Iraq's stability at Iran's whim

The nation's election gave birth to yet another infant government, instantly threatened by the region's political tumult from the moment it is born.

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When Americans and Europeans turned to their newspapers or favourite internet home page yesterday, Hollywood's Oscars probably dominated the headlines, not Iraq's elections. In the days running up to the balloting, there was more debate about the authenticity of Katherine Bigelow's best picture-winning Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker than about a stated aim of the actual war - free and fair elections - and whether they would propel Iraq towards stability.

In a celebrity-addled world, it's a wonder that Iraq wasn't urged to reschedule the vote so it wouldn't conflict with Hollywood's annual equivalent of prom night. Yet not even events in Tinseltown can hide the fact that Sunday's voting marked the start of a period of deep uncertainty in Iraq and growing jitters across the region. For one thing, the results of the balloting, overseen by an Iraqi security force numbering 670,000, may not be known for days. Allegations of vote fraud are all but a forgone conclusion.

For another, elections in December 2005 did not produce a prime minister and cabinet until May 2006. Given that time frame, this time around, it could take until the start of Ramadan, in the second week of August, to form a government. By itself, this post-election hurly-burly is enough to cause nervousness. But there's more. The political horse-trading to seat a new government will occur against a backdrop of withdrawing US troops. Although the United States is still spending $1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) a week to support them, their numbers already have fallen to less than 100,000 from a high of 170,000.

By Ramadan, no more than 50,000 troops are to remain in the country. If a political argument about the legitimacy of the new government turns violent, there will be fewer troops to stop it. The reason that Iraq's post-election hubbub really sets teeth on edge, though, is the looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme. On October 1, US and Iranian diplomats met face to face for the first time in 30 years and Tehran agreed to transfer the bulk of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods for peaceful purposes.

Since then, the agreement has collapsed, and the end-of-2009 deadline set by Barack Obama, the president, for measurable compliance with the demands by the International Atomic Energy has passed. The US administration is now drafting a new round of UN sanctions against Tehran. The sanctions will target Revolutionary Guards Corps and its large network of companies, it has been reported. To boost the sanctions and win the key support of China, the Obama administration is working closely with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to offset any cutback in oil shipments that Beijing may suffer under the plan, The Washington Post reported this week.

If the UN Security Council approves tougher economic measures against Iran, Tehran could retaliate by leveraging its deep diplomatic, religious and trade ties with Iraq, as well as covert ties with militias, to sow violence and instability there. That, in turn, could delay the US troop withdrawal from Iraq. The scenario makes clear, as nothing else, that stability in Iraq is at the mercy of Iran's role in Iraq, and that for Washington, its Iraq and Iran policies have become irrevocably wed.

As the sanctions debate intensifies in the coming weeks, Mr Obama faces a choice between seeking a deal with Iran, in part to secure Iraq against turmoil, or delaying the US troop withdrawal, which would have profound repercussions for him at home as midterm congressional elections approach in November. Mr Obama, who uttered only 101 words about Iraq in his state-of-the-union address in January, is not the only political figure being drawn inexorably into the Iraq spotlight.

Iraqi legislators are returning to it, too. They earn far more than their counterparts in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt - about $97,800 annually, according to figures compiled by The Wall Street Journal. They also receive a $102,000 annual budget to pay up to 30 security guards, a one-time payment of 70 million dinars (Dh189,000) to purchase an armoured car, and up to 80 per cent of their salary benefits in an annual pension package, the paper said.

Will they earn their salary and be able to set aside parochial interests for the sake of the national interest? Joining Iraqi lawmakers in the public eye will be Iraqi nationalism. After surviving pressure to break up the country during the near civil war in 2006, the majority of Iraqis insistent on an Iraq beholden only to itself are poised to be sorely tested, this time by Iran, which seeks, despite domestic turmoil, to deepen its influence beyond its borders.

For all parties involved in the Iraqi drama in the past decade, 2010 is poised to be a pivotal year. Were it a movie - it's Oscar season, why fight it? - one might call it The Year of Living Dangerously.