Director of Strategic Intelligence Reva Bhalla examines the prospects for Iraq now that U.S. troops have left and the hope of a new dawn looks increasingly improbable as sectarian divisions intensify and the Shia seek to consolidate their grip on the country.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. Colin: Now that the Americans have pulled down the stars and stripes and left Iraq to the Iraqis, the hope is that there will be a new dawn for one of the Middle East's most troubled, but important, countries. Of that of course there can be no certainty. Sectarian divisions are still being played out as the Shia majority seeks to consolidate its gains. And Iran waits to take advantage. Welcome to Agenda with Reva Bhalla. Reva, I'm reminded of that old war song, "Home for Christmas," but what's left behind in Iraq isn't exactly a season of peace and goodwill. Reva: No not at all, in fact Colin even before the dust settled on that last U.S. convoy leaving Iraq the Iraqi politicians are already at each other's throats and we're seeing a major political crisis erupt in Baghdad as we speak. Colin: The Shia are in charge and likely to remain so. Reva: Yes, and really what we're seeing here is a period of Shiite consolidation. And this is, in many ways, very much expected. If you look at the geopolitical framework of this conflict you can see very clearly that when the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, a power vacuum would be created that would allow the Shia, and Iran by extension, to fill that vacuum, consolidate their influence, secure Iran's western flank and, in Iran's view, use Iraq as a launch pad to project its influence in the wider Arab region. These were all things that Iran was preparing for for a long time. And in the internal politics of Iraq you saw a number of Shiite politicians, particularly Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, emerging as a strongman and asserting Shiite authority there. And this is exactly what we're seeing now, is that consolidation phase — but it's going to be a very torrential phase because they're facing a lot of opposition from the Sunnis and Kurds, understandably. Colin: Now I'm going to put up a map, which I think shows how complicated Iraq has become since Saddam Hussein was ousted. Reva: Yes, very much so. And I think in order to understand this conflict a bit better it's a good idea to kind of run through the different sectarian groups that we're looking at and understand what exactly they're going after. So if you take a look at the Shia, again, this is a period of consolidation for them. Already Maliki has gone to great ends in trying to consolidate his authority in the political, the economic and the security spheres of the state. And he's made considerable progress so far. When you look at the Sunnis, they're in a very desperate situation. They don't have the energy assets that the Kurds do — they really only have the militant card to have their political voice heard. And without U.S. backing it's becoming harder and harder for them to resist. And so the Sunnis, in trying to promote their leverage, resorted to pushing for their own autonomy drive. This is something we saw develop in recent months. They started first in Anbar Province, then in Salahuddin Province, which are majority Sunni, and then it spread to the more ethnically mixed Diyala Province. Then when they pushed for autonomy in Diyala, we saw a pretty harsh Shiite reaction immediately, where the Shiite-controlled central government declared the move as illegal. We saw militias deployed, Shiite rallies emerge and overall there was a very strong reaction to that Sunni move. And that's exactly what we're seeing today in these arrests of Sunni politicians. Colin: And of course, there's a warrant for the arrest of Iraq's most senior Sunni politician, vice president in fact. Reva: Yes, the vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, has been issued an arrest warrant based on terrorism charges. It's not only him either. Maliki's Sunni deputy is also potentially facing arrest and so that's really sending the message to every major Sunni politician in Iraq right now, who is asking themselves, "Am I going to be next?" So really, the Sunnis are facing some pretty stark choices. They can either accommodate themselves very reluctantly to the Shia, they can face arrest (or worse) or they can try to resist. But again it's going to be harder to sustain a resistance under these geopolitical conditions than it was, say, three years ago. Colin: When we think about these terrorism charges — are they genuine? Or trumped up? Reva: Well the Sunnis, as I said, have very little leverage in this conflict overall. And so their biggest card lies in the militancy card. And so it's perfectly reasonable to see certain Sunni politicians resorting to militancy in order to increase their political leverage. Now Maliki could very well have legitimate charges against these politicians — in fact he says that he had charges against Tariq al-Hashimi up to three years ago, but he waited until now to reveal them. Now Maliki said that he only did this now because before he was more worried about destabilizing Iraq, but really you can see that Maliki was waiting for a more politically opportune time to reveal these charges and go after these Sunni politicians, as soon as the United States withdrew its forces from the country. Colin: And then of course there are the Kurds. Reva: The Kurds are definitely an interesting actor in this mix. Remember that the Kurds really have three different factors that make up the foundation for their political autonomy. One of those is their mountainous geography that allows them some distance from the factional fray in Baghdad. Second, the Kurds have significant energy assets in the north, and they use that energy leverage by getting foreign firms to invest in those fields as a form of a security guarantee against their Arab rivals. Three, is the U.S. backing, and that is a factor that's glaringly absent from that formula now — now that the United States has withdrawn from Iraq. The Kurds have lost that main security guarantor. So the Kurds have an important decision to make as well. They can either accommodate themselves to the Shia, very reluctantly, or they can choose to remain aligned with the Sunnis against the larger Shia threat at the moment. So far it really remains to be seen what the Kurds are actually going to do. Right now they've been providing safe haven to the Sunni vice president in the Kurdish Regional Government territory and they've been saying that they're not going to hand over Tariq al-Hashimi to the central government, but that's something that could shift over the next few days as the Shia continue to exert pressure on the Kurds. Overall, the Kurds don't have their security guarantor, they're facing a bigger threat against the Shia, the Sunnis are in a weakened position — it looks like they are going to have to eventually strike a deal. Colin: So how do we see the situation on the ground in 2012? Reva: Well we're going to see a lot of political jockeying as the Shia attempt to consolidate their influence in Iraq. That's a perfectly natural outcome. But we're also seeing some strong authoritarian politics in play as politicians, like Nouri al-Maliki, is trying to emerge as the strongman of Iraq. And remember that Iraq really is an artificial political entity in many ways. It's severely divided among ethno-sectarian lines and it takes a strongman — before it was Saddam Hussein — and now we have a sectarian turnover with the Shia in charge and Maliki trying to fulfill that role. And so we're going to see a lot of jockeying back and forth between these factions as they try to resist that. Overall though, I think the underlying trend lies in favor of the Shia. It's going to be messy, but I think this is really the consolidation period. Colin: What are the strategic implications — particularly for the supply of Iraqi oil? Reva: Well the political struggle is not going to calm down anytime soon, as you can see. And especially given the fact that the U.S. has left this security vacuum in place and the Iranians are intent on filling that vacuum and asserting their influence, we're going to see a lot of competition result. The key thing to keep in mind here is that the main Sunni stakeholders in the region — those being Turkey and Saudi Arabia — who do have influence in Iraq, but are not positioned well enough to deal with Iran. This really means that Iraq is going to be that natural proxy battleground in this broader geopolitical war. Colin: And Iran watches and waits. What moves does STRATFOR think Iran could make next year? Reva: Well remember, Iran has a very strong hand in Iraq. They've been building up their political, intelligence, security, economic and religious assets in this country well before at the fall of Saddam Hussein. So they've been waiting for this historic opportunity for centuries — waiting to consolidate Shia power in the heart of Mesopotamia. So they're not going to pass this up. That means Iran is going to be very heavily involved in Iraq. They're not going to be able to transform Iraq into an Iranian satellite, but at the very least they can block the Iraqis from signing onto other strategic partnerships and limiting their cooperation with Iranian rivals such as the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And so this is really Iran's moment and what we really need to watch is whether Iran is going to be able to use Iraq, not only as security for its western flank, but whether Iran is going to be able to use Iraq as a launch pad to project its influence in the wider region. And that's something where Iran does face constraints, but that is the goal. And that's why we're going to see groups and countries, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States, band together in trying to put a lid on Iran's expansionist goals. Colin: Now, if you were going to put money on it, would you say that Iran is going to seize the day? Reva: This is Iran's moment to seize the day. I still think they're facing a number of constraints, but in Iraq they do have the strongest hand. Colin: Reva, thanks for that analysis. Reva Bhalla, ending Agenda for this week. Join us again next week for the last Agenda of the year. From me, Colin Chapman, the season's greetings to you all.