Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is an Anglo-Iraqi political analyst and adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum who has published widely on Iraqi politics and other contemporary Middle East issues. He is interviewed by PJ Media Middle East Editor Barry Rubin.
Barry Rubin: Nine years after a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has that country achieved stability and democracy? How many American soldiers are still in Iraq and what are they doing?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: Iraq has achieved a degree of stability in that the sectarian civil war that centred on Baghdad in the period 2006-8 ended decisively in favour of the Shi'a factions. In light of the U.S. withdrawal of troops in December last year (with only a couple hundred or so Marines serving to guard the large U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad), Shi'a militant groups have decided to lay down arms and join the political process- having lost all casus belli.
The Sunni Arab population generally accepts that it must learn to adapt to the fact that the Shi'a lead the political process in the country. The Sunni insurgency that remains- consisting of Islamist and Ba'athist militants- is ideological in nature, and will continue to carry out attacks. There is a serious terrorist threat in the country but the prospect of another sectarian civil war is very, very remote, even though the media constantly raise this point whenever there is an upsurge in attacks, which if analysed can be shown to be part of cyclical trends (e.g. an upsurge in casualties can always be expected around the time of the Shi'a festival of Arba'een).
So, a degree of stability has been achieved, but there is a long way to go before the country can really be called a democracy: absence of rule of law, widespread corruption, increasing autocracy on the part of the prime minister, and suppression of protests by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government all point to absence of real electoral democracy.
Barry Rubin: What is the status of U.S.-Iraq relations and does the United States have any real influence in what goes on in the country?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: The status of U.S.-Iraq relations at present fits in with the general decline of American influence in the country over the years. The fact is that Washington does not really have any say in the workings of Iraqi politics. For example, the Americans had no role in the devising of the current unconstitutional compromise that allowed Maliki to have a second term in office (even though his bloc did not win the single largest number of seats in the 2010 elections- Allawi's al-Iraqiya did- and according to the constitution it should have been Allawi who had the right to form a government). Similarly, amid the current talk of a no-confidence vote against Maliki, Joe Biden was reportedly supposed to come to Baghdad. He has not done so.
I would say I agree with Reidar Visser that the U.S. approach towards Iraq does not help counter Iranian influence. It has often been noted that after the 2003 invasion, sectarianism became institutionalised with the award of positions in the interim government determined on a rigid sectarian basis. I do not think that the U.S. has quite moved on from such thinking. An approach that stresses Iraqi national unity and does not view everything through the sectarian paradigm of Sunnis, Shi'a and Kurds might help to revive U.S. influence and counter Iran.
Barry Rubin: Explain the quarrel between President Maliki and Vice-President Hashemi. Is this an example of wider, continuing Sunni-Shia conflict?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: The quarrel between Maliki and Hashemi has often been portrayed as a sectarian Shi'a-Sunni issue but in fact the arrest warrant came in the context of a political attack on al-Iraqiya, whose leading members were in December expressing growing frustration with the premier's authoritarian tendencies. For example, Saleh Mutlaq, the deputy PM, accused Maliki of being the worst dictator in the country's history (an obvious exaggeration).
In turn, al-Iraqiya's frustration came in the context of a crackdown on alleged Ba'athists, and this crackdown was rooted in an internal power struggle in Maliki's State of Law bloc between the premier himself and the Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb, a well-known rival of Maliki in State of Law who initiated the contest with Maliki to prove himself more anti-Ba'athist by having 140 members of Tikrit University in Salaheddin Governorate dismissed from their positions. What is also of note is that this internal rivalry between Adeeb and Maliki behind the crisis was missed in most news reports: the only outlet of note I can think of that picked up on it is the blog Musings on Iraq, run by Joel Wing.
Barry Rubin: Does the Kurdish-ruled region in the north function as virtually an independent country?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: The Kurdish region clearly enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy but I would not call it de facto independence. It has its own parliament and ruling coalition led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This has effectively been the status-quo since the region gained autonomy in 1991. What should not be taken as indicative of the autonomy is the recent affair regarding Exxon Mobil, which signed a deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for exploration and production of oil and natural gas. Now, the central government in Baghdad, which considers all the KRG's agreements with oil and gas firms illegal, did ban Exxon Mobil from the fourth round of bidding, but in practice, Exxon Mobil is being allowed to have its pretzels and eat them, not because of any threats on the part of the KRG against the central government; rather, Baghdad still needs companies like Exxon Mobil to boost output from the major oilfields in the south. Recall that only last year did production levels return to pre-2003 figures.
Coming back to autonomy, I think a limit is to be demonstrated in the discussions the KRG has had with Turkey on building a pipeline route that the KRG can use to export oil to the international market. The evidence, in my view, suggests that the proposal is unlikely to come to fruition. The pipeline would allow the KRG to break free from the fact that 95% of its budget is provided by the central government, but it would embolden Kurdish aspirations for independence not only in Iraq but also Turkey. Would Ankara be able to tolerate that? I don't think so. Of course, Turkey can talk about the prospect of a pipeline, but it just seems to be a way of annoying Maliki, who has been repeatedly accused by the Turkish government of pursuing a Shi'i sectarian agenda, and trying to persuade him to reach a truce with Hashemi. Indeed, it should be noted that Turkey is also providing a safe haven for Hashemi.
Barry Rubin: How much influence does Iran have in Iraq? Could Tehran capture control over its neighbour? Is Iraq cooperating or having friction with Turkey and Saudi Arabia?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: That Iran has influence in Iraq cannot be denied. There are extensive economic ties between the two countries, as I documented in a recent article for the Jerusalem Post. However, I do not believe the situation is like Lebanon where Hezbollah's power amounts to the existence of a client state for Tehran in the south of the country. Hezbollah, after all, was founded in the 1980s and openly declares its devotion to Khomeini's ideology. As we also know, Hezbollah's status heavily depends on the survival of the Assad regime.
In Iraq, the situation is not like that. The Shi'a political factions in Iraq are diverse. For example, the largest faction- the Dawa party- was founded well before the revolution in Iran and is generally opposed to the concept of velayat-e-faqih, even as many Dawa members spent years in exile in Iran after Saddam Hussein came to power.
Unlike Lebanon, the internal rivalries among the Shi'a factions are much more apparent: thus, Iran's primary aim is to act as a mediator, advisor and kingmaker among these factions, and so it supports groups like the League of the Righteous- led by Qais Khazali who is at odds with Muqtada al-Sadr- in an attempt to exacerbate these tensions to a degree. At the same time, Iran does not want the current government coalition to break up, and Iranian officials have held talks with certain members of the Sadrists- including Muqtada al-Sadr who have joined Barzani and members of Iraqiya in calling for a no-confidence vote against the premier. The goal appears to be to persuade these Sadrists to desist from their declared stance against Maliki.
Two uncertainties remain: first, we don't know yet precisely how much influence the likes of Khazali will wield among the Shi'a. It will certainly be a task for them to develop the level of influence factions like Dawa wield that goes back decades: in contrast the League of the Righteous et al. are 'Special Groups' that arose as militia proxies for Tehran to use against the U.S. troop presence but have since the withdrawal joined the political process. Second, it is debatable whether the Sadrists who speak of a no-confidence vote to unseat Maliki are merely engaging in rhetorical posturing. On other occasions, Sadrists have proven themselves to be critics of Maliki λογῳ while supporting him ἐργῳ, because by joining Maliki in a coalition, the Sadrists got hold of several government ministries pertaining to housing and public construction planning, allowing for the development of a patron-client network not dissimilar to those held by prominent patricians in the late Roman Republic. Thus the Sadrists may well have lamented the crisis that arose from the arrest warrant against Hashemi and implicitly criticised Maliki's actions, but in practice I agree with Kirk Sowell that they are backing the premier on this matter.
As for the claims that Iraq is a client state of Iran, I think they are inaccurate, despite the Iranian influence in the country, and I don't think Iran can contemplate an invasion, for there is a substantial U.S. military presence in the Gulf area that can easily be called up to deal with such an event. In any case, Iraq is still a leading customer for U.S. arms, made it clear to Iran under U.S. pressure that it would not permit arms exports to Syria through its territory (noted above), and the signing of the Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the Bush administration and Baghdad was always opposed by Iran. Ultimately, what matters for the Iraqi government as a whole is to assert what it sees as its own national interests and not play a subservient role to any country.
As for relations with Saudi Arabia, these appear to remain quite tense. For example, the Saudis are against the idea of having Iraq take the position of Secretary General of OPEC, and like Turkey, Saudi Arabia wanted Ayad Allawi to become the premier after the 2010 elections. Saudi Arabia also naturally views Iraq as a rival in oil production. Yet the Saudis have also attempted to expand economic ties with Iraq, particularly in the realm of export of foodstuffs via Kuwait and Jordan. One other thing: while ties with Saudi Arabia are not so good, Iraq is cultivating economic ties with Jordan. For example, AK News reports that an agreement has been signed to construct a pipeline to transport Iraqi oil and gas through Jordanian territory.
Barry Rubin: Can Iraq be said to be progressing in economic terms? Are people's lives getting better?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: Iraq is progressing in economic terms in that oil output is steadily increasing, which translates to more revenues for the central government. The Kurdish region is doing well economically with a construction boom reported in cities like Arbil and Sulaymaniyah. But the increase in oil revenues for Baghdad is problematic because it effectively triggers a vicious cycle in which the government compensates for the fact that the oil industry is not labour-intensive simply by creating more jobs in bureaucracy. This not only hinders reconstruction efforts but also makes it harder for Baghdad to liberalise its economy. It is still stuck with the centralised command system inherited from the days of Saddam Hussein. This means that many of the benefits for the population we associate with oil revenues in a country like the United Arab Emirates are unlikely to be realised (the much larger population of Iraq compared to the Emirates aside). As for quality of life outside Kurdistan, I think there has been a slow but steady improvement since the days of the sectarian civil war, which I would regard as the low point and even worse than life under Saddam. With sanctions gone, infant mortality has decreased and there is greater access to consumer goods.
Often on Youtube one can find videos by Iraqi expatriates idealising life in the country in decades past. I am generally not fond of such videos because they completely overlook things like the massacre of 3000 Assyrians in 1933, the Farhud in 1941 and the mass exodus of the Jewish population from 1948 onwards, the political violence that came with the overthrow of the monarchy, among other things. But I think it's fair to say that living standards were at their best in the early to mid 1970s and the country has not since returned to those levels.
Barry Rubin: How would you analyze Iraq's likely future course in regional affairs and domestic governance?
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: At present, I do not see Iraq as a major active player in regional affairs. Rather like Roman Imperial administration, I see its role as primarily passive. The country is simply too occupied with domestic problems, and I think that will remain the case over the coming years: certainly at least up to the next elections in 2014. I do not foresee a break-up of the country or major civil unrest. The population has generally been exhausted through years of sanction, warfare and militant violence.
Update on June 29, 2012: The talk of independent pipeline routes to Turkey would not involve a separate Kurdish route to the international market. Rather, they entail direct exportation of oil and gas to Turkey, but it should be stressed that all this remains just talk. No actual agreement has been signed, despite the confusion in the media. Turkey has at the same time made it clear that all deals should have Baghdad's approval, which must have been the case with the agreement signed between Ankara and the KRG back in May to build a connection route between KRG oil fields and the Kirkuk-Ceyhan route that already exists and is under the control of the Oil Ministry in Baghdad. Of course, I do not say in the interview above that a deal was signed for constructing independent pipelines, yet it is necessary to set the record straight. Thanks to Joel Wing for the clarification.