The role of Iraq in XXI century geopolitics
After having been constantly on the crest of the wave of international attention for at least five decades, Iraq has for some time been overshadowed in the vast pantheon of crises that characterize this unfortunate beginning of the twenty-first century.
Partially over the American war epic from 2003 to 2011, with the invasion, regime change, the inglorious – albeit partial – withdrawal of the US contingent, the bumpy transition of the country towards democracy, and, after a brief period of distraction in which the Middle East was crossed by the so-called Arab Spring., Iraq had returned forcefully and disturbingly to prominence with the rise of the Islamic State in 2014. Iran’s timely intervention with IRGC militias and subsequent anti-ISIS Coalition prevented the country’s complete collapse, sparing it a bleak future under one of the most brutal forms of political Islam in recorded history, and to which even the Taliban would have paled.
After the recovery of Mosul, in 2018 the spotlight on the country slowly died down. However, this does not mean that Iraq’s problems are over or that it cannot return in the future to stir the waters of the precarious region surrounding Mesopotamia.
Iraq, because of its strategic position, its political dysfunctionality, and the kaleidoscopic melting pot of ethnic, religious and national tensions it gathers, as well as the magnitude of the work of reconstruction and national reconciliation that it is called upon to face, retains intact all the potential to destabilize the Middle East again. To sum up, we must do exactly the opposite of what was done with Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989; the country is, and must remain, a special observer.
A Western policy that wants to call itself far-sighted should therefore be based on a wide-ranging approach. Basically, for once, prepare to prevent problems instead of dealing with them belatedly and clumsily when they have already exploded. It could do so by discreetly accompanying the country in the transition towards more effective governance models that reach the entire population of the country, launching concrete support for the immense work of material and infrastructural reconstruction and, finally, facilitating the impressive work of national reconciliation, without which the fate of the country will inevitably remain marked, in a negative way.
It is nothing short of illusory that the United States, the European Union and the other major international donors have at this moment the desire, concentration, lucidity and resources to start this investment in the stability, reconstruction, development and progress of the country which, to all intents and purposes, remains the cradle of human civilization. For sixteen months, the priority of the so-called Global West, that is to say the NATO/EU/G7 triad and various ententellati, is only one, Ukraine; And it is safe to assume that it will be for a long time to come.
Iraq will have to find its own way and, above all, do it elsewhere than the usual circuits.
The country continues to be burdened by two cumbersome neighbors, one standing for thousands of kilometers along its eastern border, namely Iran; the other, on the other hand, is not a neighbour in the geographical sense, but continues to be interested in Iraq, it is obviously the United States of America. While the former has capillary increased its presence in the most disparate ganglia of Iraqi power, the United States – distracted by many other, perhaps too many, issues – essentially operates a policy of interdiction towards Iran. They have little to offer Iraq but are content for the moment to hinder the “fraternal” embrace that Tehran intends to extend to it in an increasingly enveloping way.
In any case, imagining that Washington, or some Arab ruling house, could establish the kind of relations that Iraq will have in the future with Iran, with which it shares thousands of kilometers of border and millennial political, economic, commercial, cultural and religious relations, would seem, to say the least, presumptuous.
Every year 15 million Shiite pilgrims, the vast majority from Iran, go – mostly on foot – to the shrines of Najaf and Karbala for Ashura celebrations. These are numbers and related logistical-organizational needs that dwarf even the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. In the hundreds of kilometers they travel, pilgrims are cared for, fed and housed free of charge by the Shiite population of southern Iraq which, moreover, boasts miserable incomes. All this without the slightest incident. These ties are difficult to sever.
It would therefore be appropriate, but above all wise, to let the Iraqis decide what kind of relations they want to establish with Iran. Any interference will only put those Iraqis in difficulty, and there are many, even among the Shiites, who want to escape in part from the potentially suffocating embrace of Tehran.
However, the rapidly changing global and regional dynamics could broaden Iraq’s prospects.
The international system is undergoing a paradigm shift. After thirty years of unipolar Western leadership led by the United States, the so-called “world order based on rules“, the latter however dictated and, where necessary, interpreted exclusively by Washington, we are slowly moving towards a still undefined multipolar system that so far has only one point of convergence: no country – in the new competition between great powers that is emerging between the USA, Russia, China and the EU must feel bound and obliged to adhere to the peculiar vision of the world brought by one of the opposing sides according to the binary logic, which is also being reaffirmed, of “either with me or against me”.
The so-called Global Rest, or all the other countries outside the Global West triad, a heterogeneous grouping, confused and without a precise agenda, still wants to remain on the margins of this clash. The latter seems to be the only aspect that unites them.
The Middle East is no exception, with increasing frequency turning its gaze to Asia. This also opens up excellent opportunities for Iraq. The Middle East region is rapidly embracing this global paradigm shift. Several Arab countries, some close allies (at least until recently) of the United States, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, aspire to join the BRICS. The latter is the group of countries composed of Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa that is increasingly emerging as the authentic alter ego of the G7.
Several oil and gas producers in the region are concretely considering commercializing their energy resources with the Chinese yuan, abandoning the dollar.
China is intensifying relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council and has just achieved diplomatic success – which has strengthened its prestige, authority and moral suasion – facilitating the resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, one of the cornerstones for stability in the area. Iraq – if it plays its cards right, launches a minimum of reforms, and initiates a credible national reconciliation – could benefit from a possible virtuous circle that the new season of Saudi-Iranian relations could generate. A serious and lasting revival of economic relations between the two giants of the area could have a multiplier effect also for the other neighboring economies, and Iraq should fully figure in it, also in the perspective of the inevitable diversification of its economy that will be imposed by the progressive abandonment of fossil fuels.
In summary, a region constantly characterized for decades by the so-called Pax Americana, now seems to be moving towards a sort of Asian Pax Economica administered – discreetly, and certainly not muscularly as the US is used to doing – by China. Several countries in the area could positively grasp this non-trivial difference and precisely Iraq figure among them.
Finally, the conflict in Ukraine should plausibly determine the necessary reorientation of China’s major infrastructure and economic project of the Belt and Road Initiative, better known as the New Silk Road. The northern axis of this vast project, namely the large network of land infrastructure and trade corridors that should connect East Asia, Central Asia, Russia, Eastern and Western Europe will presumably be compromised, we do not yet know for how long. This situation will inevitably give greater prominence to the southern axis that should transit through South-West Asia, or the Middle East, where Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey could suddenly acquire a much greater importance than initially imagined.
If this were to materialise, it would be an opportunity for Iraq that should not be missed.