Bourgeois Deviant

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Knowing the Field

A friend of the family is a Dept. of State diplomatic corps veteran and specializes in Middle East issues. Edward W. "Skip" Gnehm, Jr. was the guy that the U.S. air lifted into the American Embassy in Kuwait during the first Gulf War to sort stuff out there immediately post invasion. He knows his stuff and just recently gave a lecture on the "neighborhood" surrounding Iraq. Daddy Deviant attended the lecture and was kind enough to get a copy from Skip to pass on to me. It is worth the read and worth the time spent to share it with you here. Enjoy.

(Skip, should you feel this proprietary and want me to yank it, just say so and it will be done and w/ my apologies.)


February 23, 2006




Where a man stands determines what he sees. What he sees may at that moment seem quite clear; but what is seen is immediately processed by a mind developed over time and space --- by history, by culture, and by experience. Already two people standing in the same place “see” different things. And looming behind the seen is the “unseen” that neither the one, the other, or the many can but imagine.

I recently returned from a trip to the Middle East. Not a conversation took place that did not include mention of Iraq. Some people were philosophical and tempered; others were emotional and angry. All were opinionated. These encounters reminded me that we in America, with our focus on what is most important to us, often fail to consider how other people see things. We overlook these perspectives at our peril. For they certainly influence how the peoples of the region interpret our actions and also how they determine their own actions. The peoples who live in the Middle East are focused on Iraq, not only as a political issue with major consequences on the future of the region, but as an issue with major import on their personal lives, their families, and their way of life.

Tonight I would like to focus on Iraq --- but examine Iraq through the eyes of those who live in the neighborhood --- from Turkey in the north; Iran to the east; Kuwait, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia to the south; and finally Jordan and Syria on the western flank. Each of these states and the peoples who live in them have a vital stake in the outcome of events in Iraq. Each of them has historical experiences and cultural ties that influence how they interpret developments in Iraq and how they determine whether those developments are good or bad.


Turkey looks down from the north --- from the high mountains of eastern Turkey across the highlands of the Kurdish lands out across the flat plains between the two great rivers --- the Tigris and the Euphrates. I could tell you that Turkey is the successor state of the Ottoman Empire and that these lands between the two rivers were a part of that empire for more than 500 years. I could mention the Turkomen minority in Iraq that Turkey has always seen as under its special care. I could tell you that Turkey sees a neighboring country important for trade and commerce. And validly, I could describe the importance of a pipeline that crosses Turkey from the northern Iraqi oil fields to the Mediterranean. All would be true; but in fact the prism through which Turks view Iraq is contained in one word --- Kurds. Whether true or false, Turkey sees every event or development in Iraq as in some way related to the Kurdish issue.

What lies behind this myopic view of Iraq? How about several hundred years of Kurdish aspiration for their own independent state!

Let me take you through a brief look at the Kurdish issue. The Kurds are ethnically different from the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians. They trace their presence in the region in the thousands of years. There are an estimated 36.2 million Kurds living in a region the size of California and New York combined. The Kurdish areas straddle the boundaries of several states with the largest Kurdish populations in Turkey (28% of Turkey’s population), Iran (12.6%) and Iraq (24%). The largest portion of Kurdish inhabited territory is in Turkey (43%) followed by Iran (31%), Iraq (18%), Syria (6%) and the former Soviet Union (2%). Present day country borders were drawn in Europe by Europeans following the end of WWI as they carved up the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds, who had been fighting the Turks for centuries, felt betrayed when they were not given their own state. They have continued to fight governments in the region to various extents and at different times. Kurdish movements have at times been violent and some have the approbation of a terrorist organization. Turkey and its citizens continue to this very day to be targets of some Kurdish groups.

The central issue for Turkey is not terrorism, however, but Kurdish desire for an independent state that would include large portions of Turkey (and its Kurdish inhabitants). Turkey is not about to acquiesce in such a development and takes whatever actions that are necessary to contain Kurdish aspirations and thwart any pressure on Turkish territory. Hence, Turkey watches every development in the political landscape in Iraq as Iraqis move toward creating a new state. For obvious reasons Turkey supports a unified Iraqi state with meaningful guarantees of minority rights. Turkey is wary of actions that give the Kurds more autonomy such as the moves toward federalism and increased local powers. They are anxious over Kurdish assertion of authority over the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk which would give the Kurds control of the northern oil fields and thus the economic wherewithal to sustain independence. While Kurdish parties active in Iraqi politics may at this point in time eschew independence, the Turks are certain that independence remains the ultimate objective.


Iran looks westward toward Iraq from the heights of the Zagros Mountains out across the same plains between the two rivers as does Turkey. Even as the major storms driving wind, sand and snow come from these plains so did the armies that destroyed the Persian empires and ravaged their culture. On those plains are the two most holy sites in Shia Islam and the single largest Shia population outside Iran with the potential of challenging Iran’s political and religious influence.

This 900 mile border has been a fault line between empires and cultures for more two thousand years! This mountain range marked the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire where it was in a perpetual state of war with the Persians. The Byzantine Empire inherited the same skirmish line. Wars continued between Arab Moslem and Persian Moslem empires. In modern times and vividly in the minds of both Iraqis and Iranians alive today was the bloody war fought between the two states from 1980-88. Hundreds of thousands died in trench warfare reminiscent of WWI. Gas was used both against each other and by the Iraqis against their Kurdish population. Important to note is the overwhelming Arab world support for Iraq during that war. The Arab world has long viewed Iraq as a bulwark against the Persians (but I will talk more about this later).

One might expect that, after Persia became Moslem in the late 7th century, these mountains would no longer represent a line of conflict; but that fails to comprehend the ethnic fault line that these mountains also delineate. Iranians are ethnically Persian --- not Arabs. The people of Iran harken back to an imperial Persian heritage. Their sense of Persian history and culture is deep and defines them uniquely from their Arab neighbors. I was struck by a recent story in the Washington Post. The journalist was interviewing Iranian workers at Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, about Iran’s nuclear program. The worker swept his hand around him pointing to the ruins and observed that with such an ancient culture we certainly should have a nuclear capability!

Time does not permit my going extensively into the importance of this cultural divide; but it is important to understand that inherent in many of the issues we are facing today in the Gulf region and in Iraq is the Persian view of themselves as a rich and ancient culture --- superior in genius and intellect to the Arabs who, they say, only recently came out of the desert. One can readily imagine how Arabs react. Iran is a legitimate power with a security role in the region. I am not validating this self image --- only setting it forth as an important point to be understood as one tries to discern how people today --- Iranians and Arabs --- see each other.

Then enter the religious cleavage between Sunni and Shia. Iran from 1501 has been Shia while most of the Arab world is Sunni or orthodox. What does this mean? How does that impact on Iranian views of Iraq today? Facts speak starkly. Southern Iraq --- though ethnically Arab --- is Shia in religious faith. Even more importantly the most holy sites of Shia Islam are in southern Iraq at Najaf and Karbala.

The origin of Shi’ism goes back to the first years after the Prophet Mohammed. The issue centered essentially on who should succeed the Prophet as leader of the community of the faithful. Without delving too far into history, the Shia rejected the political legitimacy of the caliphs in Damascus and followed the lead of imams who were direct descendents of the Prophet. The vast numbers of Moslems viewed the Shia religion as a division of the faith and the community, both of which are viewed as deviations from the true religion and unacceptable in the Islamic community. Just as Shia refused to accept the established political structure in the Islamic state after the first caliphs, the majority population rejected the Shia. The Wahabbi fundamentalist movement in Saudi Arabia takes this rejection to an extreme --- calling Shia apostates to Islam. In other words they see the Shia as worse than an infidel (one who never believed in Islam). In the violence in Iraq today we hear Wahabbi fighters saying that it is not only justifiable but their duty to kill the apostate Shia.

Bring this back to Iran’s view of Iraq, it is important to understand that Iran, as the largest (and until now) the only Shia state, sees itself as having a special relationship with the Shia in southern Iraq. Certainly Iran has more than a keen interest in access to and influence over the two holy Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala.

How does all this come together for Iran as it looks westward toward Iraq? Iran fears a strong unified Iraq and it fears an Iraq in chaos. Devising a successful policy that wants neither strength nor chaos is a formidable challenge. Iran will oppose a strong central government that might reconstitute a strong military establishment. They are for a unified Iraq --- if the Shia are in the majority, of course, and in significant control. It means an Iranian influence over that Shia majority and/or Iranian influence with other factions such as the Kurds. Further and importantly, Iran does not want to see a strong clerical regime in Iraq that could rival the current theocracy in Iran.

And what about the Kurds from the Iranian point of view? As with Turkey, Iran has a sizable Kurdish minority (7%) and, therefore, opposes the establishment of an independent Kurdish state – a state that would certainly expect to annex parts of Iranian territory. It is, therefore, in Iran’s interest that the Kurds have sufficient influence in a new Iraq to want to remain within it but not self sufficiency that leads to independence.

Lastly, but by no means the least important of Iran’s focus in Iraq, is the Iranian concern about the U.S. presence and what that might mean over the long term. This factor goes far beyond Iraq to the most central of all Iranian security concerns --- U.S. policy toward Iran. Clearly, Iranians fear U.S. encirclement --- a U.S. presence --- largely military --- on its four fronts: air and ground forces in Afghanistan to the east, the U.S. Navy to the south and southwest, U.S. army, air force and marines in Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait, and U.S. bases in central Asia. Ultimately, Iran wants a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq and the formation of an Iraqi government that is pro-Iranian, not pro-American.

Kuwait and the Gulf:

When Kuwaitis look north toward Iraq, they see only a flat plain --- a desert of blowing sand --- their vision limited only by the earth’s curve; but their memories obsessed by the sounds and sights of the Iraqi army that came south.

Kuwait is unique among all the nations in the region. Kuwait experienced an Iraqi invasion and occupation --- never to be forgotten. Kuwaitis remain ecstatic that Saddam Hussein is out. They too fear an overly strong Iraq or an Iraq torn by civil strife; but their view of the best outcome is not that of Iran. The Kuwaitis want to see a unified Iraqi state strong enough to resist Iranian hegemony. They want a stable state that becomes once again a major trading partner. They want a state that gives the Sunni population a significant role in government --- while they accept that the Shia are in the majority. They want a central authority that will recognize the border with Kuwait as defined by UN Security Council resolutions.

How can there be such an Iraq given Iran’s seemingly dominant position among Shia in the south? The Kuwaitis believe that in the end the Arabism of the Shia in Iraq will be more important than the Shia religious ties with Iran. They point out how the Iraqi army was largely Shia and yet fought against Iran in the Iraq-Iran War. Not all Kuwaitis agree. Many believe the Iranian influence is so far imbedded in southern Iraq that it cannot be displaced. In private conversations many Kuwaitis spoke of an Iranian threat to all the smaller Gulf States --- concern that Iran would use the Shia populations in these states to undermine existing authorities. I was particularly astonished to hear them express concern about their own Shia minority which, in the opinion of virtually all observers, is the best integrated Shia community in the Gulf. Clearly I was hearing concern about Iran and not Iraq.

Saudi Arabia

Saudis facing north to Iraq look across the same vast desert plain as do the Kuwaitis. The Saudi-Iraqi relationship has historically been mixed --- one might even say, episodic. One need only recall the intense rivalry when Iraq was a Hashemite Kingdom in contrast to total Saudi support during the Iraq-Iran War when Iraq was seen as the bulwark against Iran.

A single geographic fact, an issue of religion, and a powerful neighbor dominate the Saudi mindset when they think of Iraq today. The geographic issue is a virtually open border that runs 500 miles across the desert from Kuwait to Jordan. It is a national security concern in the best of times. With the instability and disorder in Iraq today, it is a nightmare. If Saudi Arabia could have one thing in Iraq today, it would be stability --- an end to the chaos, bombing and killing that marks everyday news from Iraq. Why?

As one Saudi official said, “Iraq is a magnet for terrorists.” It is a breeding ground for operatives to develop terrorist skills. It is a source of sophisticated weapons available for the pick up. Saudi Arabia fears the cross border movements of terrorists and arms; but the most serious is the ability of domestic Saudi terrorists to enter the country from Iraq. The Saudi Government sees such easy movement as a direct threat to internal stability in the Kingdom as well as the survival of the Kingdom as it is structured today.

The religious issue in the Saudi mindset is the Shia political dominance in Iraq. Their concern has several facets. Certainly one is the religious antagonism between the ultra conservative Wahabbi sect and Shi’ism. Additionally, the Saudis fear (as do other Gulf Arabs) that the Shias’, newly-obtained, political power in Iraq will embolden, if not subvert, their own Shia population. It just so happens that Saudi Arabia’s Shia population is the majority in the Kingdom’s oil-rich eastern province. Thirdly, the Saudis are concerned (though they rarely voice this concern openly) that Shia Iraq will be a competitor for leadership within Islam. Previously, the Saudi role as “custodian” of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina gave them an unrivaled position within Islam. Shia in Iraq, who now control the two holiest sites of Shia Islam for the first time in history, have a basis for claiming their own leadership role. Finally, and most profoundly, this potential competition becomes an acute issue of power and prestige if Iran is seen as having the “custodianship” of the two mosques in Najaf and Karbala.

Iran is precisely that powerful neighbor that is the third issue that occupies the Saudi mindset when they think of Iraq. Saudi Arabia is concerned about the dominant influence that they see Iran achieving in Iraq. Foreign Minister Saud al-Feisal was blunt in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations (September 2005) that “we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason.” The Saudis have ample reason to be concerned. Iran historically has been an assertive power. The Shah in his time claimed the role of a hegemonic power in the Gulf and Iran under Khomenei tried to export its revolution to other states in the region, specifically calling for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy.

Thus the Saudi and the Arab Gulf view of Iraq is very much centered on how the new Iraq figures in their security concern over Iran. Will the Iranian influence in Iraq be dominant? Is Iraq lost forever as a bulwark or check against Iran? Will the U.S. remain steady on course as a protector? The Gulf Arabs are savvy. They understand that the U.S. experiences in Iraq will have an important impact on future U.S. decisions about our continued presence in the Gulf. Officially and in actuality, the senior officials and governments in the Gulf support the U.S. in Iraq and hope that the U.S. can achieve much of its stated goals. As the Saudi Foreign Minister said, they want “a stable unified Iraq at peace with itself and in harmony with its neighbors.” They want a government that is inclusive (of the Sunni population, of course). They want a government that is not dominated by Iran. In short they are hoping for an Iraqi Government that truly has Iraq’s interests at the fore.

Jordan and the Western Front

Jordan looks into a rising sun when they look in the direction of Baghdad and, as is true of the sun in the Middle East, its morning rays that bring warmth are followed by a scorching sun that burns! Jordan has had a unique relationship with Iraq over the past twenty years. All will recall that Jordan took a pro-Iraqi stance during the first Gulf War. That stance was but one manifestation of a relationship that was strategically important to Jordan. Jordan obtained virtually all of its crude oil needs from Iraq at concessional rates. A complex trading relationship gave Jordanian firms advantages in the Iraqi market. Much transit trade flowed through the Jordanian port of Aqaba. All these factors continue to be important for Jordan.

The relationship today is good but not without problems. Overall Jordan, led by King Abdullah, wants to see a unified and domestically peaceful Iraq. Stability is critical for trade and development --- and for the production of oil; but instability in Iraq also spills over into Jordan. The terrorist attacks on three hotels in Amman late last year dramatize this threat. The Jordanians expect this threat to continue as long as the situation in Iraq remains as it is.

Additionally on the problem side of the equation is precisely the close relationship that Jordan had with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Those who now govern Iraq (and many Iraqi citizens) say openly that King Hussein’s support for Saddam helped prolong his regime and, consequently, their suffering. In short they blame Jordan. My Jordanian friends are acutely aware of this hostility and are anxious over how Iraq may deal with Jordan in the future.

Secondly, the Jordanians are deeply concerned about Iranian influence in the new Iraq. Jordan has not had the best of relations with Iran since the fall of the Shah. They generally oppose the theocracy of the Iranian government and its initial efforts to export its revolution. They have spoken openly about the danger of a Shia arc in the region --- referring to Shia populations in Lebanon, the Allouite dominated government in Damascus, Iran itself and now Iraq. The King has tried to use his influence with the Sunni tribes in Iraq and with the authorities in Baghdad to broker compromises or arrangements that would bring the Sunnis into the political process in a meaningful way.

Let me briefly mention Syria and focus strictly on its policy toward Iraq. Through much of the Asad presidency there was nothing but division and hostility between Damascus and Baghdad. It was partly rivalries between two wings of the Baath Party. It was certainly due to competition for regional influence between two important states in the region and two strong leaders. It had just a little to do with Saddam’s effort to destabilize Syria! After Bashar became President of Syria and Saddam’s efforts to thwart sanctions began to bear more than a little fruit, the two governments began cooperating in what can only be described as “terms that met both their desires.” Oil began to flow through the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline, not all of which reached markets in Europe! Trade (and thus transit fees) grew. There was certainly evidence that some arms were moving to Iraq through Syrian ports.

When the U.S. decided to move militarily against Saddam, officials in Damascus saw how this would destroy a very lucrative arrangement. This point, however, cannot entirely explain Syrian policy toward Iraq. An important factor remains the ideology of the Baath Party in Syria in its traditional opposition to outside (western) interference in Arab affairs. I, for one, believe as well that Syria’s policy was a result of failure by several influential Syrian officials to understand just how serious the U.S. was in its decision to remove Saddam Hussein from office. I personally believe that President Asad’s often mentioned pragmatic streak would have been more dominant had he still been alive.

Syria wants a unified Iraqi state but without U.S. influence. In fact it shares the Iranian desire to see U.S. forces leave Iraq --- seeing them as a threat to the Syrian regime. Being closely allied with Iran, Syria is not, therefore, concerned with Iranian influence. On the other hand the majority Sunni population in Syria may. Syrian policy toward Iraq will always be heavily calculated against the situation to the west with Israel and Lebanon. Those theaters are paramount --- as is the Syrian calculation of possible U.S. actions against Syria. I expect Syria will continue to oppose the U.S. presence in Iraq but will be careful not to antagonize the U.S. in Iraq in a way that provokes direct U.S. action against the regime.


What then do these observations mean for the United States and Iraq?

Foremost, I would argue that it gives us an interesting playing field on which we can have some influence in achieving our desired objectives. Virtually all Iraq‘s neighbors favor a unified Iraqi state, as we do, though their reasons for such a position may vary.

Secondly, all of the neighbors, perhaps with the exception of Syria, would like to see more stability in Iraq, again perhaps for different motives. Here the issue is complicated by the subtleties of Iranian policy, on the one hand, and uncontrolled Wahabbi activity, on the other. The Iranians are determined to see a strong Shia influence in the new Iraq and support the use of militia to both assert authority and to intimidate those opposed, including Sunnis and secular Shia. More specifically, they support rival Shia militia to insure that no one group can dominate and thus undercut Iranian influence. As to the Wahabbis, the Government of Saudi Arabia has only a limited ability to stop the movement of Wahabbi religious fighters from going to Iraq where they support the Sunnis and target both coalition (read “foreign forces”) and Shia. The Saudi Government, so desirous of stability in Iraq, wishes to do so and should be worked with as an ally in confronting this group.

Finally, while Iranian influence, especially among Shia in southern Iraq, is significant and I would say increasing, the Iranians will have a serious problem maintaining their position and the situation may begin to shift sooner than you think. Iran cannot succeed over time in restraining Arab Iraqi Shia from asserting their interests. Also there will be many interests that will not converge with those of Iran. Among these will be differences in religious interpretations and the competition between the Shia centers and ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran. Oil policy --- production levels and pricing --- will be contentious. Rising anger at Iranian intervention in Iraqi political matters is but a matter of time. And finally, Persian cultural attitudes --- condescension toward Arab Shia --- will lead to tensions and, I predict, ultimately limit Iranian influence.

We end where we began.

“Where a man stands determines what he sees.”

But equally true is: “What men do with what they see is theirs to decide.”

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