Some Middle East nations are gradually disintegrating as their fight against the ISIS and other extremist groups is turning into a long and unavailing process. All leading external and internal forces admit this but their attitude towards disintegration processes in Iraq and Syria are different.
Iran is the last nation in the region who wants to see Iraq falling apart. The Iranians have already got used to the de facto existence of Iraqi Kurdistan, but the emergence of the US-supported Sunni Republic has become a new signal for them. Today Iraq is being transformed into some loose confederation, where three sectors will formally obey to a common capital, Baghdad. Those three autonomies - Iraqi Kurdistan and two new units, conventionally named Sunnistan and Shiitestan – will finalize the dissociation of the key ethnic and religious groups of Iraq, once a unitary nation. The borders of those new units can already be found in the map of the future Middle East.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, almost all monarchies of the Gulf, except for pro-Iranian Oman, as well as Egypt and Jordan are leading Iraq to disintegration. Iran is trying to stop this process. Turkey and Pakistan are waiting to see what happens – just like they did in the case of Yemen.
The tripartite Iraqi confederation is fraught with a number of negative consequences for Iran. It will push the Iranians even farther from their allies, the Syrians. For Bashar al-Assad this will be a big blow as he will get a hostile Sunni neighbor in the east of his country. Iraq’s disintegration will inevitably trigger a similar process in Syria. But the Alawite state to be formed on the ruins of the Syrian Arab Republic will be too small for the al Assad clan to retain its significance in the region. Cut off from Iran and covering just a few districts around Damascus, the Syrian Alawites will become just another Lebanon.
The next negative consequence for Iran will be the loss of its Shiite dominance in Baghdad. Once Iraq turns into a confederation, Baghdad will become a city-state and a burden for Iran. Terrorist acts will continue there, but they will no longer give Iran any geopolitical dividends.
Iraqi Shiitestan will not give Iran any benefits either. Even though this region hosts most of Iraq’s biggest oil fields and its port of Basra ships almost 90% of Iraqi oil, should the Americans decide to jettison this sector, it will become a disabling burden for the weak Iranian economy. If this happens, the Iranians will have to forget their projects to supply energy resources from their fields via Iraq and Syria to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe.
Shiitestan will be a compact territory with an access to the global ocean, but its future is vague as it is home to several conflicting Shiite groups: the part of the former and present prime ministers, Al Dawa, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Al Ahrar Bloc and Ammar Al Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council. Considering the presence of the Shiite militia, to bring those forces to consensus will be a very hard task for Iran.
Unlike Shiitestan, its future neighbor Sunnistan is a tabula rasa. Its core will be the province of Anbar. Sunnistan will have a long border with Saudi Arabia and absolutely undeveloped political environment, which will be a good ground for the Saudis not only to control that region but even to make it part of their state. But should the Iranians display similar aspirations with respect to Shiitestan, they will face harsh opposition from the Americans and their Middle East allies. As a result, the Iranians will get a problematic rather than loyal territory as their neighbor.
And the biggest concern for Iran here is the attempts of the United States and Saudi Arabia “to hang in the air” further fight with the ISIS and other extremists acting in the region. With disintegrated Iraq and Syria, it will be much easier for the Americans and the Saudis to put off the defeat of the ISIS for some indefinite time. Tehran has already got tired warning the world that if Washington and Riyadh actually wanted to defeat the ISIS they would have done it long ago. In fact, they have no such plans but just a wish to keep tension high near the Iranian border.
Well, they are using this chance quite artfully. On April 27, the Committee on Armed Services of the US House of Representatives presented a bill stipulating direct US military assistance to Iraqi Kurdistan and the Sunni tribes of Iraq. Direct means bypassing the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. The bill was initiated by the Republics and has quite good chances to be approved. As a result, Iraq will receive $715mn for fighting the ISIS, with almost 25% of this money to be given to Iraqi Kurdistan and the Sunni leaders.
If we remember the preparatory work carried out by the Republican Congressmen in Iraq, we will see that this bill is aimed against Iran. Chair of the Committee John McCain was very active in Iraqi Kurdistan and Anbar. It was then that the Kurdish authorities of Erbil and the Sunni leaders of Anbar complained to him that all arms supplied to Baghdad went to the Shiite militia and asked him for direct military assistance. The beneficiaries will be not only Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Sunni army of Anbar but also the national Sunni guards of Iraq. So, what is this if not the first step to form the future army of Sunnistan?
Fully controlled by Iran, Baghdad is being cut off from western financial flows. This will end in its isolation and final collapse of the Iraqi state.
The key proponent of confederation, the Iraqi Kurds, are actively preparing for this. Following the presentation of the bill, their president Massoud Barzani hurried to visit Washington. Before that, he had met with former President of Iraq Jalal Talabani. Barzani told Talabani that the key topics he was going to discuss in Washington were the export of Kurdish oil, the supply of the Peshmerga with heavy weapons and combat helicopters and planes and enrolment of Christians and Yazidis into the Iraqi Kurdish army. According to BasNews, Barzani told Talabani that the Kurds’ allies had given them the green light to discuss their independence with the US and Europe. The leader of the Kurdish Movement for Change Nawshirwan Mustafa told BasNews that before his visit to Washington Barzani had told him that if Iraq was divided, it would not be the Kurds’ fault. It will be the fault of the Iraqi government, which regards Kurds and Sunnis as minorities and are pushing Iraq towards division.
Saudi Arabia is also contributing to the confederation concept. For this purpose, the Saudis are actively cooperating with the United States. Their new king Salman is much more radical and anti-Iranian than his predecessor Abdullah. On the other hand, the Saudis are not planning any war with the Iranians. One of the first statements made by the newly appointed Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was that Riyadh was ready for a dialogue with Tehran. Al-Jubeir even wants to visit the Iranian capital. Now that the US and Europe are trying to settle their problems with Iran, Saudi Arabia cannot stand aloof and sees no other way but to start direct negotiations with the Iranians.
The Saudi foreign minister’s statement may mean that Saudi Arabia is inviting Iran to take part in a geopolitical haggle for dividing Iraq. Time will show if the Iranians will do it or if they will be forced to do it. In any case, some borders of Syria and Iraq are no longer the way they are drawn in old maps. Iran was the first who realized that but the question is if it will be able to draw new borders in such a way as to preserve the balance of forces and its influence in this strategic region.
Mikhail Agadzhanyan, EADaily Middle East analyst