Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia: 2010 and Beyond

At a recent International Studies Seminar, Wake Forest University Professor Charles Kennedy gave a more detailed overview of the interplay between on-the-ground politics of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia with overall U.S. national interests.  In the discussion, Kennedy focused primarily on Iraq, discussing the sectarian tensions, recent election results and the difficulties of building a coalition government to ensure overall stability upon the eventual exit of the United States military.  In addition, Kennedy briefly touched on U.S. policy with Iran (including interest in internal struggle) and Afghanistan.

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While many typically understand only the basic surface issues of Iraq, Kennedy provided a deeper definition of the demographic makeup.  Specifically, he detailed how ethno-sectarian conflict has been in place in Iraq for most of its history.  Conflicts between Arabs and Kurds remain complicated by internal Arab struggles between Shia and Sunni tribes.  The Sunni have been in control for years in Iraq through Saddam Hussein.  His removal opens the door for Shia gains.  As a result, Sunnis and Kurds are now facing possible Shia political dominance, arousing fears of reprisals.

As well, all parties have a difficult time coming together on any cohesive platform.  Kennedy argues that this is a direct result of U.S. destruction of state institutions under Paul Bremmer early in the occupation. The Coalition Provisional Authority rebuilt the Iraqi government, according to Kennedy, less than adequate to the task.  The haste in forming a constitution caused many flaws to surface.  Loopholes and other flaws allow for frequent gridlock and stagnation of initiatives.  In addition, recent election results show a diverse spread of votes that do not allow for a clear majority winner.  As a result, a majority rests on construction of a coalition in order to form a government.  There are, however, many political divides between the various parties, which prove this improbable.  Factions within factions are the problem.  The Iraq National Movement (Allawi) is the opposite of the State of Law Coalition (Maliki).  Neither side can gain support from other groups, such as the National Iraqi Alliance, the Kurdistan List, etc. as all have their differences.  This creates the potential for government chaos and rapid decline of stability if the U.S. leaves by the Iraqi mandated timeline next year.  The complexities of varied factions, along with flawed governmental structures, hold Iraq in an ongoing stalled political situation.

Turning to Iran, the controversy over nuclear negotiations involves what I consider to be one of Sun Tzu’s primary tenets – know the enemy as you know yourself.  Kennedy talks about the perception of those in Iraq towards the West.  They are not so much seeking nuclear might as much as equality of state recognition.  Iran feels “singled out” for the past thirty years and wants the U.S. to acknowledge its equal sovereignty.  Kennedy takes issue with the current trend in U.S. political negotiations with Iran.  Specifically, he posits that the U.S. must back off from Iran and treat it as an equal to get them to calm down.  As well, the U.S. and Iran both must abandon the approach of conditional negotiation.  Each side goes into negotiation demanding some sort of accommodation.  U.S. demand for preconditions negates Iran’s sense of sovereignty.  This keeps Iran’s ideology poised against anything U.S.   Otherwise, the Arab world would perceive compliance as “selling out to the West”.

Kennedy wraps his discussion with a brief look at Saudi Arabia, only highlighting obvious points about the special, mutually beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia and its key necessity for any U.S. involvement to thrive in the region.  The discussion was engaging and enlightening.  I particularly enjoyed the information on the Iraqi elections, as it shed some light into the divisive political landscape and clarified my perception of a stagnant Iraq.

I, however, find it interesting, and hasty, that Kennedy deems a potential split of Iraq into three states as “stupid”.  Personally, I would not dismiss the potential for each faction to split off in Iraq in a worst-case scenario.  The Kurds have always desired their own breakaway state, and even once had that with Kurdistan.  The Shia, with their predominance in the South and access to oil riches, could easily decide to cut off their wealth and use it for their own purpose.  With Sunni central Iraq left with little resources and a barren landscape, a neighboring country or one of the other two factions could absorb what remained.

It would not be the first time that ethnic divisions and interests caused the formation of smaller, breakaway states.  One needs look no further than the satellite states of the former U.S.S.R. to see the ethnic divides that have added new borders, lines and names to the list of countries on the world map.


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