Date: 1 September 2018    Author: Witold Repetowicz

Is Iraq set to become the future regional superpower?

At present many regard Iraq as a fallen state. Therefore, the title question seems to be perfectly absurd.

Baghdad, Iraq, September 3, 2018. Iraqi lawmakers attend the first session of the parliament after elections. Iraq’s parliament convened its first session since it was elected in May, but failed to agree on potential candidates for the new prime minister and parliament speaker position. © PAP/EPA

The future of Iraq depends heavily on two major groups of factors. On the one hand, its strategic geography, vast natural resources and demography seem to augur future dominance in the region. Yet, on the other, the same factors fuel third countries’ concerns over Iraq’s growing stability, making them counteract the state’s efforts to strengthen its position. This is particularly true of Iraq’s neighboring countries.

A country’s power is subject to change. Under unfavorable economic or military circumstances, a superpower may quickly sink into decline. Potential, though, is not so easily lost. History offers innumerable examples of this here. Over the course of the 20th century, Germany lost its power twice only to rebuild itself each time owing to its potential. Similarly, Russia or the USSR collapsed spectacularly in the early 1990s. While it may be argued that Russia’s comeback as a superpower has not been achieved yet (with many factors that could potentially stall it or even reverse it) it was nevertheless made possible in the first place, because of the country’s considerable potential.

The Middle East is no different. Iran rose to prominence after it briefly lost its position, following Iraq’s 1982 counter-offensive in the Iran-Iraq War. The 1979 Revolution brought disarray in the Iranian military, thus depriving the country of its military power and encouraging its regional rival, Iraq, to invade. Additionally, the particular demography of Iran, that is, its ethnic and religious diversity further contributed to its weakening position. To a varying degree, the population of Iraq is also marked by a similar particularity. Such diversity weakens the country’s unity and facilitates debilitating or even disintegrating activities (such as separatism) on the part of rival countries. Therefore, what is needed is considerable investment into protecting and deepening the country’s unity instead of investing further into struggles for power against rival countries. Such diversity, however, may prove to be a great asset, if not a mighty weapon, if used skillfully as a natural (demographic) resource. This can only be achieved through bolstering a sense of national identity among different ethnic and religious groups. Such groups can consequently exert influence over their counterparts in third countries, thus extending their country’s spheres of influence rather than contributing to the continuous disintegration of their own state.

In the Middle East, the influence of ethnic and religious diversity on a country’s significance and power is of fundamental importance. If one was to oversimplify, it can be said that this is attributable to the fact that every country in the region, but for Iran, was largely constructed after World War I, mostly due to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. And that they were rather artificial products. While Iran’s case is different, for various historical reasons, it also boasts a very ethnically diverse society (and to a lesser extent, religiously diverse as well). This plays a role in the state’s spheres of influence/continuous disintegration dynamic, which is particularly visible in Iran-Iraq relations. Both regional powers then tried to exploit that diversity during their eight-year-long conflict. For a number of reasons, the success of that strategy was equally limited on both sides. Saddam Hussein tried to unite the Iraqis by playing out the Arabic identity vs. Persian identity card all the while making efforts to appeal to the Arabic minority inhabiting the Khuzestan Province in Iran. This strategy proved to have little to no success as the Khuzestani (2% of Iran’s population) are predominantly Shia. Until 2003, Shia Muslims were a marginalized group in Iraq even though they are a majority in the country. Moreover, under Hussein’s regime they were persecuted. Iran tried to capitalize on this fact, perhaps with greater success. This notwithstanding, it did not lead to mass desertion within the Iraqi army as it had been intended. It shall be underscored that Iraqi Shia were the majority among the army’s privates, thus being a pillar of Iraq’s military force. The strategy proved unsuccessful largely due to the underlying conflict between the Shia and Arabic identity. Within 30 years following the Iran-Iraq War, both countries have been subject to profound changes. For instance, in Iraq after 2003, the Shia majority took power, which translated into radical change in Iraq’s relations with Iran. This notwithstanding, the aforementioned demographic phenomena are still present and are vital components of the countries’ potential. What does change with time is the country’s ability to capitalize on it as well as the need to do so.

A country’s potential relies on three major elements – its economy, demographics and territory.

Undoubtedly, monitoring GDP rates is a classical qualitative index of a country’s performance. Another indicator is the country’s natural resources. Since the majority of Middle Eastern economies are rather poorly diversified, natural resources play a key role in establishing a country’s potential.

According to the 2017 World Bank GDP Index, the GDP of Iraq is ranked 52nd, and behind four countries of the region: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as Israel, which shall be excluded here, given its particularity). Out of the four, three share a border with Iraq, and all, except for Turkey, base their economy on oil and gas exports (although the UAE is perhaps less dependent on them). While the GDP of Saudi Arabia practically stalled over the years 1980-2000, the country later benefited greatly from the isolation of Iran on one side and from Iraq sliding into chaos on the other. It must be noted, however, that in 1980 the GDP of Saudi Arabia was 8.5 times higher than that of Iraq. Meanwhile, by 2016, it was merely 3.2 times higher.

Undoubtedly, Turkey is the region’s richest economy with its total GDP being 4.3 times higher than that of Iraq. The country is faced with serious problems, though, along with being strongly dependent on the imports of natural energy resources, and on its convenient transit position, to which an alternative may soon be provided. Interestingly, comparison between the Turkish and Iraqi economies has been surprisingly stable for the last 38 years despite the numerous problems that Iraq has dealt with: a costly war against Iran, imposed sanctions, turmoil following the ousting of Saddam Hussein, and the war it waged against ISIS. Meanwhile, the gap between the GDP of the UAE and that of Iraq shrunk only a little – from the GDP of the Emirates being 2.2 times higher to 1.9 now. Though in 1980, Iran boasted a GDP five times higher when compared with Iraq at the time, today it is a merely 2.2 times higher. It must not be forgotten that Iran is faced with economic sanctions, which influences heavily its yearly performance. The analyzed data clearly demonstrate that Iraq’s economic potential has grown in the last few decades, despite the country’s troubled times.

Iraq is currently the world’s third largest petroleum exporting country with 3.5 million barrels sold daily. And that is excluding the fields of Kirkuk and those of Kurdistan. The hold in sales of the former is due to a conflict between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and federal authorities. According to Iraqi oil minister, Jabbar al-Luaibi, if oil exports from Kirkuk are resumed, the sales will shortly reach 1 million barrels a day. Kurdistan Region currently sells around 600,000 barrels a day. Interestingly enough, prior to the sanctions imposed on Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait in the mid-1990s, the country produced nearly 2.9 million barrels a day. In 1991, the figures plummeted to a humble 300,000 barrels a day. Meanwhile, Saudi output rose from round 5 million barrels in 1989 to 8.3 million three years later. It was not before 2012 that Iraq managed to reach its pre-1991 production levels. The war waged against ISIS had little to no influence over Iraq’s output, though, and that despite the conflicts with Kirukut and Kurdistan Region.

Iranian oil output as of 1990 was comparable to that of Iraq and it was not before 2012 that both countries produced a near equal amount of oil again. Currently, Iranian exports are way less than that of Iraq. This is due to both the imposed sanctions and domestic consumption. In 2011, even the UAE’s output was higher than that of Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s sales figures currently stand at 7.2 million barrels daily, that is, twice as many as Iraqi’s. During his recent visit to Warsaw, Mr. al-Luaibi announced that Iraq was going to increase its daily output from 5 million barrels today to 7 million by 2022, thus becoming the second largest exporting country in the region, already ahead of Russia and getting closer to the world’s leader, Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, Iraq holds considerable reserves of natural gas, although its extraction is currently minimal, even smaller than in Poland (the world’s no. 65). Iraq ranks 11th place in the list of countries by natural gas proven reserves. According to al-Luaibi, however, new extraction works will mean the country moving into 4th place by 2022. Furthermore, Iraq is set to build a new LNG terminal in Basra.

Territorially speaking, Iraq has something to offer as well, having two major trade routes crossing. One running from the south up to the north, and the other being east-west oriented. At present, the former is used predominantly. It runs from the Persian Gulf, though Baghdad, Kirkuk, Erbil and Mosul up until the border with Turkey and further into Europe. Its significance, however, depends heavily on Iran’s geopolitical position. For Iran can offer alternative routes to the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea area, China, the Persian Gulf, and through Turkey’s Anatolia to Europe, all of which bypass Iraq. Therefore, Iraq’s position as the second-best choice to Iran’s trade routes from the Gulf to Turkey and Europe is dependent on Iran’s continued conflict with Turkey and Europe and the country’s resultant isolation. Quite ironically, this is favorable to Iraq’s east-west route, which results from the fact that this is how Iraq provides an alternative to Iran’s trans-Anatolian route. The said alternative connects Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, and is referred to as the Shia Crescent. Some see it as a part of China’s larger project: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR), which has triggered strong opposition including Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia and Russia. The reasons behind this vary: military threat, Iran gaining ground in the regional struggle for dominance or trading loss linked with routes and supply diversification. The Shia Crescent is intrinsically linked with Iran’s domination in the Middle East, much to the detriment of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Globally, it weakens the position of the US and Russia, while favoring China. Iraq’s moves, even though they eventually benefit other actors on the whole, influence the region’s balance of power. This alone gives proof of the country’s potential. Iraq can capitalize on making such decisions to increase its own significance in the region providing that it has the ability to take self-standing decisions. That is why neighboring countries make efforts to prevent it from happening. So far Iraq’s ability to self-govern in this respect is limited, especially when it comes to benefiting from rather than being victim to rivalry between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This, however, may change.

Basra, Iraq, September 8, 2018. Iraqi Shiite gunmen stand guard outside the office of Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces. © MURTAJA LATEEF (PAP/EPA)

Iraq’s total area is significantly smaller when compared with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, that is, three out of its six neighboring countries. Much of its Western provinces, bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, are deserts, which could be used as strategic depth in the event of war. In a sense, they have already been used in this fashion after 2003, except it was solely for the use of partisan warfare targeted at the then newly-elected government. Furthermore, they are tribal lands that transborder Sunni tribal federations, which along with Iraq span Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. While the mountainous borders with Turkey and Iran may appear to be different at first glance, they are similar. For they are inhabited by Kurds, which means that the natural borders (mountains and deserts) are indeed not borders at all. Therefore, the defense plan of these lands focuses not on natural obstacles but on winning the loyalty of Sunni trial federations and that of the Kurds. If Iraq’s demographic diversity has so far weakened the country’s position, it may soon become one of Iraq’s main assets. The situation of the Kurds is of fundamental importance in Iraq’s relations with Iran, Turkey, and, to some extent, with Syria as they inhabit all four countries. For decades on end, they were instrumentally used in proxy wars between authoritarian if not totalitarian regimes. Syria, for instance, backs the PKK in Turkey while Iran supported the Peshmerga when in war against Iraq. In 2005, after ousting Saddam Hussein and adopting a new constitution the situation changed dramatically. Iraq was to become an Arabic-Kurdish state, at least in theory, with both ethnic groups enjoying equal rights, despite a major disproportion in terms of population size. For the Kurds make up only 20% of Iraq’s population. Neither Iraq, nor the Kurds have found a way to benefit from the situation. Only strong cooperation between both groups would translate into a strong situation for the Kurds within a strong Iraq. This result would be twofold: the position of Iraq in the region would further strengthen while the Kurds could wield influence over the Kurdish diaspora in other countries (or take disintegrating action there). Presently, the situation appears to be different. Turkey and Iran (Syria has deprived itself of such possibility) capitalize on Kurdish inner rivalries as well as on conflicts between Baghdad and Erbil. The vast majority of Iraqi Kurds do not want a stronger Iraq as they feel Kurdish rather than Iraqi, and gravitate toward independence. This, however, would weaken the position of the Kurds rather than strengthen it. A small, strong state of a few million inhabitants, surrounded by enemies, geopolitically would be a weak move. Any index, whether it is GDP, resources, population, or territory, indicates its poor potential and power. This cannot be said of the notion of Great Kurdistan, but its potential existence is merely abstract at the moment.

Basra, Iraq, 7 September 2018. Iraqi protesters chant anti-Iran slogans after burning the Iranian consulate in Basra city. © HAIDER AL-ASSADEE (PAP/EPA)

The alternative would be to have real influence over regional policies of a superpower that in a few years can yield its full demographic potential. The Iraqis should feel compelled to convince the Kurds that Iraq is their home, too, and that they are advancing the Kurdish agenda more effectively when part of a strong country. Without them, Iraq simply cannot be seen as a strong and stable state. This is perfectly understood by Iraq’s neighbors (including Iran, despite the two parties officially having good relations, based on a shared ‘Shia identity’), concerned with stoking the Kurdish-Iraqi conflict without taking things as far as allowing for Kurdish independence.

The Kurdish question aside, Iraq’s unity and identity are stronger than they might seem. Already in 2014, Iraq was heralded as a fallen state. What was to follow was its allegedly inevitable fragmentation into three substates: Kurdish, Shia and Sunni. The idea of ‘Sunniland’ remained a distant myth, popularized only among Western theoreticians, but very far from local reality. Admittedly, a number of Iraqi Sunnis did initially back ISIS, but this was far different a proposal than traditionally understood. A more common demand among the Iraqi Sunnis (which make up 20% of the country’s population) was a return to the status quo from before 2003, as opposed to further division of the country into three parts, each of which even weaker than Kurdistan. The four-year-long experience of war changed much as well. The lands of a future Sunniland happened to be among the most affected by the war, thus needing considerable financial support. Furthermore, Arabic Sunni countries benefiting from fueling Sunni-Shia animosity would regard such a purely Sunni state as cumbersome, since it would eliminate the possibility of steering Baghdad.

One should bear in mind that the concept of Iraq as a nation was artificially created 100 years ago as was the case of Turkey. The latter consolidated over the experiences of a war of independence, which the Turks had fought led by Atatürk until 1923, when a peace treaty was signed in Lausanne. It seems that Iraq followed in its neighbor’s footsteps with its own war waged against ISIS, which has only recently finished. Little is certain, as Iraq’s neighboring countries are fully aware of the damage Iraq could bring to the current balance of power, if consolidated. This seems all the more threatening to today’s regional leaders – especially those of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – given Iraq’s astounding demographic growth. With 39 million inhabitants Iraq has the 35th largest population in the world, that is, two times less than Turkey and Iran, but slightly more than Saudi Arabia (as well as significantly more than other countries in the region).

Yet Iraq’s growth in this sense has been far greater in the last few decades compared with other countries in the region. Demographic forecasts leave no doubt that Iraq is quickly bridging the gap between both Iran and Turkey. Before 2060, Iraq is expected to be the world’s 20th largest country by population, having twice as many as Saudi Arabia, some pundits say. Such fast population growth may be conducive to internal tensions, but it undoubtedly increases the possibility of wielding influence over other countries, all the more so if Iraq manages to consolidate itself as a nation. It may come as a surprise, but this may be further facilitated by Iraq’s democracy, as one of the strongest in the region (while still being very weak), which is also regarded as a threat. Moreover, the RNI for Turkish Kurds is higher than for the Turks themselves, which means that Turkey must preoccupy itself with settling the Kurdish question. Otherwise, it may be subject to growing influence from Iraq, if Kurds happen to identify with Iraq more strongly. On the other hand, the growing number of atheists among Iranians will shift the Shia-Sunni dynamics both in Iraq and Iran. The center of the Shia world will move from Qom in Iran to Najaf, thus changing the geopolitical deal.

Unquestionably, Iraq’s neighboring countries are well aware of these threats, which they will not leave unanswered. Iraq is by no means on the losing end here, as its opponents’ interests are often contradictory and self-defeating. This is especially true of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Already in 2017, the Saudis revisited their foreign policy as they understood that the further weakening of Iraq actually favors Iran, since it makes Iraq more and more dependent on its mighty neighbor. But one of Iraq’s geopolitical weaknesses is often overlooked, that is, access to water. This is yet another Iraqi paradox, given the fact that the world’s oldest civilization flourished there precisely thanks to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In the 21st century, though, Iraq, as a downstream country, is subject to ‘water theft’ by Turkey, and Iran (to a lesser extent), erecting dams. Interestingly enough, in this regard, Iraq’s interests are identical to Kurdish ones. Moreover, both rivers flow from Turkish Kurdistan in the direction of Iraq. This makes all the more possible a potential military conflict over water between Turkey and Iraq that would be set against a Kurdish background. Admittedly, Iraqi military force was laughable in 2014. But much has already changed since in that regard. And it should not be forgotten that the Islamic Republic of Iran needed only three years following its creation to fully restore its military power.

The list of internal obstacles that Iraq has to overcome is far from being exhausted here. Problems like rampant corruption or its feudal approach to holding offices stand in the way of rebuilding its position in the region. After the war, the Sunni provinces need more than $80 billion to cover the damages sustained. And the southern provinces are in dire need of desalination installations. Such expenditure makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to harness economic potential to becoming an economic and military superpower. The way Iraq is going to be governed in the following years is key here.

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