Iraq and the end of the empire

The current crisis in Iraq contains all the factors that are shaping the new political realities in the region. After two invasions of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, an ongoing Cold War against Iran and a war on terror that is losing traction in the mountainous labyrinth of the Hindu Kush along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the United States is finally realizing that the contemporary international system cannot be ruled by military might.

The cost of the uni-polar moment that neo-conservatives indulged in with so much hedonistic violence has plunged the country into an economic crisis. The middle classes in the United States and especially the lower strata of society have paid with blood and sweat for the war on terror. The strategic gain has been nil.

In fact, in addition to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eclipsed the strategic options of the United States. There is no Saddam or Taliban any more that could be manipulated in order to check Iran and to attack the country if necessary. And now Tunisia’s Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are gone, too. Ultimately, the strategic blunder, the inhumanity of the US occupation, changed the perception of the US in the minds of a majority of Arabs and Muslims.

The blunder in Iraq also affected the domestic politics of the US. In many ways, it was the Iraq episode that paved the way for the Obama presidency. The anti-war vote for Obama was a major factor in his success in the elections in 2008. The second factor is intimately related to the emergence of a post-American order.

For over two decades, Saddam Hussein was very functional in containing revolutionary Iran. Lest we forget: President George Bush Sr. betrayed the Kurds and the Shiites in their revolt against Saddam Hussein immediately after the first US invasion of Iraq in 1990 because he needed Saddam Hussein to check Iran and to subdue the Iraqi Shiites who were seen as natural allies of Iran. From an analytical perspective, a Shiite-led Iraq does not translate into subservience to Iran, of course. Alliances are based on interest, not on ethnic or religious affiliation. The "Shiite factor" is a necessary, but not a sufficient, explanation for the emerging Iraqi-Iranian relationship.

Political elites in Iran have known this. They engineered institutional options at quite an early stage during the war with Saddam Hussein (1980-1988), for instance the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq under the leadership of the late Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim (which has now been turned into The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq by his brother Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim). Iran was able to mobilize the vast network of religious foundations (bonyads), non-governmental organizations, charities, and family bonds spanning from Tehran, Qom, Ahvaz and Mashhad in Iran to Baghdad, Kerbala, Kazimiya and Najaf in Iraq. This infrastructure is in many ways "organic". It developed historically, at least since the Safavid dynasty, and it was fortified in the twentieth century through political alliances (for instance, with the Kurdish movements).

And then there are the clerical links. All major sources of emulation in the contemporary history of Iran have had some personal linkages to Najaf and/or Kerbala. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini studied in Najaf and he stayed there in exile. Khomeini was very close to Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr, who is currently studying in Qom. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iraqi marja al-taqlid (source of emulation, the highest clerical rank in Shiism) was born in Iran. In turn, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, a close confidante of the current supreme leader of the Islamic Republic and the former judiciary minister of the country, was born in Iraq. So the Iranian-Iraqi narrative is intensely intermingled beyond mere sectarian dimensions.

The imperial power of the US never translated into a pax Americana for the people of western Asia as it did in post-war Europe. The US did not forge a viable security architecture that would be inclusive and that it would enforce in the name of stability. The Israel lobby and other rightwing constituencies ensure that US foreign policies remain divisive. For the US, regional security interdependencies are problematic exactly because they make it rather more difficult to divide and rule. Conversely, for the people of the region, the Iranian-Iraqi relationship is only a good thing because it creates interdependencies that can translate into a viable regional security order, much in the same way as the Venezuelan-Cuban axis enforced the autonomy of Latin America. After all, it is primarily the people of the region who pay the price of war, and not those outside it. One can only hope that the political elites in Iraq and Iran rise to the occasion and contain the extremists in their ranks. The people on both sides of the Shatt al-Arab deserve peace and reconciliation. To that end, the post-American order provides an opportunity.