did not lead to a revision of the “Iran deal,” which is what President Trump initially wanted. In such circumstances, Iran could have set about escalating regional affairs. In this case, it had the tools to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East and, of course, in Iraq. For a long time, Major General and Commander of the Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran, Qasem Soleimani, was considered the key coordinator of Iranian actions in Iraq. He is credited with many of the achievements of Iranian politics in Iraq, including the agreement on the results of the elections and nullifying the results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.

Iran demonstrated particular care and accuracy in establishing its influence on the Iraqi political process after the Iraqi elections in 2018. During their visits to Iraq in 2019, both Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani held meetings with almost all political leaders and public figures over the course of several days. Unlike the Iranian side, U.S. representatives usually arrived with unplanned visits. On one such occasion, Donald Trump personally flew to Iraq to visit an American base, where he met with soldiers. The trip did not include meetings with any leaders of the variegated Iraqi political spectrum.

Iraq’s foreign policy as a whole became more balanced after the formation of the new government, where Mohamed Ali Alhakim stood at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Iraq prefers to have several points of reference to help it pursue its course. For example, while visiting Moscow, Alhakim outlined Iraq’s principled position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, a policy which runs counter to the U.S. agenda in the region. At the same time, Baghdad has its own interests, namely, to ensure security on the Syria–Iraq border. In addition to cooperating with the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Iraq interacts with Iran, Russia and Syria within the framework of the Baghdad information and coordination centre. At the regional level, Iraq seeks to become a platform for dialogue between various regional and global actors [7].

Since 2003, the United States and Iran have gained serious influence on the formation of the Iraqi elite. The new Iraqi elite, as well as its individual parts, has been influenced by the policies of Iran and the United States and the dynamics of their relations. Many politicians who came to power in Iraq after 2003 were previously in opposition and lived in exile. Part of this future elite has made a choice in favour of the West, while a much larger part has chosen Iran. After the 2018 elections in Iraq, the processes of distributing power and determining the degree of influence of external players continued.

It became increasingly clear that the elements of Iraqi politics that had become traditional since 2003 had been preserved. The political forces that had established themselves at that time and the external players supporting them – the United States and Iran – continue to perpetuate this system. At the same time, there are calls within the country to eliminate the influence of external players in determining the country’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. This, of course, creates opportunities for other countries to pursue their interests, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Russia, but also makes them adjust their policies regarding the United States and Iran, which have a traditional presence in Iraq.

The unintended symbiosis between Iran and the United States in Iraq, brought about by the similarity of their interests in this country, is gradually being lost as the fight against ISIS fades into the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the 2018 elections and the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran created a new configuration of forces, Iraq remains dependent on these external players, and its political elite continues to be based on the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system, approved by the country in 2003. Despite the demand for change that exists in Iraqi society, the current political elite, even though it may sacrifice individual political representatives, will retain its position without any fundamental changes.

1. Sapronova М. А. The Constitution of Iraq in the Past and in the Present. Moscow: Middle East Institute, 2005, p. 84.

2. Hashemi N., Postel D. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 117.

3. Minyazhetdinov I. K. The Balkanization of Iraq: The Factors of Reproduction and the Spread of Political Violence // Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century (Middle East and North Africa). Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2015, p. 263.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Sapronova M.A. Op. Cit, p. 88.

From our partner RIAC

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