Geopolitical Diary: Turkish and Iranian Interests in Iraq
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
For the first time since taking office in 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq on Sunday for a rare meeting with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani. No major breakthrough was reported in the longstanding dispute between Baghdad and Arbil over political power and energy revenues. The only thing agreed upon was that talks should continue to resolve disputes over energy projects and Kirkuk, the oil-rich region that is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds. The meeting comes as both men are consolidating power in their respective domains. In recent months, al-Maliki has increased his power as the central leader of Iraq, especially given the performance of his State of Law coalition in provincial elections six months ago. Similarly, Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, which has dominated the KRG since the first post-Hussein elections were held in 2005, emerged from regional elections on July 25 as the most powerful political force in the Kurdish community. The rise of al-Maliki in Baghdad and Barzani in Arbil will lead only to a more pronounced struggle between two visions of what post-Baathist Iraq should look like. The collapse of the Baathist regime fractured Iraq along inter-communal lines — separating the three principal ethno-sectarian groups (Shia, Sunnis and Kurds) — and along rifts within each of those groups. The complex, ambiguous and fragile power-sharing formula agreed upon after Saddam Hussein's government was ousted entails a federalist state — an arrangement both sides have interpreted to suit their political prerogatives. If al-Maliki is to capably govern a highly fractious polity, Iraq must have a strong central government without too much autonomy for the regions — especially Kurdistan, which is a model for Shia who are closely tied with Iran and seek a similar autonomous region in the south. A disproportionate amount of power to the regions also would complicate al-Maliki's efforts to contain the Sunnis; more than 100,000 Sunni militiamen (essentially former insurgents) have to be incorporated into the state's security organs. From Barzani's perspective, al-Maliki's goal undermines the power the Kurds enjoyed for some 12 years, before the 2003 ouster of the Baathist regime. Indeed, the Kurds have cast al-Maliki in the same light as Hussein, and Barzani has even said that al-Maliki has acted like a tyrant. The tension between Baghdad and Arbil has reached the point that Iraqi troops have come close to clashing with Kurdish peshmerga near the Kurdistan border. Post-Baathist Iraq is so fractured that outside powers must mediate between the conflicting factions. Thus far, this role has been played by the United States, whose approximately 130,000 troops have been key to containing the various centrifugal forces. But with Washington preparing for a drawdown, Iraq's neighbors — particularly Iran and Turkey — are both preparing to take on a greater role in making sure Iraq does not turn into a nest of instability, threatening their security. Iraq, however, is more than just a potential threat for both Tehran and Ankara. It also represents an opportunity for the Turks and the Iranians to project power within the region. Iraq is an old arena for competition between the Turks and Iranians, going back to the days of the Ottoman and Safavid (Persian) empires. The Persians lost Iraq to the Turks in the mid-16th century; it was not until the regime change in Baghdad six years ago that they saw the opportunity to reclaim Iraq through the rise of its Shiite majority, whose political principals are allied with Tehran. The United States, the Sunni insurgency and, very recently, the internal political struggle in Iran have prevented Tehran from dominating Iraq. Although al-Maliki is a Shiite Islamist whose group was backed by the Iranians during the Hussein regime, he wants to balance his close ties to Tehran through relations with Ankara. This further undercuts Iran's position. The Turks share al-Maliki's vision of a strong central government in Baghdad, because it will keep the Iranians at bay. More importantly, though, the Iraqi premier and Ankara — for their own reasons — both want to see that the Kurds remain boxed in. That said, Turkish leaders are also in the process of developing close ties with Barzani. They are willing to accept him as the leader of Iraqi Kurds in return for making sure that Kurdish autonomy in Iraq doesn't translate into a security problem for Turkey, which has its own Kurdish separatism movement to deal with. In other words, the Turks will find themselves having to balance between Baghdad and Arbil — which could upset al-Maliki, giving the Iranians an opening to exploit. In the long run, however, the geopolitics of Iraq and the region as a whole favor the Turks' position in Iraq — something the Americans are counting on as they prepare to end their involvement in that country.