Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Blow-back from Syria in Iraq: what does the future hold?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham
There is little question that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating.  The origins of Iraq's current security problems can be traced back to the 2010 elections.  Despite losing the elections, Nuri al-Maliki was able to manipulate domestic and foreign support to retain his position as prime minister.  Subsequently he set out to solidify his power through initiating a number of sectarian policies that alienated Iraq's Sunni  minority.

Since its inception, how has the Syrian civil war  affected Iraqis politics?  How has its development interacted with the destructive policies pursued by Maliki? Likewise, what impact has the Syrian crisis had on Iraq's Kurdish provinces, that comprise the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)?  Has the combination of sectarian rule and the blow-back from the Syrian crisis intensified sectarian identities and could it lead to a breakup of Iraq?

Perhaps most disturbing is the inroads that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (Levant) - the ISIS - has made in Iraq's western al-Anbar Province.  During the height of post-Saddam sectarian violence, al-Anbar had been a hotbed for al-Qa'ida activity led by the notorious Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.  With the rise of the "Anbar Awakening" ( al-Sahwa), al-Qa'ida was sent running and stability returned to the region. Prior to the 2010 parliamentary elections, the province  was prospering and it appeared that its Sunni population might  be integrated into the new Iraqi political system

Nuri al-Maliki's sectarian policies changed all that.  His fear of and increasing reliance on Iran for support alienated large segments of the Iraqi population, especially the Sunni Arab minority.  As matters got worse, especially after Iraqi helicopter gun ships attacked peaceful Sunni protestors in Hawija, near the city of Kirkuk, this past April 23th, and Maliki continued to harass Sunni Arab leaders, such as the moderate former Finance Minister Rafi' al-'Issawi, ISIS began to make inroads in al-Anbar and elsewhere.

The logic of the uptick in anger in al-Anbar and throughout the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle is understandable given the the political marginalization of the Sunni Arab population.  What is less clear is why there has likewise been a recent increase in violent activity in the KRG.

When US forces invaded the Kurdish region in 2003, it quickly dispatched the Islamist Ansar al-Sunna group with the help of Kurdish Peshmerga forces.  At that time, estimates of support  for the Ansar al-Sunna, whose influence was limited to a small region near the city of Halabja,, were between 1-2% of the Kurdish population and then only along the border region with Iran due, in large measure, to Iranian financial support.

Arguments have also been offered that the strong tribal nature of Kurdish society cross-cuts religious identities.  The widespread membership of Kurds in Sufi orders, including the Kurdish Regional Government's political leadership, such as the Naqshibandiya and Rifaiya,  and the diversity of religious minorities, such as the Yazidiya and others, have been thought to have promoted an atmosphere of religious tolerance in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Thus it has been a great shock to the Kurdish political elite and much of the Kurdish population to find Kurdish youth attracted to Islamist groups fighting the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria.  Recent reports indicate that youth returning from the Syrian conflict have organized local Islamist groups that have planned and carried out terrorist attacks within the KRG.

This month, the KRG Interior Ministry moved to ban the use of mosques for any non-religious activities.   Fearing that mosques were bringing together radical clerics and youth influenced by Islamist groups in Syria, efforts have been made to root out Islamic radicalism before it has a chance to spread (see al-Hayat, December 20).  The secret police realize that in the KRG, as throughout the Middle East, radical Islamists possess a significant advantage over other political forces ,namely the ability to use the large infrastructure of mosques as an organizing tool.

The reasons why youth in al-Anbar might support the ISIS are fairly clear.  However, why have Kurdish youth come to give support to radical Islamist organizations?  The answers are complex and cannot be reduced to one cause.  First, there has been a long-term antagonism among Kurdish youth who do not possess the necessary wasta (influence) that would allow them to find employment as a result of ties to one of the two main political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Second, the Kurdish political elite is not in as strong a position as once was.  The unraveling of the PUK, especially now that it has lost its leader, Jalal Talabani, and the rise of the Gorran (Change) Movement that began in 2009 have eroded its strength and demonstrated that it vulnerable to political challenges.  PUK weakness and the Gorran Movement have encouraged Kurds to mount more challenges to the Kurdish elite.

A third and very important reason for the rise of radical Islamist sentiments is the ideological vacuum that exists in the KRG and throughout much of the Middle East.  Arab nationalism has collapsed, Western liberalism is seen as suspect and unable to deal with social needs such as employment , education, housing and health care, and communism is viewed as an archaic and historically irrelevant.  Radical Islamism is thus "picking up the ideological pieces," as it were, of failed and discredited ideologies.

Political elites have been unable to articulate alternative ideological visions.  Those parties that have proposed moderate Islamism such as the Nahda Party in Tunisia , the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey appear to many youth as impotent, incapable of generating economic growth that helps the less fortunate of society and unable to meet the aspirations of the under 30 generation, a very large demographic in the contemporary Middle East.

Radical Islamism, whether of the Sunni or Shi'i variety, offers a well articulated vision of the future, however unrealistic it appears to outside observers.  Radical groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) offer action and immediate results through armed struggle. Those youth who feel that their lives are stagnant see in these movements a way to escape from the feeling of having no hope in the future, not to speak of the meaning many find in becoming "true believers," committed to the cause of building an Islamic state and ridding the Middle East of those who exploit political power for particularistic ends.

It is not so  much the strength of radical Islamism as it is the failure of corrupt and sectarian political elites to articulate an inclusive political vision that offers social justice and at least a modicum of democracy.  The failure of elites, such as the Iraqi political class in Baghdad, and the Kurdish political class in Arbil and Sulaimaniya, to negotiate and compromise with rivals only serves to radicalize youth still further as they see that no solutions to the problems they face will be forthcoming.

Unless there is a change in the structure and political disposition of the two political elites that control Iraq - Arab and Kurdish - the security situation will only worsen, especially if the Syrian crisis drags on, which it almost undoubtedly will.   The Italian political theorist, Antonio Gramsci, noted many years ago that, to be successful, a political class must exercise "moral and ethical leadership."

The Maliki-Barzani axis exercises no such leadership.  Instead, it offers corruption, nepotism, authoritarian rule, and a lack of government services.  Arab and Kurdish rule in Iraq is devoid of ideological content.  Now it cannot even invoke its "fallback" position - support us because at least we offer you, the citizens of Iraq, security from terrorism.    Arab and Kurdish rule is political minimalism at its worst.

Education of Arab and Kurdish youth is key to fighting support for radical Islamism and their fellow travelers, the  numerous criminal syndicates that have proliferated throughput Iraq.  However, a successful pedagogy would involve inculcating in youth values that are antithetical to the political rule that currently prevails in Iraq.  Tolerance cannot develop alongside sectarianism.  Negotiation cannot develop alongside authoritarian rule.  Civic engagement cannot develop alongside corruption and nepotism.

What are forces outside the region doing to address the spread of radical in the Arab East (al-Mashriq al-'Arabi)?  Very little in terms of policies that will,have ab impact on the long term stability of the region.  Conforming to the adage that "better to support the devil you know than the one you don't," the US, the EU, and international NGOs and funding agencies turn a blind eye to the self-destructive policies followed by the Maliki and KRG regimes.

The only positive development has been the refusal of the US to become involved in saving the Maliki regime.  It will not commit any significant military resources to the central government.  Likewise, the US refuses to play favorites with the KRG or establish any military bases there.  It continues to scold the KRG for its thinly veiled threats to leave Iraq and declare independence in its struggle with Baghdad over the extraction and sale of oil and natural gas in the KRG.

Realizing that neither Iran nor the US will come to his rescue, Maliki has been forced to reach out to the remnants of the Arab Awakening in al-Anbar Province.  This has least forced him to soften his sectarian policies and pursue a more cross-ethnic agenda.  Likewise, the Kurds realize that they cannot afford to anger the US - their main foreign ally - and thus need to tone down their hostile rhetoric towards Baghdad.

Still, these short-term strategic calculations by the Arab and Kurdish political elites do not address the underlying problems in Iraq - the need to use revenues from hydrocarbon wealth to solve the country's myriad problems, implement democratic reforms and pursue cross-ethnic alliances - at the political social, cultural and economic levels - that will lay the basis for long-term stability and national reconciliation.

While the international community cannot solve Iraq's problems, it can at least keep up the pressure, in a more open and public manner, to force Iraq's political class to begin to offer the country's citizenry the rule they deserve.  This represents the only way in which disaffected youth will be drawn away from supporting political extremism in the region.

How does the emergence on 2011 of demonstration against the al0Aada regime in Syria  leading to demoinstartion and then violence again st the central governmentand

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Could the Iranian nuclear agreement lead to a decrease in sectarian politics in the Middle East?

New York John Kerry, Javad Zarif
John Kerry and Mohammed Javad Sarif
What impact will the agreement between the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran have on sectarian politics in the Middle East?  Is it true, as many Western analysts argue, that sectarianism is ingrained in the region's political fabric?  If so, does that mean that the agreement will do little to reduce sectarian tensions? Or could the decision by Iran to submit to demands by the international community to eschew developing nuclear weapons lead to major political change in the Middle East?

The assessment offered here argues that the recent nuclear arms agreement will have significant positive ramifications for Middle East peace and stability.  Indeed, analysts in the Arab world are already picking up on the agreement's implications for Iran's relations with the predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East.  An example is Umar Qaddur's Op-Ed piece, "Does a less nuclear Iran mean that it will be less Shiite as well?, that appeared in al-Hayat, on December 1st. 

First, the Iran - P5+1 agreement has already had a significant impact on the Iranian economy.  Second, it has improved relations between Iran and the Gulf states, especially Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Third, if the 6 month agreement turns into a long term solution to Iran's efforts at nuclear weaponization, then it will probably mean a change in Iranian politics towards Iraq and possibly even towards the Syrian crisis.  Finally,  if a long term agreement follows a 6 month rapprochement between Iran and the international community, then we will certainly see a reintegration  of Iran into the global economy with all the political ramifications that such a development implies.  Let's examine each on of these issues in turn.

An immediate impact of the nuclear agreement has been to invigorate the Iranian economy and raise hopes among the Iranian middle classes in particular that they can look forward to a brighter future.  Many Iranians are tired of the crippling sanctions they have endured as a result of their country's nuclear weapons program and fear the possibility of a Israeli or even US military attack.

In the first day after the agreement was announced, purchases of foreign currency dropped 30% in the expectation that the Iranian rial would rise in value in relation to the dollar.  During the last month, the Iranian stock market has experienced a significant improvement, increasing 14% in value.  Private sector entrepreneurs and public sector managers have welcomed the lessening of constraints on Iran's ability to purchase spare parts and other supplies necessary to insure the proper functioning and growth of the economy.

Iranians have been suffering under a 40% rate of inflation which may actually understate the actual level.  The middle classes have increasingly found it difficult to sustain their standard of living.  The loosening of international sanctions has given the middle class a new sense of hope that their economic fortunes might improve.  Coming on the heels of the decisive victory of the moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, over hardliner Saeed Jalili, middle class Iranians also hope that the state's turn towards at least some liberal reforms may be in the offing.

What is key here is the chafing that the middle classes have felt under the severe international sanctions regime that will continue to cost the country at least $30 billion this year even with the agreement (see The Economist, November 30).  Their delight at the nuclear agreement was evident at Teheran's airport when large crowds welcomed Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Sarif and his negotiating team back to Iran, while extolling the virtues of President Rouhani.  If more  moderate elements within the Iranian polity acquire greater influence, then the ability of hardliners, such as the Revolutionary Guards, to continue to play the sectarian politics game could very well decline.

Now that the cat has been let out of the bag, there will be no forcing it back in.  The very fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamanie praised Rouhani and the agreement indicates that hardliners are aware of middle class discontent.   If hardliners seek to return to the approach of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who consistently called for the destruction of Israel and whose policies were instrumental in bringing about the harsh sanctions regime, and no long term structural relief occurs, the regime could face not only increasingly severe economic constraints, but greater expression of middle class discontent.  We need only remember what occurred in June 2009 when thousands of Iranian turned out to protest the reelection of Ahmadinejad as president in what many considered to be a stolen election.

The recent whirlwind tour of Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Sarif to Arab Gulf states indicates that Iran wants to tone down, if not eliminate, the "cold war" that has pitted it against Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies.  The visit by the UAE's foreign minister to Teheran and Iran's indication that it is willing to discuss the status of three islands near the Straits of Hormuz seized from the UAE by the Shah in 1971 - Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs - are further indicators of improved relations between the Arab Gulf and Iran. And while Saudi Arabia has indicated that " this is not the right time" for a meeting, Iran has called for just such a meeting which will undoubtedly occur in the near future.

These developments not only bode well for increased stability in the Gulf, but for a decrease in the shrill "Sunni-Shiite" political rhetoric that has characterized much of Gulf politics since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  They will also constrain the ability of sectarian groups on both sides of the ethno-sectarian divide to manufacture Arab-Iranian hostility to promote their own personal agendas.

A third possible ramification of the initial and hopefully long-term agreement is the possibility of Iran playing a more constructive role in Iraqi politics.   At present, Iran is sponsoring a number of Shiite militias in the south to assure that Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki understands its ability to influence "conditions on the ground," and thus does not work against their interests in Iraq. These militias create serious political instability, seen especially in the ongoing battles between the remnants of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) and the so-called League of the Righteous People (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq), led by former Mahdi Army commander, Qays al-Khazali, that is currently supported by Iran (see al-Hayat, December 1).

A reinvigorated Iranian economy, a more robust middle class, and a willingness to conclude a side agreement with the US over their respective spheres of influence in Iraq may lead the Islamic republic to withdraw its support of destabilizing militias and inside rely more heavily on wielding its economic influence inside Iraq through increased trade and investments.  Such efforts, especially if they involved explicit messages to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority of such a new policy orientation, could greatly reduce sectarian tensions which represent a political powder keg at the moment as violence continues to escalate throughout Iraq.

While the US and Iran have been at loggerheads since the 1979 revolution, each has an interest in  containing the power of radical Sunni Islamists in the region.  A potential beneficial outcome of a US-Iran rapprochement, assuming Iran is serious about limiting its nuclear energy program to peaceful uses and allowing meaningful verification of the program, could pay dividends in the Syrian civil war.

In return for greater Western help in curtailing groups like the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Dawla al-Islamiya li-l-'Iraq wa-l-Sham), Iran might be willing to ease Bashar al-Aad out of office in return for a government that was not hostile to Iranian interests in Syria but which was willing to implement democratic reforms and engage in a policy of national reconciliation.  Such a turn of events would dramatically undercut the power of both Sunni and Shiite sectarian elements in Syria, especially given the overwhelming rejection of sectarian politics by the vast majority of the Syrian populace.

Finally, and this might be the most important impact of the mini-agreement between the West and Iran on ending its nuclear weapons program, we may see new investment by Western firms in the Iranian economy.  The World Bank has indicated that Iran's oil industry cannot alone sustain a population of 82 million.  To meet its energy and production needs, Iran needs to import natural gas.

The interest that many Western oil firms have expressed in investing in Iran's energy sector, and the outmoded sector's need for investment to upgrade production, could signal the beginning of Iran's  reintegration into the global economy.  The impact of significant foreign investment and renewed economic growth would constitute another blow to the regime hardliners who have used sectarian identities to promote a radical foreign policy that has made Iran a pariah state in the Middle East.

The key here will be the United States.  On the one hand, the Obama administration and it allies in the P5+1 must keep the pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons capabilities and provide for an inspection regime whereby the international community can be assured that nuclear energy is only being developed for peaceful domestic uses.

Attempts by the US Congress into impose new sanctions on Iran - assuming Iran lives up to its agreements - must be blocked through a campaign to educate American lawmakers on the stakes involved in preventing more conflict in the Middle East, such as an Israeli attack on Iran, and the regional nuclear arms race that would certainly ensue should talks break down and Iran proceeds to actually develop nuclear weapons.  Having Saudi Arabia (which reportedly has asked Pakistan if it could purchase nuclear weapons), Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps Algeria seeking to develop nuclear weapons in the world's most unstable region would constitute a disastrous turn of events

At a most basic level, the ability not only to keep Iran at the negotiating table and moving towards a final agreement, but the ability to ratchet down sectarian identities and violence in the Middle East as well, lies as much in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing and Berlin, as it does in Teheran.