Sunday, May 31, 2020

Can Mustafa al-Kadhimi Save Iraq?هل يستطيع مصطفى الكاظمي إنقاذ العراق؟

Prime Minsiter Mustafa al-Kadhimi
What does it mean to pose the question: can Mustafa al-Kadhimi save Iraq?  Iraq has yet to meet the expectations its citizens have held since the toppling of Saddam and his Ba'th Party regime in 2003.  Saving Iraq thus means meeting those expectations by conceiving and implementing policies which can allow them to become a reality. Democracy is what Iraqis want. However, democracy needs to be more than just the right to vote and personal freedoms. 

In Iraq, meaningful democracy not only requires the rule of law, transparent and accountable governance, but also jobs and social services, such as healthcare, housing and education. Saving Iraq presents any Iraqi leader with a huge challenge.  Is Mustafa al-Kadhimi up to the task?

Background to Mustafa al-Kadhimi taking power
Iraq has had several prime ministers since national elections were first held in January 2005. None have inspired the Iraqi people and none have implemented the type of democratic change, improvement in social services and the growth of jobs that Iraqis desire.  Perhaps Haydar al-Abadi, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Manchester, was the only candidate to raise hopes due to the time he spent in the UK, his technical skills and a background devoid of corruption.
Poster criticizing the corruption in 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi's government 
Iraq’s youth uprising – the October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen) – forced the resignation of Prime Minster 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi through widespread and peaceful protests in late November 2019.  Not since the 1948 Wathba had popular protests forced an Iraqi leader - in that instance, Iraq’s first Shi'i prime minister, Salih Jabr - from office.
Youth supporters of Thawrat Tishreen protesting in Baghdad's Liberation Square
From this past November until this May, Iraq has had a caretaker government.  Efforts by two candidates proposed by Iraqi president, Barham Salih - Muhammad Tawfiq 'Allawi and 'Adnan al-Zurfi - to form governments failed. 'Allawi was unable to obtain the parliamentary votes for his ministry due to his focus on appointing technocrats as ministers who were not officials of political parties.  Iranian opposition to al-Zurfi, who had lived in the US, doomed his chances as well.  Despite Iran’s displeasure, Iraq’s intelligence chief, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was able to form a government on May 7th, 2020.

The new prime minister has an atypical political pedigree.  Although he was Iraq’s Director of Intelligence prior to becoming head of the Iraqi government, he was also a journalist associated with the highly respected and independent news website, al-Monitor, and a human rights activist.  Iran, the pro-Iranian militias in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs/al-Hashad al-Sha'bi), and the Green Zone political elite’s corrupt parliamentarians all opposed al-Kadhimi.  They saw him as too independent of their control, inclined to cooperate with the United States and seeking to impose technocrats as ministers who would threaten their financial interests.

However, a number of factors ultimately worked in al-Kadhimi’s favor. The failure of the previous two candidates, which involved extensive in-fighting, exhausted Iraq’s political bosses and parliament.  Meanwhile, al-Mahdi’s caretaker government was doing nothing to address a wide range of pressing problems. These problems involved how the government should deal with the growing youth-led “October Revolution” (Thawrat Tishreen), problems with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) over the Iraqi budget and the division of revenues from the sale of Iraqi oil and an effort by the Da'ish terrorist to reestablish themselves in north central Iraq.

These problems were exacerbated once the coronavirus began to spread rapidly in neighboring Iran and posing the possibility it might overwhelm Iraq as well.  As the pandemic spread, oil prices collapsed and the Iraqi government faced the possibility of not being able to pay government employees' salaries this spring, which many feared would produce economic chaos.

Meanwhile, Iran’s economic woes multiplied, as the result of a lethal trifecta of ever harsher US sanctions, the worsening Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of global oil prices.  Iran found itself unable to continue funding Hizballah, its Lebanese ally, and forced to begin withdrawing some of its Revolutionary Guard troops from Syria.  Meanwhile, reports surfaced that the US and Iran had cut a deal: Iran wouldn’t oppose al-Kadhimi’s nomination to become prime minister if the US quietly relaxed some of its sanctions and allowed the transfer of funds from Luxembourg which the US had blocked.The secret US-Iran Deal which installed al-Kadhimi in Baghdad

Even before the full force of the coronavirus and the collapse it caused in oil prices, Iran faced serious economic problems.  Coming in the wake of the killing of Qasem Suleimani, its tottering economy has forced Tehran to seek better relations with Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states.  In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani moved this past April to undermine those Popular Mobilization Units which serve as Iranian proxies, leading to a split in the moment between militias loyal to him and those loyal to Tehran.

Further, Iran sent emissaries to Iraq informing its allies that they should not block al-Kadhimi’s nomination. Thus, al-Kadhimi's candidacy came at an opportune time, despite the extreme hostility to him by some Iranian clients such as Kata’ib Hizballah, the most powerful of the militias.  Hizballah  accused al-Kadhimi of being involved in Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ deaths in his role at the time as Iraq's intelligence chief. Iran is retreating from the Iraqi political scene

Kata’ib Hizballah, whose leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also overall PMU commander, saw its candidate, 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Muhammadawi, also known as Abu Fadak, rejected to replace al-Muhandis as chief of the militia movement. The position instead went to Abu Muntazir al-Husseini, a former leader of the Badr Organization. Thus, al-Kadhimi took power during a period in which Iran has been forced to curtail its regional adventurism.
Former IRGC commander, Qasem Suleimani, and PMU chief, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis
Ten challenges confronting Mustafa al-Kadhimi
Iraq’s new prime minister faces huge challenges. First and foremost, he needs to deal with the coronavirus in the context of an outdated, underfunded and inefficient health care system.  While it seemed as if Iraq might be spared the extensive spread of the disease in Iran, especially after it sealed its almost 1000 mile border with its neighbor, it is now experiencing an uptick in the number of reported cases, especially in Baghdad.

To date, Iraq has only devoted 2.5% of its budget to healthcare.  Further, the Ministry of Health, especially when it was under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, has been notorious for its corruption, which deprived hospitals of medicines, supplies and improvements.  When the previous Minister of Health asked for $5 million this past winter to address the corona virus pandemic, 'Abd al-Mahdi’s caretaker government informed him the funds weren’t available.  With funds even more limited now with oil revenues in sharp decline, al-Kadhimi risks being blamed for the Iraqi government's inability to effectively treat the ongoing pandemic.
Workers disinfecting streets in Baghdad
Taking a page from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal Works Progress Administration, (WPA) al-Kadhimi could hire hundreds of unemployed Iraqi youth to serve as contact tracers, especially in urban centers such as Baghdad.  These youth could work in their neighborhoods, where they're known and trusted, to learn how those who contracted the coronavirus did so and thus assist the Ministry of Health in its efforts to contain the pandemic in Iraq.
Pres. Franklin Roosevelt greets workers who were trained for new jobs by the US government
Second, Iraq faces the same economic pressures as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states with the collapse of oil prices. Responsible for over 90% of its foreign revenues, oil must remain above $60/bbl to enable Iraq to enact a budget which meets the country’s basic needs.  However, projections are that oil prices will remain much lower for at least the next 2 years as the global economy adjusts to the coronavirus and its aftermath.  And no one knows when a vaccine for the virus will be discovered and the global economy will return to some level of normality.

The first person to call al-Kadhimi after he was approved as prime minister by Iraq’s parliament was Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Clearly, Salman wants to wean Iraq away from Iran and was calling to see who the Saudis and the Gulf Arab states would now be dealing with.

Before the coronavirus and oil crises, efforts had begun to develop funds whereby youth could receive investment funds to develop entrepreneurial start-ups.  Belatedly, the Iraqi government has begun to turn its attention to diversifying its economy. Already the Baghdad incubator, The Station (al-Mahatta) has been supported by a coalition of private banks and provided funds for youth entrepreneurs.
al-Mahatta (The Station) incubator, Baghdad
As long as there is no problematic quid pro quo, al-Kadhimi could turn to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait for funds which could be used to put more Iraqi youth to work. Maintaining close ties to the US and the European Union also makes sense because they too might help the new prime minister develop a fund of seed money to promote the development of Iraq’s private sector, both for prospective youth entrepreneurs but also for already successful entrepreneurs to expand and improve their businesses.

Third, al-Kadhimi must walk a fine line between retaining close ties with the United States and, at the same time  not alienating Iran which has extensive economic interests in Iraq and many political allies.  If he is perceived as doing the United States’ bidding in Iraq, that will inflame public attitudes which are already sensitive to the US having killed Qasem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, this past January 3rd without informing the Iraqi government.

On the other hand, Iraqis have developed widespread anger with Iran for the thousands of deaths and injuries that Iran’s proxy militias have caused to peaceful youth protestors in support of the October Revolution.  They also resent the extent to which Iraq’s Green Zone political elite is subservient to Iranian political and economic demands.  One of the youth uprising's most popular slogans is "Iran out of Iraq (Irhal Iran).
'Adil' Abd al-Mahdi: "Get out you corrupt agent of Iran"

Iraqi youth join their Lebanese counterparts in opposing Iran
Fourth, there have been persistent calls for early elections, especially among the supporters of the October Revolution. If al-Kadhimi tries to enact significant reforms, it would be much easier if he could work with a parliament in which the number of members who are engaged in corrupt and nepotistic activities were removed from office and replaced by those who supported his efforts.

Because we have seen large turnovers in parliament members in prior elections, and because members of the current parliament realize the low level of esteem they have among the Iraqi voting public, organizing early elections won’t be easy.  In this instance, the prime minister will need to use his skills at mobilizing public opinion to put pressure on parliament to assure that early elections do take place.  Given the skills he has shown already, such a move might indeed be successful.

Fifth, al-Kadhimi must act on his promise to investigate the attacks on peaceful Iraqi youth demonstrators who organized the protests which began the October Revolution in late 2019.  Of course, this means a confrontation with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. When he was nominated, Iranian allied militias – Kata’ib Hizballah, 'Asa’ib 'Ahl al-Haqq, al-Nujaba’, al Khurasani Brigade, the Imam 'Ali Brigade and the Sayyid al-Shuhada’ - all vehemently opposed al-Kadhimi’s nomination.
Iraqi youth protestor killed by tear gas grenade in the southern city of Basra
The prime minister has already taken action which indicates that he is not intimidated by the PMUs.  First, he sent forces to stop an al-Basra based militia Thar Allah (The Revenge of God) from attacking youth protestors.  Although militia members have since returned to their headquarters in al-Basra, al-Kadhimi followed his actions with an emphatic statement that, “I will never order the security forces to attack peaceful protestors.” Thus, he has sent a message early in his tenure as prime minister that he will oppose attacks on peaceful protestors and extra-legal violence by militias.  He has also informed the Iranian government that all political and military information must be exchanged through official, not private, channels.

Sixth, al-Kadhimi must confront the extensive corruption which has led Transparency International to rank Iraq in 2019 as 164 of 180 most corrupt political systems in the world.  Reports of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s son, Ahmad, purchasing the most expensive property in the world, a French chateau for $301 million and former prime minster 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi’s estimated personal fortune at $64 billion, while speaker of parliament, Muhammad al-Halbusi, was caught spending large amounts of money at Monaco’s gambling casino are just some of the more prominent indicators of the extent of the problem. Iraq's ranking on Transparency International Perception of Corruption list

The problem of corruption is not just a legal-ethical one for the new prime minister but one which, if not confronted, could contribute to Iraq becoming a failed state.  The example of Lebanon’s economic collapse due to extensive corruption, built on an official state-run Ponzi scheme, is an example what can happen when. financial chicanery continues unchecked.  Why protestors in Lebanon firebomb banks

Further, al-Kadhimi excluded the Iranian-backed militias from the consultations Iraq is holding with the US on bi-lateral relations, first in Baghdad and then in Washington, DC.  Not only are the militias excluded but so are the “usual cast of characters,” namely the sectarian entrepreneurs who lead the Green Zone elite’s corrupt political parties.  Instead, al-Kadhimi has assembled a professional team of military officials, intelligence specialists, members of the Judicial Council, and technocrats from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Trade, Oil and Justice.
Iraq's national hero - Lt. General 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Sa'adi
In the military sector, al-Kadhimi made th excellent decision to reappoint Lt. General 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Sa'adi, to his post in Iraq's elite Counter Terrorism Services (CTS). Considered a national hero for his role in defeating Islamic State forces in Mosul and north central Iraq,  and for his declaration that he had "zero tolerance" for sectarianism among his forces, al-Sa'adi's dismissal from his post by former prime minister 'Abd al-Mahdi, which was one of the key factors igniting the outbreak of the October Revolution.  Appointing the "best and the brightest" leaders in all sectors of Iraqi society sets the stage for important reforms by the al-Kadhimi government.

Seventh, al-Kadhimi must develop new policies to reduce the high levels of unemployment among Iraqis, especially youth. One of the most important ways to address this issue is to use the oil crisis to promote diversification of the Iraqi economy. One of the positive outcomes of the corona virus has been a shot in the arm for the Iraqi businesses and producers. With the Iranian border closed, as well as the border crossings with Turkey and Kuwait, foreign imports have declined dramatically, including those from China.  Iraqi goods have begun to fill the vacuum of imports.

Because prices of foreign goods were often less than those of equivalent domestic products, Iraqi businesses have faced difficulty competing with imported goods.  However, even before the current health and financial crises began, Iraqi were beginning to boycott Iranian products due to anger over the large number of peaceful youth protestors supporting the October Revolution who had been killed and wounded, in addition to others who were kidnapped and tortured, by Iran’s proxy militias.  Now Iraqis are proud they are selling products marked “made in Iraq.”  This nationalist economic trend is one that al-Kadhimi’s government can build on.
Basra's fishermen say their business is better now that they have less foreign competition
Eighth, al-Kadhimi must find a formula that will allow the Federal Government in Baghdad to finally reach an agreement with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil over the allocation of oil revenues and what percentage of the national budget should be given to the Kurds.  Success in strengthening Iraq’s federal structure is critical, not just for economic reasons but because Iraq’s Army and Kurdish Pesh Merga forces need to remain unified in their fight against the resurgent Da'ish terrorist organization in north central Iraq.

Ninth, al-Kadhimi’s government must grapple with the rebuilding of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which was devastated in the war to oust the Islamic State from Iraq in 2017, and other provinces of north central Iraq which also experienced substantial destruction and displacement of the population.  If jobs, education and housing cannot be found for the 4.5 million Iraqis who were displaced by the war, then a new generation of terrorist may be in the offing.

Tenth and finally, the promotion of Iraq’s transition to a true democracy, which garners widespread support of the Iraqi people, is ultimately the most important challenge faced by al-Kadhimi.  If Iraqis feel marginalized and excluded from the political process, democracy will lose its legitimacy as a system of governance and open the door to more violence and instability in contemporary Iraq. Thus, al-Kadhimi’s most important legacy will be the degree to which he can promote trust in government, thereby bringing the Iraqi people together and overcoming sectarian and regional divisions.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi's impact on the future of Iraq
No one person can "save" Iraq.  However, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has become prime minister during one of the most challenging periods in modern Iraqi history.  The coronavirus pandemic is spreading throughout Iraq, global oil prices have collapsed, a powerful youth uprising continues to gain strength, and the Iraqi people had reached the end of their patience with the corruption and nepotism of a rapacious political elite which is only interested in using political office for financial gain.  Crises create hardships but they often provide unique opportunities for change.

Iraqi democracy hangs by a thread.  Only through a sincere and skilled use of communications networks - television, social media and visits to constituencies throughout the country, including the the citizens of the KRG - can al-Kadhimi hope to bring Iraq's democracy back from the brink of destruction by mobilizing the necessary national coalition required to enact meaningful political and economic reforms.

If he plays his cards right, the new prime minister can mobilize large segments of Iraqi society who are profoundly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and thus will welcome his efforts to bring about true democratic change.  Reform-minded politicians, skilled technocrats, Iraq's professional classes, loyal military and intelligence personnel, members of the private sector, forward looking clerics and tribal leaders and, perhaps most importantly, Iraq's youth who constitute 70% of the population under age 30 - almost 28 million of Iraq's 40 million population - al. crave fundamental change in their society.

One of the most effective way for al-Kadhimi to reach out to the Iraqi people would be to use a "national town hall" (majlis watani). where he meets with Iraqis on a periodic basis - via television and/or social media - to discuss the problems they face in their daily lives.  If he were to also give the Iraqi people the opportunity to aks him questions, and he responded to them during the town hall, he would demonstrate his commitment to serve them, not the interests of a narrow political elite.

A critical part of any reform agenda must be confronting gender inequality in Iraqi society. While many institutions of higher education have a 70% enrollment of female students, Iraqi women still constitue just 25% of the national workforce.  Women need not only to have access to employment but they must be placed in positions of authority, such as the mayor of Baghdad, Dr. Zekra Alwash.  And eliminating once and for all the scourge of the so-called "honor crime" ("jarimat al-sharaf") must be a top priority of al-Kadhimi's government.
Iraqi women supporters of Thawrat Tishreen who are fighting for gender equality and social justice
 Iraq's Kurdish, Turkmen and minority groups must be made to feel that they are citizens who are equal to Iraq's  Shi'i Arab and Sunni Arab populations. Iraq has always been a diverse mosaic of religious, ethnic and regional communities. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of Saddam and the Ba'th was to divide these communities.  If Mustafa al-Kadhimi can reach out to these communities, such as having youth from all Iraqi groups spend time together getting to know each other in summer camps in the cool mountains of the KRG, then this policy could serve as a beginning to rebuild trust among the constituent elements of Iraqi society.

If Mustafa al-Kadhimi can mobilize public opinion behind his democratic reform efforts, seriously reduce corruption in Iraq's government, and professionalize the military by ending the PMUs' autonomy, he will have achieved what no post-2003 Iraqi leader has been able to accomplish. Not only would such accomplishments create a lasting political legacy, but they would act to sweep Iraq's rapacious Green Zone political elite into the dustbin of history.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Islamic Republic at the Crossroads: Iran's Domestic and Regional Policy in a Post-Pandemic World

Even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Iran was facing serious economic, social and political challenges.  Due to US and international sanctions, its economy was in dire straits, large segments of the populace have lost faith in the government of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and internal conflict within the Iranian elite sets extremists in the IRGC against moderates surrounding President Hasan Rouhani who would like to pursue rapprochement with the West. Standing at a crossroads, what decisions will Iran make in terms of domestic and regional policy?

What Iran decides within the next 6 months to a year will have serious ramifications for decades to come. Broadly speaking, Iran face two choices.  It can focus on foreign policy and continue its efforts to continue with missile development, enriching uranium and sponsoring destabilizing forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and continue its conflict with Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states. Alternatively, it can decide to focuses on domestic needs which offers the possibility of sanctions relief and propping up the current regime’s legitimacy.
Iran's regional interests in the Levant
From a cost-benefit analysis, the latter policy would be Iran’s most sensible choice. However, extremist elements will work hard to prevent any moderation of Iran’s current regional policies and view a turn to domestic concerns as a threat to their long term interests. Nevertheless, the question remains: if we view Iran through a different frame, will changing economic and regional conditions force Iran to abandon policies which may have brought benefits in the past but could threaten regime stability and even viability in the future?  In other words, is its radical foreign policy viable over the long durée?

Since the 1978-70 revolution which overthrew Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the current regime has witnessed an erosion of its legitimacy, especially after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in1989.  Revolutionary propaganda is belied by massive government corruption which is clear for all Iranians to see, and a state which fails to deliver on economic growth and social services.
At least 631 Iranians were killed during Nov 2019 anti-regime protests 
As corruption has spread, and a privileged elite consolidated power, the regime has drawn down on its legitimacy.  Many would argues that its “bank account” is almost empty.  Proclamations that Iran is in the vanguard of revolutionary change in the MENA region and larger Muslim world increasingly fall on deaf ears. Youth in particular chafe under rules which they see as oppressive and increasingly express themselves through anti-regime demonstrations.

One sources of regime sustenance has been its aggressive policies, not only in Iraq, but especially in support of the regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria and Hizballah in southern Lebanon.  Iran’s hostility to Saudi Arabia for its close ties to the United States has been touted as proof that the Islamic Republic, not the Saudi royal family, is the true defender of Islam and Islamic interests.  Iran’s threat to Saudi Arabia assumed a military dimension in 2019 when one of its drones hit a Saudi refinery, temporarily sending shock waves through global oil markets.
Qom and Tehran - where the Covid-19 pandemic began in Iran
In its proxy war in Yemen with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran seems to have gained the upper hand through the Houthi rebels, its local allies.  The UAE withdrew from the war in late 2019 and recently Saudi Arabia declared a unilateral ceasefire, indicating it seeks an end to the war.  Meanwhile in Iraq, Iran’s proxy militias, such as Kata’ib Hizballah, the Badr Organization, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (League of the Righteous People) have regularly attacked US troops stationed at Iraqi military bases. 

These militias not only assumed a dominant role in decision-making in the Iraqi state under the docile leadership of Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, but they have served as a conduit for hard currency to the Iranian regime as well as engaged in other illicit activities such as human and organ trafficking.

At the same time, stringent sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have taken a deep bite out of an already reeling economy.  Possessing the third largest reserves of oil in the world, Iran has been unable to export at the 3.5 million bbl./day it once enjoyed and currently finds itself exporting less than 300,000 bbl./day. Even with efforts to make its economy less dependent on oil, and through selling oil at discounted prices to China have not enable Iran to sustain its regional ambitions, let alone deliver the needed domestic benefits expected by the Iranian populace.

Iran’s ability to “squeak by” came to a crashing halt with the onset of the corona virus pandemic.  In a problem largely of its own making, Iran has become the MENA country with the highest number of Covid-19 infections and deaths.  Following the path of China’s President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei refused to address the spread of the corona virus when medical experts brought it to his attention.
Nothing was done to control the flow of pilgrims within Iran to holy shrines. Further, in an effort to bolster the regime’s legitimacy through a large turnout, the government urged Iranians to go to the polls in March national elections, despite fears that voting would intensify the corona virus outbreak. With many voters traveling to polling places, the elections became an incubator for spreading the virus as voters brought the disease back to their home cities, towns and villages. Travel by Chinese to Iran wasn’t curtailed because China, where the corona virus originated, is one of Iran’s strongest allies.  As of this writing, there are estimates that more than 37,000 Iranians have died from Covid-19.

In neighboring Iraq, Iran faces widespread hostility. The killing of more than a 1000 peaceful youth protestors and the wounding of more than 20,000 others who began demonstrations against corruption, nepotism and lack of democracy were viewed as a threat by Iran. Its proxy militias and militia members who have been integrated into the Ministry of Interior have been responsible for the killings as well as kidnapping and torture.

As the corona virus spread in Iran, Iraq has sealed its 1000 mile border. Despite Iranian entreaties to allow goods to be imported into Iraq, the Iraqi government has refused. Meanwhile, a campaign to boycott Iranian goods, which had already developed during the October Revolution demonstrations, to protest the killing of peaceful youth protestors, has acquired new momentum. Iraqis fear purchasing Iran goods could bring the corona virus into their households.

Meanwhile, a cleavage within Iraq’s militia movement (al-hashad al-shacbi) has further reduced Iran’s control over Iraqi politics. On the one side, pro-Iranian militias seek to use Iraq as a springboard for Iranian military and financial action in Syria and Lebanon while benefitting themselves from economic ties with the Islamic Republic.  On the other side, militias with ties to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shica clergy who support him seek to constrain Iranian influence in Iraq. 

With al-Sistani in ill health, there is an emerging struggle over his successor with many members of al-marjaciya fearful that Iran’s doctrine of the State of the Supreme Jurisprudent (wilayat al-faqih; vilayet e-faqih) will be imposed on Iraqi Shiism, which eschews direct links between religion and politics.

The most recent prime minister delegate, Dr. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is much less sympathetic to Iran than the current caretaker prime minister, cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi.  Kadhimi has made Iraq’s sovereignty a core component of his platform, signaling to Iran that he will not follow in the subservient footsteps of cAbd al-Mahdi. The pro-Iranian Hashad’s opposition to 
al-Kadhimi’s ministerial choices is indicative of Tehran’s displeasure and fear that he will cooperate with the United States.
IRGC forces stationed in Syria
In Syria, Iran finds itself mired down in a “forever war.” The al-Asad regime will countenance nothing less than a complete military victory over its enemies. However, with Turkey supporting anti-Asad forces in Idlib and Syria’s northern rim and a resurgent Da’ish in the al-Badiya eastern desert region, the country’s civil war offers no end in sight.  Iran also has to contend with Israel attacks on its weapons shipments to the Asad regime, especially missiles, and competition with Russia whose policies in support of the regime do not always align with those of Tehran.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)
In addition to losing IRGC fighters, Iran’s support of al-Asad is costly. Iranians ask among themselves why the regime spends so much of the state budget on foreign adventurism rather than improving the economy and social services at home. With an Iraqi state and public increasingly hostile to Iranian interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, a weakening of the militia movement die to internal cleavages, and the decline in hard currency finding its way from Iraq into the Islamic Republic,  Iran’s ability to sustain its support of the Syrian dictator will be sorely tested.
The collapse of Lebanon’s economy has jeopardized Iran’s influence in the south of the country through its support for Hizballah. As a dominant partner in the current Lebanese government, Hizballah has come under criticism even from its own members. Increasingly, pro-Hizballah Shica ask why the organization continues to focus on “struggle” when people no longer have jobs and can’t feed their families.

As the Lebanese lira loses its values, Hizballah has tried to take over Lebanon’s banking system as a means of obtaining funds.  Clearly, Iran is in no position to bail out the organization which also bears responsibility for the millions of Syrian refugees who have placed such an economic burden on the country.  What was once a vaunted militia, more powerful than the Lebanese Army itself, is now seeing a decline in its power. Its ability to support Iran’s interests in Syria, which involved sending its forces to help the Syrian Army, is no longer a given.
Streets being disinfected in Tehran
Despite the active involvement of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in helping to fight the corona virus pandemic, the failure of the Iranian government to take the pandemic seriously in the first place has further undermined public trust in the state and its institutions.  Despite the first death from Covid-19 in February, it took until the end of March before the regime began to implement serious measures to contain it. Rather than seek international help, the regime forced Doctors Without Borders to leave Iran in March, rather than allow them to witness the virus’ spread and lethal consequences.

Even though the first fatality of the virus was reported in the holy city of Qom on February 19th, local clerics, with the support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, successfully argued against a Ministry of Health request that local shrines should not be closed to the public thus spreading the disease. Like Donald Trump, Khamenei downplayed the virus’ threat for over a month and proposed quack cures for the virus.  He and IRGC leaders continued to refer to the virus as a “United States and Israeli plot.”
Posters for Iran's February elections
That the February elections had the lowest turnout (42.57%) since the Iranian Revolution established the current state in 1979. Turnout in 2016 was 61% with the lowest prior to that being 51% in 2004. The disqualifications of 9,000 progressives and moderates by the so-called Guardian Council prior to the elections undermined regime efforts to encourage large-scale voter participation.

The state’s interference in the elections and lack of transparency in confronting the Covid-19 pandemic were only reinforced by the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian civilian airliner by the IRGC this past January, killing all 176 passengers aboard, which took the regime over 72 hours to acknowledge its responsibility.

The Iranian regime still has the string support of hardline elements in Iran. Trust however is a rare commodity in Iran as the populace as seen hardline elements work to stymie all of President Rouhani’s efforts to promote the economy by sidelining the financial empire of the IRGC.  That the IRGC killed more Iranian protestors, largely youth, during November protests against a sharp spike in gasoline prices, has not been forgotten.
Satelleite photo of mass graves prepared for Covid-19 victims-March 2020
The Trump administration has played into the hands of Khamenei and Iran’s hardliners. They will probably dominate the Iranian presidential elections in 2021. However, by not recognizing the economic reality of a post-corona virus world and a populace which increasingly views the Islamic Republic as a corrupt, nepotistic and ineffective regime, Iran’s political class will lose even further confidence and legitimacy.  Because Iran refuses to use the pandemic to implement reforms which would strengthen the state, its aspirations to become a regional hegemon are in the process of being severely curtailed.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Corruption, Corona Virus, Collapse: How Can the Iraqi People Survive the Demise of the Green Zone Elite?الفساد ، فيروس كورونا ، الانهيار: كيف يمكن للعراق أن ينجو من زوال النخبة في المنطقة الخضراء؟

"Corruption is devouring Iraq"
Is Iraq’s political class on the brink of collapse?  Three crises have combined to create the greatest threat to Baghdad’s Green Zone elite since the Bush administration put it in power after toppling Saddam Husayn in 2003. What does this “perfect storm” of crises suggest about the immediate future of Iraqi politics? What implications does it have for other nation-states who suffer the same problems as Iraq?

The possible fragmentation and collapse of Iraq's political class raises a key question. How should the Iraqi people respond to this problem?  What options do they have? Using the example of Iraq's October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen) which, organized by Iraqi youth, has mobilized tens of thousands of Iraqi in Baghdad and the cities and towns of the south, I suggest Iraqis build on the local networks which have been developed to ride out the existing period of political, social and economic instability.
Since 2005, when a new political class began to crystallize after 2 national parliamentary elections in January and December 2005, Iraq has suffered from extensive corruption and nepotism. Despite the initial enthusiasm of Iraqis for democracy, seen in public opinion polls and voter turnout which reached 60% in early national elections, there has been a secular decline in the trust Iraqis place in their political leaders and political institutions.  With the low turnout in the May 2018 national elections, estimated at 44% but probably much lower, the level of discontent with the Green Zone elite reached a new low
"14,000 cases of corruption opened and $450 billion in losses"
Corrupt governance has become institutionalized in Iraq. It is no exaggeration that what I refer to as “sectarian entrepreneurs” have seized control of the state, including its executive branch and legislature and civil bureaucracy.  Transparency International’s statistics summarize the situation well: Iraq is ranked 162 of 180 nations in the NGO’s 2019 Corruption Perception Index (compared to Iran which is ranked 146/180 and Saudi Arabia which is ranked 51/180).
Iraq's ranking on Transparency International's 2019 Perception of Corruption Index I
Details of the negative impact of corruption on Iraq society
Corruption has prevented Iraq from making all but minimal progress since 2005 in improving social services, diversifying the economy, increasing the number of jobs available to youth entering the job market, improving primary and secondary school education, strengthening the health care system, generating jobs for women, or addressing the problems of lack of potable water and reliable electricity in many parts of the country.  Instead, Iraq’s political class have been content to live off the “fat of the land,” namely exploit Iraq’s oil wealth which constitute 95-97% of Iraq’s foreign revenue stream.

By 2019, Iraqis’ patience with the crooked and isolated Green Zone elite had run out.  The blatant nature of corrupt governance was a fundamental driver behind the peaceful uprising led by Iraq youth which began in early October 2019 which has come to be known as the “October Revolution” (Thawrat Tishreen).
Iraq's national hero -  Lt. General CAbd al-Wahhab al-SaCdi
The tipping point for the uprising was, in part, anger at the firing of Lt. General CAbd al-Wahhab al-SaCdi, who became a national hero after defeating the Dacish terrorist's "Caliphate" in Mosul and north central Iraq in 2017, from his position as a high ranking officer in Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS).  It also reflected Iraqi youth’s anger at the lack of jobs, poor and non-existent social services and, above all, the widespread corruption within the Iraqi government.
Iraqis express their anger at Iran's Khamenei and the late Qasem Sulimani
Quickly, however, the youth uprising became a demand for fundamental political and social reforms.  The cry for social democracy - meaning free and fair elections, government transparency and accountability, and the improvement of Iraqis' standard of living - rallied thousands of Iraqi youth, and millions more older Iraqis, who supported these calls for change.  Among the demands were direct election of Iraq’s president and the formation of single member electoral districts to end the power of “political parties” (actually small cliques of power brokers) from dominating Iraq’s Council of Deputies (parliament) and government.
A major demand of the October Revolution is ending Iran’s control over Iraq’s political process, especially through proxy militias, such as Kata‘ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq and al-Nujaba’, which provide the Tehran regime with hard currency and other financial services (in addition to engaging in other illicit activities, including human trafficking and organ trafficking).  The number of Iraqi youth who have been killed by militia members, and militia members who have been given positions in the Ministry of Interior (known as al-damaj), is close to 1000, while the number wounded which has reached 25,000.  Leaders of the uprising have been kidnapped and torturing in Baghdad and throughout other cities and towns where demonstrations have taken place. 
Cartoon calling for the ouster of Iran from Iraq and Lebanon
This violent response, which was orchestrated by Quds Force general, Qasem Suleimani, and former Kata’ib Hizballah leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both of whom were killed by a US drone strike on January 3, 2020, indicates the degree to which Iran views the October Revolution’s demand for democracy as a major, if not  existential, threat.  However, the corona virus pandemic has made it much more difficult for Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq to operate and coordinate their activities, much less engage in cross border economic activity, given the size and impact of the pandemic in Iran and now in Iraq.
Procedures in Baghdad to attempt to control the Covid-19 pandemic
Still active this March, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Iraq, the October Revolution has shaken Iraq’s political class.  In late November, 2019, it forced the resignation of Prime Minister cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi.  Although cAbd al-Mahdi, a weak leader who largely followed Iranian dictates, has remained as caretaker prime minister, as of this writing, the political class hasn’t been able to agree upon a replacement.  Because the youth protestors enjoy widespread support among the Iraqi populace, the political class has been forced to take the uprising seriously. Indeed, Adnan al-Zurfi, the prime minister designate, has indicated that the two issues which of are of greatest concern are the Covid-19 pandemic and the October Revolution demonstrations.

In the Iraqi press, the term “the street” has come to mean that the Green Zone elite must take into account the reaction of the supporters of the October Revolution when proposing a new candidate to replace cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi as prime minister. This has led to a split within the Green Zone elite between those who seek a candidate who will at least introduce some important reforms to the political system, and those, largely drawn from supporters of Iran and its proxy militias, who adamantly oppose any political reforms at all.

The second shock to Iraq’s political class was the outbreak of the corona virus (Covid-19) pandemic in China in late 2019.  When the Chinese economy shut down as the disease spread beyond the city of Wuhan, global demand for oil declined.  By the end of March, the price of oil had dropped well below $30/bbl., erasing 50% of Iraq’s income from foreign oil sales.

If Covid-19 produced an external shock in the form of rapidly declining oil prices, the Iraqi state wasn’t prepared for the internal shock of a severe national health crisis. Whatever the correct figure, which ranges from 2.5% to 5.5% of Iraq’s annual budget which is spent on the health, Iraq’s health care infrastructure is unable to treat the large number of patients who are expected to contract the Covid-19 corona virus. Indeed, President Barham Salih warned Iraqis to practice “social distancing,” indicating that Iraq’s health care system isn’t capable to handling the crisis.

Due to corruption, many hospitals and health care clinics fail to receive adequate or proper amounts of medicine and medical equipment from the state.  Rather than reaching public medical facilities, government procured medicines and supplies are frequently sold in the private market.  Patients often need to pay bribes to receive proper treatment in Iraqi hospitals.  Despite a rise in oil prices prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Minister of Health recently requested $5 million to support the fight against the corona virus, he learned that no funds were available.

Because populist leaders and clerics, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, refuse to warn their followers of the need to socially isolate themselves and instead allow large gatherings at religious shrines, the Covid-19 pandemic is destined to harm those segments of the Iraqi populace which are least able to fight it, namely the poor and marginalized sectors of  society.
The third crisis is the collapse of the global oil market.  Adding to the dramatic drop in industrial production worldwide, Saudi Arabia and Russia began a war over oil prices after Vladimir Putin refused to follow OPEC’s decision in March to cut oil prices.  Saudi Arabia responded by increasing its output and offering selected buyers discounted prices.  Because Putin has transformed the Russian economy to dependence on oil, this new flood of crude led to a drop in prices which, on March 30, were at $20/barrel.  To realize what damage this collapse of the oil market is causing to the Iraqi economy, we need remember that Iraq earns between 95 and 97% of its foreign revenues from oil sales.
What is to be done?  First, let’s consider the mutually reinforcing impact of corruption, the corona virus, and the collapse of oil prices on the Green Zone elite.  Since 2005, corruption and nepotism have become institutionalized components of Iraq’s political process. That means that the various political cliques (referred to officially as “political parties”) and their leaders have come to expect a certain proportion of the economic pie each year.  The “take” of each party was not arrived at without struggle and is recalibrated as the political fortunes of different political cliques and their leaders rise and fall.

The period since the October Revolution uprising has already demonstrated the fragility of the relations among the competing cliques within the Green Zone elite.  Once the youth protestors forced the resignation of cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi following the killing, wounding, kidnapping and torture of large number of peaceful youth protestors, the internal weakness of Iraq's political class was clear for all to see.
Speaker of Iraq's Council of Deputies, Muhammad al-Halbusi
The Green Zone elite, which an Iraqi friend and colleague likens to Naguib Mahfouz’s “haraafeesh” (الحرافيش), is an amalgam of competing interests whose focus is limited to their short-term interests in accumulating as much wealth, political power and status as the can, through manipulating laws and regulations or via illicit activities, e.g., the Speaker of Parliament waiving customs duties for Iraqi merchants who import cigarettes in exchange for bribes.  

What the Green Zone elite has demonstrated is its complete lack of any vision for Iraq’s future.  They are not only isolated and fragmented but have shown no interests in proposing and implementing new public initiatives which would address and offer solutions to Iraq’s many infrastructural shortcomings.  In effect, they have sat in their offices collecting salaries, benefitting from many perks, such as subsidized housing in Baghdad, fleets of cars, and drivers and numerous assistants to meet their every needs.
To date, little attention has been paid to what the Covid-19 pandemic and global oil market collapse will have on the inner workings of the Green Zone elite. The “division of the spoils” among competing groups in Iraq’s political class wasn’t arrived at without struggle. Further, who benefits from corruption and nepotism is not a static process. In other worlds, who gets what, when, where and how is constantly being renegotiated as the strengths and fortunes of cliques within the political class rise and fall.
Irans' Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and Iraqi militia leaders
What the current crisis suggests is that the already weak fabric of Iraq’s political class could very well be shredded by the internal conflict which is developing over distributing an ever dwindling amount of material resources. Oil revenues are tanking, cross-border trade with Iran has become much more difficult, the fear of holding face to face meetings to try and sustain corrupt and illicit activities, and travel within Iraq all create obstacles which the Green Zone elite has never had to tackle.

Further, anger is evident in the possible shortage of food products and the fees and taxes the government has imposed on bakeries and other essential small businesses. We have already seen such anger in al-Nasiriya where local residents fear bakeries may be forced to close due to stifling government financial regulations.

Nasrawis ask why Iraqis who suffered during the March 1991 uprising (Intifadat Shacban) against Saddam Husayn, many of whom sought refuge from Saddam’s forces in. Saudi Arabian camps near the northern town of Rafha’ near the Iraqi-Saudi border, still receive salaries to this day when many live outside Iraq and many poor Iraqis receive no government support at all.

Given the decline of the Green Zone elite, as a result of declining financial resources, trying to juggle the pressures from the Iraqi populace as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads, and medicine and food shortages extend to all parts of the country, and the pressures from Iran and its proxy militias in Iraq, what are the opportunities for democratic forces in Iraq to benefit from this situation?

Until the youth supporters of the October Revolution, who were demonstrating  in Baghdad and cities and towns throughout southern Iraq were forced to suspend their activities, they established strong networks, not only among the youth of many cities and towns, but among local residents who believe in their cause.  Now is the time to transform these networks into an organized political movement which can be ready to compete in the next national elections.

As long as this movement is based on local ties and supporters, but linked together across cities and towns, it can be successful.  Using social media, the goals and strategies for meeting these goals, can be discussed and debated through social media. Candidates for local and national offices can be chosen and efforts can be made to force officers in security forces in cities and towns who have killed or wounded Iraqi youth protestors to resign their positions.  Security force personnel who are sympathetic to the democratic platform of the October Revolution can take their places.  Local municipal councils and provincial governors can assist in this process.
October Revolution protestors in Baghdad's Liberation Square
It is a great a credit to the October Revolution that the peaceful youth protestors have categorically refused to respond to the brutal attacks on them by Ministry of Interior forces and the pro-Iranian militias, including those of the so-called “Blue Hats” of Muqtada al-Sadr Saraya al-Sallam.   The attacks only seem to have made the youth more determined to achieve their goals of democratic reform

Organization is the key concept in assuring the success of the October Revolution.  In addition to developing a powerful network which unites Iraqis who want to take their country back and establish a meaningful social democracy, the youth supporters of the October Revolution should continue giving assistance, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, to the poor, sick and needy in the areas where they have been protesting.  Such action demonstrates to the Iraqi people that the October Revolution is not just talk but meaningful action which makes such talk a reality.

The Covid-19 is a global tragedy in which no nation will be spared. However, postive social change can emerge from the pandemic. One of the most important aspects of this change is the decentralization of power away from authoritarian elites.  In Iraq, this means establishing a much stronger political presence in the cities and towns of its governorates, in addition to the residential quarters of Baghdad.

With the help of the youth who have organized the October Revolution, a new spirit of civic engagement can be promoted and institutionalized through groups coming together in each block of urban quarters.  Such groups can work to socialize more youth into the values of the October Revolution: social democracy, religious and cultural tolerance, gender equality, the rule of law, human rights, and an end to corruption and nepotism in Iraq's government, both in the Federal Government in Baghdad and in the Kurdish regional Government in Erbil.

Once the Covid-19 pandemic has ended, Iraqis could discover they have developed a new foundation for creating a true democracy in Iraq and bringing the corrupt governance which has brought their country to the brink of destruction to an end.