Iraq is caught between Iran and the Arab world
With Syria in turmoil, Tehran is looking for a new strategic partner. But Turkey is also calling.
It's hot in Baghdad. This week the thermometer hit 46 degrees Celsius, but that was a big relief from the 51 degrees recorded last week. It's also hot in the political arena. The country had 46 ministers until parliament decided to cancel 17 barely functioning portfolios.
The biggest disagreement is about the authority of the national policy council, to be headed by Ayad Allawi. Its expected to erode the power of the prime minister.
Not that the citizens of Iraq are all that interested when they have to live without electricity during the hottest hours of the day. Their air conditioners stop working and the food in their refrigerators slowly cooks.
While the government is extending financial aid to the owners of private generators, on condition they supply 12 hours of electricity a day, the money has not yet arrived and it's not clear when it will. New power stations have been delayed. The agreements that Electricity Minister Ra'ad Shalal signed with two companies, one German and one Canadian, were canceled by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who fired the minister. It appears the companies existed only on paper.
Iraq, which dropped from the international media radar because of the uprisings in Arab countries, is likely to become the hot spot of regional politics - and soon. While Bashar Assad's regime fights for its life in Syria, Iran will probably seek a strategic alternative in the country that the United States is to exit by the end of the year. "The occupation of Iraq by the U.S. did only good things for Iran," said Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi this week. "Iran became more influential than it ever dreamed."
Iraq is Iran's third largest trading partner after China and the United Arab Emirates, some $8 billion a year and growing. Last month, Iran signed a contract for the construction of a 2,500 kilometer long gas pipeline, which will cross Iraq and connect Iran to Syria. Iran has diplomatic representatives in Iraq's largest cities and funds civilian projects around the country, political involvement aside.
"Iraq is a sovereign country and will not be subordinated to any other state," Al-Hashemi has said, but he admits that Iran has a terrific amount of influence on Iraqi policy. For example, since March, Iranian pressure has prevented Iraq from condemning the brutal suppression of Syrian demonstrations. It's making do with a request that Syria "reach a dialogue with the opposition," and just last week called on the two sides - the Syrian government and the "armed gangs" (as the Syrian regime calls the opposition ) - to refrain from spilling blood. In contrast, Iraqi Shi'ites, with Iranian encouragement, set out to demonstrate against Saudi Arabia's military involvement in Bahrain.
Iraq is held in a pincer grip between dependence on Iran and its desire to be part of the Arab world. The future gas pipeline is an offer Iraq couldn't refuse, even though it is likely to complicate matters with its Sunni citizens, who are worried about Iran's excessive influence. Sunni representatives from the areas the pipeline will cross have told foreign journalists they will not allow the project to be carried out, and that the pipeline will be sabotaged. Such terror attacks, Iraq fears, are likely to cause Iran to demand placing its own security forces there and thus make an Iranian military presence in Iraq a fact on the ground.
Iraq, worried about the trickle effect the Syrian battle could have on its territory, has dug a three meter deep, 45 kilometer long trench to stop people and vehicles from Syria crossing into Iraq. It isn't afraid of refugees, but other factors likely to cross into Iraq if and when the Syrian regime collapses, or the Syrian army stops patrolling the border.
Right now, only about 7,500 soldiers are policing the 1,100 kilometer long border. At the same time, Iran is demanding that Iraq aide the Syrian regime financially, so as to prevent its economic collapse.
Iran has a powerful economic rival in Turkey, whose trade with Iraq amounts to $11 billion a year. Competition for the Iraqi market gave both countries a good reason to sign agreements between themselves and with Iraq. Just last month the three agreed jointly to establish a bank with an investment of $200 million, and Iran and Turkey announced their intention to increase trade between themselves by $30 billion over the next five years.
When this agreement was signed, Turkey was still sure it would succeed in persuading Assad to implement reforms and bring quiet to the country. Meanwhile, relations between Turkey and Syria have deteriorated, and Turkey has begun to distance itself from Assad and upped the anti-Tehran tone in its voice, while Iran accuses it of being "an American subcontractor."
The economic interests of Turkey in Iran are too strong to destroy their relations, but the arena of their struggle is likely to move to Iraq, which depends on both of them. Turkey has made a tactical decision to oppose Assad; the question is what Iran will do. Will its political and economic interests in Iraq force it to abandon Assad and increase its control over Iraq, while maintaining good relations with Turkey, or will ideology and concern for Hezbollah grow?