Iraq – Turmoil Between Two Empires
13 June 2016
By Amir Taheri
If the current turmoil in the Iraqi capital Baghdad contains any message, it
is that the majority of Iraqis are quite fed up with the status quo. Their
grievance isn't limited to any one aspect of the nation's life, being the
difficulties of day-to-day survival or the fact that government has passed
into the hands of a confederacy of kleptocrats who have transformed corruption
from a socio-political ailment to a way of life.
The quixotic raid organized by the Sadrists against the ''Green Zone'', a
small chunk of territory in Baghdad where government offices are located, the
other day showed that the question is no longer whether or not the current
administration is doing well; it is about whether or not Iraq has a workable
government at all.
Judging by his program, Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi is a well-meaning man
trying to lead his nation away from the post-war chaos and towards a measure
of stability sustained by democratic institutions. Al-Abadi is one of the few
senior Iraqi politicians whom I have never met and cannot evaluate his
leadership abilities at a personal level. What matters however, is that,
regardless of his personal abilities, Al-Abadi lacks the support base needed
for re-orienting the Iraqi ship of state.
At the sectarian level, that is to say within the Shiite community to which he
belongs, Al-Abadi is held to ransom by a network of parties and groups, some
of which are armed, financed and controlled by Iran. Even within the Ad-Da'awah,
the party to which he nominally belongs, he is exposed to sinister plotting by
former Prime Ministers Nuri al-Maliki and Ibrahim al-Jaafari as both covet his
As for followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr, they have followed their leader's
opportunistic strategy, initially supporting Al-Abadi's attempts at reforming
the system but then trying to de-stabilize his government. Sadr has tried to
give his movement a new seasoning by evoking Arab nationalist themes while
maintaining not so secret contacts with Tehran.
Among the Kurds, the pro-Iran faction, still led by former President Jalal
Talabani, initially backed Al-Abadi in the hope that the weakness of his base
would make him more accommodating to their demands. The Barzani Kurds, now
closer to Turkey than to Iran, were also initially favorable to Al-Abadi whom
they saw as relatively free from Iranian control. However, they, too, now
regard Al-Abadi's future as rather limited.
The Sunni community is equally divided. One segment sympathizes with the
radical groups, including ISIS, that try to overthrow the government or at
least seize control of as much territory as possible without necessarily
sharing their deadly ideologies. Another segment still hopes to work out a
power-sharing arrangement guaranteed by the United States. A third segment
pursues the forlorn hope of enlisting Arab nations in support of the
community's legitimate demands.
Matters are further complicated by the clash of ambitions between the United
States and the Islamic Republic in Iran playing a game of imperial rivalry. In
this game, the US is the reluctant imperialist that has all the means
necessary to impose its agenda but lacks the will to do so.
Washington's ideal is to find a new, albeit less unsavory, ''strongman'' in
Baghdad and help him to somehow forge a working mechanism.
The stratagem didn't start in President Barack Obama's sunset
phase. President George W Bush, too, looked for such a ''strongman'' and
thought that he had found him in Al-Maliki at a time when the Iraqi politician
sang an anti-Tehran song.
Obama's error is to adopt the same strategy without the kind of clout that
Bush had in Iraq. When Bush propped up Al-Maliki, the US had 170,000 troops in
Iraq. Now Obama tries to remake that movie, this time with Al-Abadi as the
star, but with fewer than 5000 boots on the ground.
For its part, Iran plays the ardent imperialist and, despite its own dire
economic situation, is prepared to pour in the necessary resources.
Tehran's aim is the opposite of Washington's as the mullahs do not wish to see
a strong government, let alone a ''strongman'', emerging in Baghdad. This is
why Tehran has done all it could to prevent Al-Abadi from building up his own
image as an effective leader.
The Khomeinist media portray Al-Abadi as a clueless novice who would have been
destroyed long ago had it not been for Iranian intervention in his favor. In
fact, President Hassan Rouhani has publicly boasted that without Iran,
''terrorists'' would have been ruling in Baghdad and Damascus today.''Al-Abadi
is even denied any credit for driving ISIS out of large chunks of Iraqi
territory, including Tikrit, Kirkuk and Amerli.
As far as Tehran is concerned, all credit goes to Major-General Qassem
Soleimani, commander of the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps and a master of
self-promotion. Each time Iraqi forces kicked ISIS out of a locality,
Soleimani published a series of his selfies in various poses claiming that he
had just returned from the war front after a great victory.
Tehran's strategic fear is that Iraq, where Shiites form a majority, could
emerge as a model of modern pluralistic government that could seduce many
There are fewer political prisoners in Iraq today than in Iran. Iraq enjoys
more media freedom than Iran today. In Iraq, all political parties, from
monarchist to Marxist, are fee to operate. In Iran all political parties are
Iraq is also where the principal center of Shi'ite theological authority is
located, enjoying a measure of freedom unthinkable in the Islamic Republic in
Iraq has immense natural resources and could easily build a modern economy;
even now it is doing economically much better than Iran. Last year the Iraqi
economy grew by just under 4 per cent while Iran registered negative growth.
International Monetary Fund forecasts give Iran a 1 per cent growth rate for
2016 compared to 3.7 per cent for Iraq.
Neither the US nor Iran are capable of imposing their agenda on Iraq anytime
soon. The US remains relatively popular in Iraq but, thanks to Obama's
pirouetting policies, is no longer trusted.
Even if there is a change of administration in Washington, it would take a
long time to repair the damage that Obama has done to US image and prestige.
The Islamic Republic in Iran is clearly unpopular in Iraq, including, or
perhaps especially, among Shiites who resent being treated as neo-colonial
subjects of a self-styled empire symbolized by a ''selfie'' snatching general
in stone-washed khaki.
Iraq is sure to have many tough days ahead. But what doesn't kill you makes
you stronger. This is why I still think it is premature to write new Iraq's
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.