The Crystal Ball
Stratfor has a theory about the way politics will work out in Iraq. And it goes like this. All of the local political forces have spent themselves and fractured themselves so badly that powerful foreign forces can essentially call the tune. Here's how they tell it:
Normally, when a country faces a rebellion against its prime minister, the formation of a de facto separatist government, the threat of invasion and resignation of its military chief -- simultaneously, no less -- Stratfor considers it a failed state. But Iraq is a bit of a different animal (and has been a failed state for years) so our assessment is different.
Believe it or not, all of this is actually good news. Iraq's future is not going to be settled by Iraq's various Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish factions unless outside actors choose to empower them (and even that would be no small task). The locals are all too weak, too fractured and too fratricidal to be able to establish internal control without a huge amount of outside help -- and this assessment extends to the "national" government of al-Maliki as well.
Uh-huh. This is plausible so far. That no single sectarian faction has the power to completely compel the others to its point of view is easy to believe. And consequently diplomacy in principle has a window of opportunity to impose a diktat on the exhausted parties. So far so good. But who's going to do the diktating? This is where Stratfor's analysis becomes interesting, because by their reckoning, the deal is being cooked up between Washington and Teheran. Stratfor continues:
Which means that if Iraq is to have a future, it will be determined either by the independent or collaborative actions of the major outside powers -- the United States and Iran. For the past five years those two states have been at odds over Iraq, but over the past several months fleeting clandestine negotiations have turned public and become substantial. Task lists have been drawn up and implemented, with benchmarks established to demonstrate trust and progress.
Among those tasks and benchmarks is achieving the buy-in of the various Iraqi factions -- by force if necessary -- with the Iranians responsible for the Shia and the Americans responsible for the Sunnis and Kurds. But not everyone likes what Tehran and Washington are cooking up -- and this leads to various, shall we say, objections. Some powers object by challenging the prime minister, others by threatening secession, yet others by backing Kurdish militants or interfering with military operations. The jihadists object by blowing up cheering soccer fans.
That would leave both the United States and Iran the joint victors and masters of post-Saddam Iraq. And the Sunnis, by comparison, the losers. Where does that leave the Saudi Arabia? Pretty much in the dust. And when guys get dusty, the normal practice is to mollify them with deals. One virtue of Stratfor's scenario is that it explains the generous arms package being offered to Saudi Arabia. That's the payoff to the Kingdom for the indignity of losing a Sunni-dominated state to their east. Stratfor goes on:
Chaos in Iraq is to be expected -- not because it is a failed state (although it is) but because everything is up in the air and a new political and military reality is being imposed by outsiders. Rebellion, violence, institutional failure and confusion are all natural byproducts.
Which means that "progress" -- such as it is in Iraq -- is now not only largely out of the hands of the Iraqis, but also largely outside of Iraq itself. The country's future no longer can be ascertained by reading the local smoke signals, but only by looking at the wider region. It is not so important that some southern Iraq Shia are threatening to break away, but it is critical that the United States is dumping a few tens of billion of dollars in weapons on the region's Sunni states in order to ensure their agreement in Iraq. It is now a side note that the Kurds might shelter Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels from Turkey, and far more critical that Washington might give Ankara a green light to invade northern Iraq to root out the PKK in order to demonstrate to Iran that the United States still has some cards to play.
Is everybody happy?
I have no way of knowing whether Stratfor's analysis is true apart from the plausibility of its internal narrative. But if this scenario were true, then it would describe a three-state solution with great power guarantees to keep the three from fighting after they are effectively set on separate roads. It would also be a reversal of Sykes-Picot. It would also be great power politics at its most cynical, because I can't imagine any solution emerging from this scenario in which Iran would not emerge a winner and Saudi Arabia and Syria, however disguised, would not emerge the losers. But that loss -- to the Sunni powers -- might be rationalized as payback for September 11 and their subsequent complicity in the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. The United States would emerge in some respects stronger because all the other actors -- with the exception of Iran -- would, like the local actors in Iraq, have emerged the weaker. Best of all this is the kind of deal that is cynical enough for people in Washington to like.
Scenarios like this are always interesting, especially if one has no access to confidential information against which to judge it. However, with the storyline in mind, we can watch future events as they unfold to see whether or not what little birdie whispered was true.
Thinking about it some and cognizant of the fact that I am merely a layman offering an opinion on a theory, with the uncertainties thereby twice compounded, it strikes me that any such deal would be as hard to sell as an Immigration Amnesty Bill. It fixes some things but breaks too many others in the process. The first problem, one which is hardly touched upon in the Stratfor outline, is who gets to control the oil?. The second problem, and by the far the larger, is that political factions have spent so much time selling a different narrative these past four years that they will be hard-pressed to buy in on this kind of proposal. For example, I imagine that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be accused of "selling out" by their Wahabist, militant clergy, to the apostate Shia. The Republican base, having been sold on the idea of building democracy to the Middle East, might find it hard to swallow a deal between Teheran and Washington. And the Democrats are certain to shed tears at the drop of a hankie over something, though for what exactly, I have yet to imagine. But that's a small detail. It will happen. In short there will be an uproar everywhere. That's not to say that this kind of deal can't be sold, but it won't be an easy sell.