Let Iraq Collapse

Let Iraq Collapse

Mini Teaser: February 28, 1996 marked the fifth anniversary of the U.

by Author(s): Daniel Byman

Turkey's position with regard to Iraq's own Kurds is more ambiguous.
On the one hand, it has hoped to use Iraqi Kurdish groups to
undermine the PKK--and with some success. On the other hand, it fears
that a strong Kurdish entity in Iraq would rally Turkish Kurds
against Ankara. Such fears are not frivolous; Turkish anxiety
regarding a Kurdish state deserves careful consideration. Turkey has
long been a staunch ally of the West, and it serves as a bridge
between the Muslim and Western worlds. It is also an important model
of successful political reform and economic development in the Muslim
world. Moreover, Turkish goodwill is essential for the prosperity of
any successor states in Iraq.

Yet Turkish concern over possible major Iraqi Kurdish support for the
PKK ignores the best weapon Ankara has against foreign-backed
insurgency: host government accountability. Currently, Iran, Iraq,
Syria, and Turkey can all use Kurdish organizations to undermine one
another. Attempts to retaliate, such as Iran's and Turkey's
incursions into Iraq to punish the KDPI and PKK respectively, have
limited impact since Baghdad does not care whether the Kurds suffer
or not, while the Kurds remain committed to their cause. A permanent,
internationally recognized Kurdish government in northern Iraq, on
the other hand, would have a strong incentive to discourage
aggression or subversion from its territory since it would be an
obvious--and vulnerable--target of retaliation.

Furthermore, Turkey could seize on the Kurdish issue to extend its
influence on the region. Turkey has the largest Kurdish population of
all the Middle East states, and Turkish Kurds are the most culturally
modern and economically developed. Thus, the Turkish government could
gain great influence within the Kurdish populations of its neighbors
through its own Kurdish population. Admittedly, such a shift in
Turkish policy would take time, and it may never come about. But the
reality of a Kurdish state as a neighbor may lead Ankara to
reconsider its position--and it would be wise to do so.

We now come to the third of our four fears: that a Shi'a state in
southern Iraq would alarm the Gulf states with substantial Shi'a
populations, and also work as a kind of force multiplier for Iranian
pressure against Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is indeed anxious about the possibility of a Shi'a state
emerging from southern Iraq, in part due to the fact that its Shi'a
population, though small (about 5 percent), is concentrated in the
oil-rich Eastern Province. In the past, Saudi Shi'a have demonstrated
against the regime, and Bahrain, which has a Shi'a majority,
witnessed riots and demonstrations by Shi'a against the Sunni ruling
family both last year and this. Kuwait, which is 30 percent Shi'a, is
also wary of a Shi'a state on its northern border.

But the true Shi'a threat to the Arab Gulf is internal to these
countries, not external. All the Gulf states exclude the Shi'a from
decision-making and are often openly disdainful of their religious
culture. The Saudi regime's Wahhabi version of Islam is deeply
hostile toward Shi'ism, which it considers idolatrous. The sources of
discontent in Bahrain are regime corruption and systematic neglect of
Shi'a grievances. And, more to the point, even Iran at the height of
its revolutionary fervor was not able to organize these Arab Shi'a
communities and use them for its own purposes. During the Iran-Iraq
War some Iranian revolutionaries believed that faith would trump
ethnicity, and expected the Shi'a to rise against the Sunni Arabs in
Baghdad. They did not do so. There is little reason to think they
would follow a new Iraqi Shi'a state--even though it would be Arab
and not Persian--any more willingly.

Finally, the fourth fear: administration officials are squeamish
about redrawing boundaries created after the First World War in such
an artificially constructed part of the world. Secession is not
recognized as a right under international law, and policymakers worry
that encouraging it in one case might be a formula for generic
instability in the Middle East and elsewhere. After all, it is not
easy to explain why the Kurds deserve a state while other minorities
in Africa, South Asia, and even Europe do not.

Although the issue of borders and sovereignty raises legitimate
questions, the case for the Iraqi Kurds and Shi'a is compelling. The
serious and sustained human rights violations make it so. There is no
hard evidence that successful secessionist movements inspire
emulation elsewhere, and elevating territorial integrity to a
principle in the name of preventing unrest can have the perverse
effect of perpetuating a violent state in order to prevent the
widespread violence usually associated with secession. As the West's
recognition of the breakaway states in the former Yugoslavia
suggests, sometimes partition is the only solution to the collision
of sectarian hatreds.

The Myth of Shi'a Unity

As we have noted, many policymakers in the West fear that a Shi'a
entity in southern Iraq would become Tehran's puppet. Without doubt,
Tehran remains hostile to the West and intent on dominating the
Persian Gulf, so it does not lack for motive to manipulate an Arab
Shi'a entity on the Saudi and Kuwaiti borders. U.S. leaders worry
that a Shi'a state in southern Iraq would provide Iran with greater
access to the region and raise the potential for the spread of
radical Islam, and this worry provides the main rationale for
maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity.

On the surface, the possibility of an Iraqi Shi'a state being
dominated by Tehran appears strong. Shi'a in southern Iraq and Iran
are linked by many ties. Najaf and Karbala have long been religious
centers for both Iraqi and Iranian Shi'a, and clerical networks
extend over the border. Iraqi Shi'a opposition groups, such as the
Dawa party and the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in
Iraq, have received support from, and a haven in, Iran.

There are four ways in which Iran might dominate a new Shi'a state:
through ideological affinity; by military conquest; by subversion; or
by providing a model for government. None of these is convincing.

First, ideological affinity is unlikely to lead Tehran and an Iraqi
Shi'a state to work together. Iran is today in ideological disarray
and the tenets of the revolution ring hollow both at home and abroad.
The strain of political Islam found in Iran, particularly the
doctrine of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent (velayat-e faqih),
assumes that one leader should guide Shi'a politically. This sounds
like a recipe for unity, but in reality it is a source of division,
for it both raises and begs the question of who is to lead.
Background is instructive.

Ayatollah Khomeini's religious doctrine, which united supreme
religious and political authority for the first time in modern Shi'a
thought, is widely unpopular among most learned Shi'a, and it is
rapidly losing support now that Khomeini is dead. Almost all the
grand ayatollahs living in 1981 either openly rejected Khomeini and
his doctrine or maintained a discreet distance from his ideology.
Ayatollah Al-Khu'i, who was the leader of most Iraqi Shi'a, never
supported Khomeini's doctrine. Khomeini horrified many religious
Muslims when he affirmed that revolutionary logic and the laws of the
Islamic state take precedence over shari'a, Islamic law. The success
of this doctrine depended on the charisma of Khomeini, and without
his leadership his disciples are left with an insoluble paradox:
their doctrine calls for leadership by the most learned, but the most
learned reject the doctrine. This paradox is sharpened by the split
emerging in Iran's religious leadership over this issue. Today no
single grand ayatollah holds pride of place in Iran. The Iranian
government has proclaimed the intellectually second-rate Ayatollah
Khamenei as the leading source of emulation (marja-e taqlid) for
Shi'a, but no major religious leader supports Khamenei's pretensions.
Dismissed even in Iran, Khamenei is especially suspect among Shi'a

Moreover, Shi'ism in Iraq does not function as a basis for identity
in the way that it does in Iran. Most of Iraq's Shi'a population
descended from Arabian Sunni tribes but converted in the nineteenth
century as they settled in Iraq. This recent conversion, and their
location on the "frontier" of the Shi'a world, has given the Iraqi
Shi'a a distinct identity and they follow a more popular version of
Shi'ism. Iraqi Shi'a do not naturally look to Tehran. Even during
Khomeini's charismatic leadership, Iraqi Shi'a fought against Iran,
ignoring his calls to rise up during the Iran-Iraq War. Though the
war was increasingly unpopular in Iraq, military defections were rare
even in the Shi'a areas. Indeed, the Iran-Iraq War generated further
divisions between the two communities. If giventheir own state, there
is no reason to suppose that Iraqi Shi'a would suddenly change their
minds and seek Tehran's guidance, especially given Iran's national
chauvinism and sense of superiority over its less learned and less
historically-distinguished Arab Shi'a co-religionists. Shi'a equality
in theory is not realized in practice even in Iran itself. For
example, Olivier Roy notes that it is as difficult for a
Persian-speaking Shi'a from Afghanistan to marry an Iranian as it is
for a Frenchman to do so.

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