Mass protests broke out in Baghdad on October 1, 2019, and continued all month long. The demonstrations spanned a large part of the country and have still not fully subsided. During that time, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior reported 100 people dead and over 1000 injured». The latest information puts the number of casualties at over 260 people.
Among the reasons cited for the actions are the general discontent with mass poverty and unemployment (over 20 per cent of the working-age population), the lack of social services, and corruption. However, starting from the second day of unrest, the protesters’ slogans began to turn political, with one of the most popular being “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime,” which is hard to see in any other light than a direct reference to the sentiments of the Arab Spring.
This association with the events of 2011 is far from accidental. The developments in Iraq are taking place in the same temporal continuum as the unrest in Algeria, which has been going on for almost a year. The same goes for mass protests in Sudan that took place on the eve of a military coup that ended up changing the political regime, and the turmoil in Lebanon that bears a striking resemblance to what is going on in Iraq. The nuances in each of these countries may differ somewhat. Still, one thing is clear: the demand for profound changes in political systems continues to span the entire region, and these four countries, which had remained either relatively unscathed or untouched altogether by the 2011 wave of protests, have now, eight years later, been pulled into the general area of socio-political aftershocks.
At the same time, in the case of Iraq, we are talking about the crisis of an entirely new political system — one that is barely 15 years old. And this system came into being with a number of “birth injuries”, under the influence of external forces and with dubious, or at least controversial, borrowings. The framers of Iraq’s constitutional system intended its model of political representation to support the stability of the post-Saddam order in the country. In reality, however, it failed to support stability during the entire period of its existence. The ethnic and denominational nature of the political system, which could not be reduced to a parliamentary-presidential republic, and the electoral system and process were riddled with pitfalls that gave rise to inevitable cataclysms.
The real ethnic and denominational situation resulted in the Shiites dominating the political spectrum, which entailed severe political consequences. For the first time, the Sunnis found themselves in a position of the ethnic-denominational minority. They felt the growing inferiority of their situation, which prompted many of them to join ISIS terrorist camps. The same situation motivated the Kurds to steer a course for independence. The overall terrorist threat during the expansion of ISIS rallied the Shiites and the Kurds to fight the pseudo-caliphate together. Yet, after ISIS was defeated, the Kurds held a referendum on independence. As a result, the country, which had not yet recovered from the terrible damage done by terrorists, once again found itself on the brink of collapse.
Although Kurdistan did not secede from Iraq, the republic, while formally remaining a federation, began, in reality, to drift toward confederation. And this was happening not only along the line dividing Kurds’ autonomy from the rest of Iraq, but also along the lines of the increased geographic dissociation between predominantly Shia and Sunni districts, and the latter development entailed elements of ethnic cleansing. The continuation of the processes threatened the collapse of the country.
We should also note the military-political trends that overlapped with these developments. The military and the police have been in a state of collapse ever since the start of the American occupation in 2003, and the ubiquitous emergence of armed ethnic-denominational units has become a leading trend. Kurdistan already had the Peshmerga units that remain the backbone of its military until today. Immediately upon the entry of U.S. troops, Shia districts formed armed units, such as the Mahdi Army, etc. And the Sunni strip had al-Qaeda units and Ba’ath guerrilla units acting independently of each other, which later merged to form ISIS.
Initially, the military and the police, which Iraq needed both to develop its statehood and to fight terrorism, were being built under the auspices of the United States. The process had essentially been a failure until Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) entered Iraq and took over. The IRGC succeeded in creating the combat-ready and highly motivated Shiite al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF). It was the PMF alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga (not the regular army) that played the leading role in liberating Mosul and in other critical episodes of the fight against ISIS.
However, after the victory over terrorists, the division of armed forces on ethnic-denominational grounds could no longer be tolerated, since it was fraught with the real danger of an armed confrontation between the principal ethnic and denominational communities in the state. It is noteworthy that discontent with this situation was expressed not only by Kurds and Sunnis but also by some Shiites inclined to view the PMF as an instrument of Iran’s military and political dominance in Iraq.
The 2018 parliamentary elections were a watershed moment in Iraq’s political developments. One of the most remarkable results of the electoral campaign was the victory of the Saairun bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a popular public figure. The son of an influential Shia theologian killed by the Ba’ath regime in 1999, al-Sadr led an uprising against the American occupation in 2004. From the outset, he positioned himself not only as a Shia leader but primarily as an Iraqi patriot striving to unite all of the country’s national forces regardless of their denomination or ethnic origin. Further down the road, this trend in Muqtada al-Sadr’s political conduct played a crucial role in his public activities.
Following his theological studies in Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr was accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah and, upon his return to Iraq, he transitioned from extreme radicalism to legal, political struggle. As a result, his Sadrist Movement formed Saairun alliance, a broad electoral bloc of diverse political forces, including the Iraqi Communist Party.
The Saairun’s victory marked a new trend in the development of Iraq’s political processes, one that was aimed at uniting patriotic forces regardless of their denomination and ethnic origins. It is noteworthy that this was the only bloc to receive votes in all the country’s 19 governorates, including Sunni and Kurdish regions.
Another equally significant result of the 2018 elections was the fact that less than half of eligible voters (44 per cent) turned out. This was a red flag that was disregarded at the time, signifying the population’s disappointment in the political elite.
Another remarkable fact is that the election was held on May 12, while Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, whose resignation protesters are demanding today, was only appointed by the President on October 2, 2018. What does this mean? First, several political forces, primarily the above-mentioned Saairun bloc, claimed that the voting had been fixed and demanded a recount. A recount was held in July 2018, but only in a few governorates. The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq only approved the results of the election in August. This meant that the Parliament, which is responsible for electing a new president, was not able to assemble for a session until September. Consequently, the government continued to be led by the previous Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi until October, although his political bloc al-Nasr only came third in the election.
In accordance with the constitution, Barham Salih, who was elected President by Parliament on October 2, is responsible for appointing the new prime minister. Submitting Adil Abdul-Mahdi as a non-aligned “technical” Prime Minister meant that MPs had failed to form a government coalition. What is more, this move was preceded by unrest in Basra in September that was aimed against Iran and involved protesters breaking into the premises of a nearby oil field. Even though this was a local development, it was nevertheless a harbinger of what was to come a year later. This entire chain of events bears the hallmarks of a brewing political crisis.
This notwithstanding, the events of October 2019 were a surprise for all the political forces represented in the establishment. The explosive nature of the unrest, its initial and subsequent composition, the lack of clear political leaders, etc., bear an uncanny resemblance to the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The similarities also extend to the fact that the ringleaders were Baghdad students, who organized the protests via social networks, which (just like in Tunis and Cairo) made it all the more surprising for the powers-that-be, which experienced problems responding to the protest movement.
Initially, it was a social protest. Unemployment in Iraq is over 20 per cent, and youth unemployment is higher still. Accordingly, the population lives in abject poverty. This is nothing new for Iraq. The situation was the same in the years of Saddam Hussein’s military adventurism, during the country’s collapse at the start of the occupation, and during the advance of ISIS.
Today, however, Iraq has become OPEC’s second-largest producer and exporter of oil. It is starting to close the gap on the oil top three (the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia). Hence the slogan of the protesters: “If our country is so rich, why are the people so poor?” They also name the cause: “Corruption.” Indeed, Iraq is 12th in the corruption rating among developing countries.
It is here that the protest moves from the social to the political: as a rule, political status is the starting point for accumulating private wealth through corruption. Evidence relating to the corrupt activities of political figures, including MPs, has been widely publicized.
This is essentially the answer to the question of whether an outside force has provoked the Iraqi protests. The United States, Iran and several neighbouring Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, definitely have leverage over Iraq. Still, this leverage is limited to various sectors of the political elite and does not extend to average citizens mounting the protests.
From this point on, there are significant differences between the events in Iraq and the events of the Arab Spring. First, while many of the youth activists in Tunisia and Egypt had undergone preliminary training (in Serbia, for example), there is no evidence that any training took place before the events in Iraq. Second, as early as day two, people of various ages began joining the young protesters, and that included the elderly. The Communist Party reports that over 30 per cent of the protesters were women. Third, unlike the unrest of the Arab Spring of 2011, the protests in Iraq do not have an Islamic component. Moreover, the demonstrations spanned mostly the Shia part of the country, where factions of political Islam represent the largest parties, and the unrest is directed against these parties, too.
The political demands of the protesters include changing the political system, and the country’s constitution in particular. It is not yet entirely clear what specific steps for changing the constitution they propose, although the thrust against division by denomination and ethnicity is evident. Additionally, apparent demands include changing electoral legislation; these demands are supported by several political forces represented in parliament. In particular, Muqtada al-Sadr has called for holding new elections under international supervision. The President of Iraq’s statement that new elections are possible, but only after the electoral legislation has been changed, can be viewed as indirect support.
The military has acknowledged its excessive use of force, and criminal proceedings have been launched against the officers responsible. As for the resignation of the government (al-Sadr supported this demand), the Prime Minister said he would resign only if there is an alternative candidate.
Clearly, the Saairun bloc and its leaders strive to position themselves as the force closest to the protesters. There are also nuances. For instance, the Communist Party withdrew its deputies from parliament and is apparently striving for closer solidarity with the protesters as an individual political force. Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, also expressed his support for some of the demands of the protesters and called for an investigation into the actions that had resulted in people’s deaths. This can be taken to mean that the emerging rapprochement between al-Sistani and al-Sadr will play a role in the future.
It should be noted that there is an anti-Iran element to the protests. The Iranian leadership, in particular, the country’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, was restrained in its response. Noting that “enemies cannot sow discord” between Iran and Iraq, he did not express any attitude towards the protesters. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran issued a statement indicating that foreign forces may abuse the situation. This suggests that the Iranian leadership is taking a cautious stance towards a situation that is particularly inconvenient for Iran, given the increasing pressure it is under from the United States and regional powers. Iran is clearly exploring various options for changing its policies towards Iraq by making them more flexible and seeking support and compromise with those Iraqi forces that the local population does not consider to be direct protégés of Iran. We are talking specifically about the Kurds and the Saairun bloc here, especially since Muqtada al-Sadr cannot be regarded as an anti-Iranian figure, even though he has criticized that country’s actions in the past.
It is also apparent that the events in Iraq objectively weaken the positions of Iran and its claim to the role of dominant regional power. It does not, however, mean that the United States can, following these events, regain the political dominance it had in the country since 2003. Some American analysts acknowledge that the United States no longer has any serious centres for influencing the domestic situation in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional forces also have minimal means of exerting any kind of internal influence on the country.
Some analysts express concern over the fact that the military and the police mostly focus on counteracting the protests, which could help revive or even restore the positions of ISIS. This danger does exist, since the activities of both sleeper cells and some individual terrorist squads have not been suppressed, and acts of terror are committed almost daily. However, since ISIS has been crushed as a systemic entity, these activities have been mainly localized geographically and have their limits.
The only way the terrorist threat may expand is if the general protest situation cripples the authorities for good. A continuing stalemate among the Iraqi authorities is indeed fraught with such danger. We can only hope that it will not materialize.
From our partner RIAC
Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’
On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.
Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.
As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.
The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year, to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.
In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.
Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.
In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.
In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.
The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.
The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.
Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.
In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.
The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.
Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.
Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.
It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.
Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.
In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.
It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.
According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.
The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.
Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.
According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
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