Thursday, May 30, 2019

Caught in a Vise: Iraq between the United States and Iran in Their Struggle for the Middle East

As the tension between the United States and Iran escalates, Iraq has been drawn into the conflict, despite the fact that the government of Prime Minister cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi and the Iraqi people have no appetite to become part of it.  How has the conflict’s dynamics affected Iraq?  What can Iraq do to avoid damaging its economy and political stability by becoming part of a struggle over which it has no control?

The Iranian regime has little support, either domestically or in the MENA region.  It is repressive, corrupt, and offers the Iranian populace little in the way of economic development, education or social services.  Its military involvement in Syria and Lebanon and financial support for irregular militias in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) has only increased political instability in the Arab Mashriq, while draining economic resources at home.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s efforts to recruit Iraq in its struggle with Iran is counterproductive.  By pressuring Iraq to conform to the sanctions it has imposed on Iran, the Trump administration has made unreasonable demands on Iraq.  This is especially true in terms of Iraq’s extensive purchases of natural gas from Iran.  

Pressure is also being exerted to have Iraq reduce its financial and commercial exposure to Iran which provides 20% of Iraq’s electricity and whose construction companies are key in helping Iraq rebuild its infrastructure after decades of war and neglect by the state.

Why does Iran want to maintain political influence in Iraq?  First, Iraq provides an important land bridge which is critical to Iran’s efforts to create “strategic depth” by maintaining a corridor to the Mediterranean. To institutionalize this strategic depth, Iran supports the Bacthist regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon, in addition to 3 of the most powerful Shica militias in Iraq.

Second, Iraq provides an important vehicle to allow Iran to sidestep the increasingly onerous sanctions which the US has imposed on it.  Goods which Iran is unable to obtain in the world market can, in certain instances, be acquired through the Iraqi market. Finally, Iraq continues to offer Iran a critical market in which it can sell its manufactured, agricultural and energy products, especially natural gas which Iraq requires to power its national grid.

Third, Iran seeks to use its political influence in Iran to prevent a hostile regime, like that of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Husayn, from come to power in Baghdad.  Likewise, Iran seeks to maintain a powerful position in the Shica shrine cities, especially in al-Najaf, the center of global Shiism, and Karbala’, both in south central Iraq.  If Iran can play a role in selecting the key religious clerics in al-Najaf, then it can mobilize this influence to promote itself among the world’s Shica population.

It is less clear what US national interests are in Iraq, aside from its current interest in using it as part of its policy to bring the Iranian regime to its knees.  Any concern with promoting democracy in Iraq died long ago, if in fact that ever was a goal of the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion.  

The Obama administration wanted nothing to do with Iraq. Its foolish decision to enable Nuri al-Maliki to secure a second term as prime minister in 2010, even though he lost national elections, came back to haunt Iraq and the US in 2014 when his arch-sectarian policies led to the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to the Dacish.

Certainly, the Trump administration has shown no interest whatsoever in Iraq’s form of governance, whether democratic, sectarian or authoritarian.  Indeed, the Trump administration lacks a coherent foreign policy in the MENA region, including Iraq.  All decisions are largely ad hoc and transactional, constantly in flux, and without historical grounding or cultural understanding.

Examining the Trump administration’s position on Iran, we can ask whether it seeks regime change, as National Security Advisor John Bolton advocates, or does it support a exclusively sanctions-based policy as advocated by Trump (although his views on foreign policy change with great frequency, often day by day). 

Because the Trump administration is unclear on its objectives in Iran, that fact is all the more reason why Iraq seeks to avoid tying its fortunes to the US in this struggle.  Iraq will always need to live with and accommodate its powerful neighbor to the east, while the Trump administration may be gone after the 2020 presidential elections.

Increasingly, Iraq has become a pawn in a Trump administration game designed to bring Iran to its knees. This effort seems less a developed and well-thought through policy or strategy, with clearly defined goals and implementation process, than a set of tactics designed to bolster Trump’s political support with certain constituencies in the United States as part of his 2020 re-election campaign.  

Trump’s almost exclusive focus is on the trifecta of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates bears out this argument. 
Strong support for these 3 countries, all of which are extremely hostile to Iran, bolsters Trump’s position among evangelical Christians, one of his core constituencies, and, he hopes, among large segments of the American Jewish community.  

By pushing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, even without Congressional approval, Trump can argue that his administration has created jobs.  Never mind that these arms are bringing death, devastation and the largest humanitarian crisis in the world to Yemen, and that the war is creating fertile ground for a new generation of terrorists who will plague Yemen, the region and future US administrations.

Current US behavior towards Iraq indicates a lack of sensitivity to diplomatic protocols. It likewise demonstrates a lack of cultural sensitivities to a country which was placed under American occupation from 2003 to 2011, and which suffered greatly from US bombing during the Gulf War of 1991.  

Diplomatic consultations have languished as Trump administration behavior towards the current government of Prime Minister cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi have taken on the character of “informing” the Iraqi government of the steps it needs to take to help the Trump administration isolate Iran politically and economically.

Trump’s recent decision to end sanctions waivers will cause Iranian oil exports to decline between 26-31%. Key industries - like the petrochemical, car and construction industries, which are highly dependent on imported equipment, spare parts and raw materials - are also suffering from the depreciation of the Iranian currency, which last year lost more than 100 percent of its value, significantly decreasing the purchasing power of Iranian companies on the international market.

Iraq has an unemployment rate of 25% in January 2019.  Iraq cannot afford more economic pressure if the US tries to disengage the Iraqi from the Iranian economy. Because the sanctions the Trump administration has imposed on Iran are achieving the goal of increasing its economic pain, there is no need to force Iraq to sanction Iran as well.

Trump’s populist project, inspired by former advisor Steven Bannon and current advisor Stephen Miller, eschew international agreements. This hostility to international cooperation is part of the ethic nationalism which is surging in many countries around the world, e.g., as seen in the recent re-election of Narendra Modi in India.  Such nationalism may help mobilize voting constituencies domestically, but are proving to be disastrous when they become a framing device for international politics.

As an example of the problems of conducting foreign policy on a country-by-country basis and transactional basis, devoid of international cooperation, and with little or no reference to prior efforts to solve a specific global problem, we can cite the Trump administration policy towards North Korea.  

Having invested his political capital and personal ego in coming to an agreement whereby the North Korean regime will agree to give up its nuclear weapons and create a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula, Trump now finds himself defending Kim Jong-on’s missile tests while castigating Iran which has yet to develop nuclear weapons.

This type of chaotic foreign policy is harming US national interests, not only in the MENA region but, as many analysts have noted, is also impeding the struggle against China’s global ambitions.  The idea that the United States can promote its national interests in isolation, without its traditional allies and the United Nations is deeply flawed.  If the US has remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), rather than withdraw, it would have had 11 partner nations to help in the struggle against China.

If the Trump administration would work with the EU and NATO, it could produce a truly meaningful strategy to prevent Iran from destabilizing the eastern Mediterranean region.  Likewise, it would reduce the possibility of other regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, from developing nuclear weapons should Iran decide to no longer abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed to by the Obama administration, the EU, Russia and China.

If, through the refusal to develop a policy towards Iran, which will curb its adventurism and prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, the Trump administration needs to return to the international community and work with partners – partners which have been faithful allies since the end of WWII. 

Trump should be educated on the complexities of Iraqi politics and society. The Federal Government in Baghdad is still fighting the Islamic State (which is burning crops in north central Iraq), trying to conclude an agreement with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on the federal budget, the sale of oil, and the contours of federalism, and confronting the problem of raising between $88 and $100 billion to rebuild the devastated city of Mosul and much of al-Anbar, Salahidin and al-Niniwa provinces, not to speak of pressing infrastructure needs elsewhere in the country.

Strategy needs to replace tactics. Unannounced or sudden visits to Iraq, such as Trump’s visit to US troops after Christmas in December 2018 when he didn’t exercise the courtesy of visiting the Iraqi leadership in Bagdad, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s peripatetic visits, need to end because all they do is provide political ammunition for Iran’s allies in Iraq who would like to see US troops leave Iraq and curtail its influence in the country.

Iraq and the United States must be equal partners if the Trump administration is able to achieve any of its objectives in the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region

Monday, April 29, 2019

Youth and Building a New Iraq: The Iraq Public Leadership Program

2019 Iraq Public Leadership Program directed by Dr. Yass al-Khafaji 
In its seventh year, the Iraq Pubic Leadership Program (IPLP) trains young Iraqi middle-career managers, NGO, and think tank members, and government employees over a period of 10 months in principles of social entrepreneurship, impact investing, rule of law, and conflict resolution strategies.  Most important of all, it helps develop critical thinking skills. I was privileged to have been invited to participate in this year’s IPLP which included 30 remarkable Iraqi youth leaders. 

In what ways does the IPLP help improve economic and social conditions in Iraq?  Specifically, what hope does it offer Iraqi youth, many of whom are unemployed and have little hope in the future?

With 70% of Iraq’s population under the age of 30, the country’s “youth bulge” is not expected reach a more “normal” demographic distribution much before 2050.  Considering that Iraq derives 97% of its foreign revenues from the sale of oil, and that oil accounts for only 1% of employment, clearly hydrocarbon production cannot address the problem of unemployment. 

With the Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) accounting for 65% of national employment, it is easy to understand why the focus of young people is obtaining a government job.  In their view, the relatively low salaries they receive are offset by having lifetime employment and a guaranteed pension.  

Still, the public sector, which was established after the 1958 coup which overthrew the Hashimite monarchy, is highly inefficient and unable to generate new jobs.  As the number of youth graduating from secondary schools and universities continues to grow, the public sector - which currently accounts for 4 of every 5 new jobs created – will be unable to keep pace with the number of youth entering the employment market each year.

As an example of the efforts of Iraqi youth who were participants in this year's IPLP, one group of 3 began a school in a poor neighborhood of Baghdad where they offer classes for $5 per month (or free if the student’s family can’t afford the fee) in which K-12 youth, who are mostly from single parent homes or orphans, learn how to read and write Arabic and English and mathematics.  The school organizers, who all have regular government positions, in the Ministry of Oil, the Ministry of Education and secondary school system, use their own salaries to finance the school.
Dr. Yass al-Khafai, Dr. Sameh al-Muqdadi and Eric Davis
The school teaches mixed gender classes which sometime elicits opposition from parents.  However, mothers and fathers, who are invited to attend the classes to see that mixing girls and boys isn’t a problem, often end up learning in the process.  If a child doesn’t arrive to school on time, the team immediately contacts the parents to assure that the education process isn’t interrupted.
A member of the IPLP presents a project which offers
education to poor children and orphans in Baghdad
Another social entrepreneur has co-founded a series of book stalls, Daraj Books, in coffee shops throughout Baghdad.  Corner shelves display the books which customers are encouraged to browse while drinking tea or coffee.  The social entrepreneur who established this enterprise told me she is now trying to offer her clients access to e-books which they can read online.

There is great concern among young Iraqis with environmental protection.  The air quality in parts of the country is unhealthy, such as in the southern port city of Basra, due to the flaring of natural gas, the lack of environmental standards for controlling automobile exhaust levels, and the need for countless generators to assure access to electricity which is only sporadically provided by the state-operated grid.

Thus, there was concern among many of the IPLP participants with recycling waste and finding ways to make it profitable in the process.  This idea isn’t new.  When I visited the KRG in 2004, I found a large recycling company run by a prominent Kurdish businessman and an Iraqi engineer from the city of Tikrit.  When I asked whether their different ethnic origins influenced their work, they were surprised, saying that theirs was a profit-making enterprise, that they were unconcerned with their respective ethnic origins,  and that they were proud they employed 25 youth in each of their recycling centers.
Campus of the American University of Sharjah

One IPLP participant established the first Green Consulting company in Iraq, which is located in Erbil.  Her firm was impressive enough to lead the organizers of this past February's Davos Conference to invite her to present her start-up.

An innovative idea developed at the IPLP session in which I taught was to create companies which would purchase waste materials thereby incentivizing recycling.  The proposed company would provide containers for customers  who joined the program.  The recyclables would be divided and then sold to the company according to weight.
In my effort to provide assistance to the youth social entrepreneurs, I offered three PPT presentations.  The first, “Iraq’s Civilizational Contributions to the World,” was based on the assumption that effective social entrepreneurs need to feel a strong tie to and pride in their country.  Social entrepreneurship needs to be grounded in inspiration.  Having heard from many Iraqi youth interested in engaging in commercial enterprises that Iraq has no entrepreneurial tradition, I felt that a review of its historical contributions was essential.

I offered what I called three educational modules which touched on different forms of historical memory designed to  provide examples that Iraqis have, historically, been actively involved in wide ranging trade which in turn created great prosperity and stimulated innovation.
My presentation: "Iraq's Civilizational
Contributions  to the World"
One has only to turn to the many works of the late archaeologist, Samuel Noah Kramer, e.g., his History Begins at Sumer, which documents 39 "firsts" which Iraq’s ancient Mesopotamian civilizations contributed to the world, to realize how incredibly advanced they were for their times.  The Emperor Hammurabi invented the world’s first complete legal code (although archaeologist have found fragments of similar codes hundreds of years before Hammurabi) which is part of the majority of the world’s modern legal systems today.

Hammurabi created the first concept of a contract. Another contribution was developing the first language in the form of cuneiform.  These developments were stimulated by the extensive trade Sumer established with far away regions which required merchants to create forms of notation which would allow them to keep track of their products.  Beginning in ancient Mesopotamia, the peoples of the Fertile Crescent already had developed  a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Innovation was certainly a characteristic of the early Abbasid Empire – the second educational module.  During the early 800s CE, the Caliph al-Ma’mun was a ruler who was curious and fascinated by the acquisition of knowledge. It is well known that he sent his advisors to the far corners of the empire, including to southeastern Europe, to bring back all known knowledge of the world and have it translated and deposited  in a new library-university called the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom).

The third module focused on the Iraqi nationalist movement between 1908 and 1963. This period is bracketed by the 1908 Young Turk Revolt in the Ottoman Empire which deposed the Sultan and the first Bacthist coup in February 1963 which overthrew the regime of General 'Abd al-Karim Qasim. As I document in my study, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, the Iraqi nationalist movement, which preceded Bacthist rule, was viewed as highly threatening by Saddam Husayn, leading him to create the Project for the Rewriting of History (Mashruca Icadat Kitabat al-Tarikh) of which he was president.

What Saddam found threatening was precisely the values which characterized the pre-Bacthist era.  In its cross-ethnic nature, the nationalist movement reflected the overwhelmingly peaceful interaction of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups and the lack of hostility between them.  The period of the nationalist movement was characterized by a large and vigorous press and there was widespread associational behavior in the form of professional syndicates (al-niqabat al-mihaniya), large labor unions, women’s and student organizations, and programmatic (non-elite) political parties, e.g., the Iraqi Communist Party and the National Democratic Party.

An IPLP ream works on developing a solar energy start-up
While the economy was overwhelmingly agrarian after Iraq became nominally independent in 1921, efforts were made to expand trade, develop an incipient industrial sector, and expand oil production. The Baghdad Chamber Commerce reflected an amalgam of diverse ethnic groups.  Between 1937 and 1945, the president was a prominent Shici merchant, Jacfar Abu Timman and the majority of its members were Iraqi Jews.

Indeed, parliamentary elections were held between 1925 and 1958.  While parliaments were continually dissolved by the dominant political elite at the time, and rural elections were controlled by tribal shaykhs, elections which I studied in many urban districts were fair and free.
A member of an IPLP team presenting 1 of the 2 proposed solar energy projects
All of this history diametrically opposed the repressive and authoritarian rule of Saddam and the Bacth.  Because so many youth today have only known Saddam’s rule and the corrupt and inefficient political system imposed on Iraq by the United States after it toppled Saddam in 2003, many analysts express doubt whether Iraq is truly “ready” for democracy.

However, as I argued at the IPLP, and everyone agreed, there is a strong correlation between a tolerant political culture, democratic governance and social justice in the form of government services and economic development and prosperity. 

Thus, when asking the group to discuss possible social entrepreneurial ventures, one suggestion I made was the creation of an educational website which secondary school teachers and university professors could use to develop lesson plans for civic education (al-tarbiya al-wataniya).  A non-political site, in the sense that it would avoid discussions of contemporary politics, it would instead offer analytic discussions of concepts such as pluralism, tolerance, respect for religious and cultural diversity, gender equality, personal freedoms, human rights and social democracy.
An IPLP team discusses developing a profitable recycling start-up in Baghdad
In the area of sustainable development, we discussed another project, namely one to provide solar panels for farmers to help gain easier and less costly access to water for irrigating their crops.  In Egypt, Karm Solar (Sharikat Karm li-l-Taqa al-Shamsiya) has been extremely successful in meeting this need of farmers despite the Egyptian military refusing to allow them access to the national electric grid (

The final project which we discussed was that of a franchise developed by Iraqi women to provide nursery schools where women could feel secure leaving their children while they went to work.  In many Arab countries, women constitute 70% of the undergraduate student population in universities but a relatively small percentage of the national work force. 
A member of an IPLP team presents one group's solar energy project

One of the main problems Iraqi women face is childcare.  Thus, having reliable nursery schools to which they could send their children represents a crucial component in addressing this problem which results in the loss of significant human resources in the Arab world due to the inability of skilled women to contribute to the national economy.
In some parts of the Arab world, such as in Egypt, women have obtained micro-loans made to groups of 4 or 5 borrowers.  The default rates on these loans is very low, usually less than 1%.  I suggested to the IPLP group that this model could be employed in Iraq as a business model whereby a group of women in Iraq could fund such a franchise.  The nursery schools could provide children with health care information, promote manual dexterity through supplying them with crayons and pencils and even teach them rudimentary computer skills.
An IPLP team presents a short play on the difficulties facing
would-be social entrepreneurs as part of the bricolage exercise
One of the most attractive qualities of the IPLP was the extent to which it encourages critical thinking skills.  At the end of our sessions, Dr. Yass al-Khafaji organized an exercise in "bricolage" or improvisation using materials he had gathered from refuse discarded at the American University of Sharjah (the exercise stimulated, as he noted,  by Claude Lévi-Strauss's notion of "social bricolage").  Each ILPL team created their own project in the short time allotted, including the team above whose short play encapsulated the problems would-be social entrepreneurs face when they try to create start-ups.

At the IPLP, there was discussion of The Station (al-Mahatta), a relatively new incubator in Baghdad which has played an important role in promoting ventures of young Iraqi social entrepreneurs.  The incubator combines the talent of young Iraqis interested in conjoining technology and design, with the support of established Iraqi entrepreneurs who seek to help the younger generation develop a private sector which will contribute to the betterment of Iraqi society.  Along with the IPLP, The Station is yet another sign of the social entrepreneurial energy of Iraq's "generation in waiting."
The Station incubator, Baghdad
The Arab world suffers from economic stagnation.  Even where economic growth is robust, it is in oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar which constrain youth and discourage critical thinking skills.  This situation results in a huge loss of creative energy and human resources.  Social entrepreneurship is not a cure all – a "silver bullet” – but it does offer a an exciting way forward for the youth of the MENA region.