A new Great Game? The Middle East after Saddam

It is becoming increasingly clear that the emergence of a political system in Iraq after the elections of late January 2005 will have ramifications for the entire region - yet it is an understatement to say the consequences are complex. It remains inevitable that the United States and Europe must come to a consensus on how best to engage the future of Iraq. The failure of an American-European understanding and cooperation on Iraq policy will no doubt lead to a deteriorating security situation in the country, as well as a worsening regional security climate.

The US and Europe must reach a rapprochement over Iraq or the situation there could deteriorate, with implications for regional stability. It is not difficult to imagine the impact of US-European relations on Middle Eastern regional stability.

Moreover, both of the variables mentioned above can be termed ‘dynamic’. As far as Iraq is concerned, it seems difficult to fully comprehend the fragile state of the country. If the US-led coalition’s policy is successful, the impact of a territorially secure and sovereign Iraq would have dramatic repercussions on the international fight against terror. However, pessimists believe that the post-war occupation of Iraq has failed and that there is little chance of establishing a true democracy to hold the country together.

Despite the numerous jeremiads, there is some optimism in the US that, after the elections, closer co-operation will be possible between the US and Europe on the subject of Iraq. Yet one cannot simply ignore the probable outcome - that US President George W Bush and his most intimate advisers (including Vice President Dick Cheney) will regard the results of the Iraqi election as a mandate for their own views, which place an emphasis on preserving US power.

Several European politicians are keenly opposed to this perceived vision of US hegemony in Iraq. Prominent among them is French President Jacques Chirac, who has suggested that the situation in Iraq had contributed to an increase in international jihadi terrorism. Even so, at the same time he dismissed as "absurd" the suggestion that Europe would place itself against the US.

These problems notwithstanding, Iraq is obviously a linchpin state in the Middle East, not only from the political and strategic point of view but also from religious and nationalist perspectives.

Any future for Iraq (whether it reflects the optimistic or pessimistic outlook) and relations between the US and Europe (whether improved or stagnant) will affect the region. Therefore, on one hand, it is worth examining the potential effects of the Iraqi situation on the Middle East; on the other hand, the regional order should be assessed against the dynamic of the US-Europe relationship.

Arab versus non-Arab

It is well-known that Iraq is an Arab-majority country in an Arab-dominated region. Arab nationalists could argue that one of the consequences of the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003 has been a shift in the balance of power towards the three non-Arab states in the Middle East: Iran, Israel and Turkey.

If the relatively severe level of Arab resistance to the US presence in Iraq is compared with that against the UN-mandated forces in Afghanistan, it would be fair to say that there is greater concern among Arabs over this particular shift in the regional alignment.

Certainly there is considerable scope for the non-Arab powers to take advantage of the situation, although it is important to bear in mind that despite Turkey’s close relations with Israel, its parliament still refused in 2003 to allow US forces to invade Iraq from its territory, suggesting perhaps that strictly nationalist determinants do not necessarily dictate policy.

Shi’a against Sunni

Iraq lies in a region dominated by the Sunni Muslims; yet the majority of the population (Shi’a Muslims) has traditionally been dominated by the minority Sunni community. After the US-led coalition removed the Ba’athist regime, the situation changed and it would not take much for the Sunnis to lose their political dominance in Iraq to the Shi’a. However, despite a degree of mutual animosity between the two sects, a new dominant order of Shi’a against Sunnis in the region is unlikely.

Even so, many questions remain to be answered, mainly regarding the future of what is called the ‘Shi’a crescent’. Sunnis in the region are proud of what they regard as the heroism of the Shi’a Hizbullah group in expelling Israel from South Lebanon (the Israelis would argue that theirs was a strategic withdrawal on their own terms); also, the Palestinian cause is respected and supported nearly unanimously by Muslims in the region, regardless of their sectarian allegiance.

Moreover, Iran is the only country in the region with an overwhelming Shi’a-majority population - there are more Shi’a in Iran than in Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain combined. It is difficult to see the Shi’a in other countries ignoring their political boundaries and national identities. More importantly, while the US and Israel remain as a perceived common threat in the region, the Shi’a and Sunni communities will tend to form a united front rather than engage in rivalry.

Democratic versus undemocratic methods

If the elections and their aftermath lead to Iraq’s inclusion among the democracies of the world, one can see the possibility of the new balance between democratic and undemocratic states in the Middle East. This is based on the idea of ‘democratic peace’, which argues that democracies do not go to war against each other.

Regardless of the theoretical shortcomings of this idea, when viewed in the light of suicide attacks against Israel by secular as well as religious movements of the West Bank and Gaza Strip it is not applicable to the Middle East. In other words, it is hard to believe that a democratic government in Iraq will have normal relations with Israel as, for example, does Turkey. While a post-Saddam Iraqi government may welcome good relations with all its neighbours, the decision to establish relations with Israel would remain extremely problematic for any future Iraqi administration.

Internecine Shi’a struggle

Given the prominence of nationalist feeling among Iraq’s Shi’a community, many would argue that Iraqi Shi’a would fight willingly against their brethren in Iran, as they did on behalf of the Ba’athist state during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Moreover, Iraqi Shi’a clerics continue to identify with the Iraqi state; their different interpretations of relations with the state, by implication, challenge the universality of the Iranian clerical authorities over global Shi’a interests.

As Iranians regard the remarks of, for example, Iraq’s Shi’a defence minister as US-instigated provocations, it is not hard to see US hardliners using this view to their advantage. These hardliners, often called ‘neo-conservatives’, are involved in a battle for US public opinion and the direction of foreign policy. For them, any misjudgments and ill-advised policy choices emanating from Washington cannot be the only reason for US failures in Iraq. The real reasons, they argue, must be external - unco-operative allies (witness Germany’s unwillingness to join the coalition to topple Saddam) or Iranian machinations. Even so, it is improbable that Iran would aggravate an otherwise favourable situation by intervening in Iraqi Shi’a affairs and generating problems for itself.

Balance of power considerations

Traditionally, relations between the three most influential powers in the Persian Gulf - Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia - have been essential for the maintenance of regional stability. Given the extremely large military presence of the US and its allies in the region, the balance between these states is highly influenced by the nature of their relations with Washington. Relations between Iran and the US are already hostile, Iraq will not be revived as a regional adventurous power again by the US and, since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, US-Saudi relations continue to be frosty. This situation is unlikely to change in the short term.

The continued presence of US military personnel only fuels propaganda claims that the ‘Great Satan’ seeks to prop up hated local tyrants and control the Middle East for the sake of stability in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. In response to this, the Bush administration decided to move US military bases to smaller states in the region. The idea of ‘virtual bases’ has also been promoted.

This movement of US military bases away from Saudi Arabia facilitated an improvement in relations between Tehran and Riyadh. Also, since a weak Iraq does not pose a threat to its neighbours, Iran feels more comfortable in dealing with pressing issues. Although continuing disagreements over Iraq may prevent a warm relationship, there is no doubt that Europe and the US may adopt a cautiou stance towards Iran as they do not wish to confront Tehran - especially since the US is already fully engaged in Iraq.

The US entanglement in Iraq could provide Europe with an opportunity to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the US and play an independent hand by negotiating effectively with Iran. Relations between Iran and the West are hard to fathom: on the one hand, concerns over Tehran’s nuclear programme have encouraged closer relations between Europe and the US; on the other hand, the Iranians are more amenable to the more diplomatic approach adopted by European foreign ministers. as opposed to the more hostile US policy. Many would argue that the Europeans’ stance promotes stability in the Middle East.

Maintaining security and stability depends on several dynamic variables. As far as the future of Iraq is concerned, it is extremely vital to view this country as a democratic state. If democracy in Iraq can lead to a prudent foreign policy, Baghdad will contribute to the stability of the region. However, it is important to remember that the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq is important for the stability of the wider region.

As far as the relations between the US and Europe are concerned, a close relationship between the two is better for the Middle East, because the US unilateral presence in the region is provocative and may act as a destabilising influence. Europe has a better recent reputation and record of engagement with the region compared with the US. Therefore, co-operation between Europe and the US could moderate the latter’s policies, thereby removing the sense of humiliation felt by many in the Middle East regarding preceived US domination. This, in turn, could lead to greater stability in the region.

Ali Rezaei is the resident representative of the Tehran-based Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS). He is based at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, London

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