One Year after #Iraq Day—A Conversation between Ian Masters and Robert Dreyfuss (part 2)


This is the second half of a conversation between Ian Masters on his radio program Background Briefing and Robert Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on Iraq, the War on Terrorism, and national security issues, and is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect. He is the author of “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. The conversation was held on December 31st, 2012, and aired on January 2nd, 2013 on KPFK in Los Angeles.  The subject of the conversation is Iraq, one year after the anniversary of the US exit from that country.

Ian Masters: But there are two questions which still remain. What is happening to the oil revenues which are coming in now? And even if the US makes a deal with Iran, Iraq still could start to unravel which it appears to be starting to do. If the Assads fall you have a Muslim Brotherhood government in Syria that it is fronted towards the Sunnis in Anbar province, which has oil potential, and you have to the Kurds wanting to go their own way, who seem to have sovereignty over the oil there, you have the potential for balkanization.

Richard Dreyfuss: That’s the worst-case scenario. The whole region could begin to be embroiled in a very complicated ethnic and sectarian conflict that would spill over into Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

As far as what happened to Iraq’s oil revenue, oil revenue for Iraq, and for many countries like that that are oil producers, is the prime underpinning of the entire economy. So what they are doing with their oil revenue is they are using it to pay for imports of everything that they need, from military supplies, basic foods and medicines, technology and infrastructure needs, especially for the oil industry. They needs tens of billions, perhaps one hundred billion dollars to expand their oil industry in terms of pipelines, refineries, new wells, shipping terminals, and everything else.

If they’re going to expand oil production, from whatever it is now, about two and a half million barrels a day, to up to ten million barrels, they could have a fourfold increase in oil exports over the next 10 to 15 years. Don’t forget that this is a very poor country whose economy has been shattered. So in answer to your question, what are they doing with their oil revenue, they’re trying to rebuild the country, which has been devastated and is beyond their capacity to repair.

Ian Masters: Presumably the country that devastated their economy, the United States, in a war that it looks like the Americans and Iraqis lost and the Iranians won, is it going to pony up and help rebuild this country?

Richard Dreyfuss: I don’t know if the United States is particularly wanted there, but there are a number of American companies that are involved. It’s just that, Iraq on its own, despite having oil revenues, is still a poor country. So unless it’s going to get aid and charity, which isn’t too likely, it’s likely to continue just limping by. It’s just not a great booming recovering economy. It’s going to take many, many years for Iraq to get to the point where its economy is back on track. Neither the United States nor any other country are going to come in and help. We’ve left and the rest of the coalition is gone; Iraq is now on its own. As a country trying to scramble by on its own, it’s having a great amount of difficulty.

Ian Masters: And it’s certainly forgotten by the United States and by the American people. There would be no way in the world in which anybody could go to the Hill and ask for money for Iraq at this moment or any moment in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, it is a year since the United States withdrew, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m calling you today, Robert Dreyfuss, is to get a sense of where we are a year later. With these constant bombings and these demonstrations that seem to be getting more and more intense now in the Sunni areas against Maliki’s crude and clumsy use of power, Maliki is now threatening to use force against the demonstrators.

Richard Dreyfuss: It’s difficult to find a new political balance and it’s hard to see who might be an alternative to Maliki. They do have a parliamentary system and so it is not a dictatorship. It’s a fledgling democracy, let’s call it. If there were a majority in the parliament, that would comprise the Kurds, let’s say, and the Sunnis, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces, among them they have enough votes in parliament to have a vote of no confidence against Maliki and force him to resign. The problem is these various opponents of his can’t agree among themselves and would also have great difficulty finding somebody to replace him. In other words, if we get rid of Maliki, what then? There certainly couldn’t be a Kurdish prime minister, and it couldn’t be a Sunni, so it would have to be a Shiite prime minister because they represent two-thirds of the country.

Then you get down to people like Ayad Allawi who is a Shiite who has a lot of support among Sunnis but he is not too popular these days. There’s a former prime minister who came before Maliki who might be a candidate. You know, you couldn’t find somebody who would be anti-Iranian because the Iranians would probably act pretty forcibly to undermine that person. So it’s a very difficult political situation and that’s why Maliki has been able to survive for so long. He’s ironically had the support of both Iran and the United States for the past several years, and he knows how to play that game. He can keep both Washington and Teheran in his court, because there doesn’t seem to be an immediate alternative.

Ian Masters: The Kurdish leader is in Germany now with health problems. They are pretty much independent and they seem to have their own oil revenues as well. Without being apocalyptic, if these demonstrations continue, and if Maliki, who doesn’t appear to be very deft, comes down with a heavy hand, things are likely to become unhinged.

Let’s go forward and think about what’s Iran to do when they lose Syria, and the Anbar Sunnis are emboldened by their brethren who by then would be running Syria. That’s a different world we’re talking about.

Richard Dreyfuss: I’m not apocalyptic about it. Certainly there are very dangerous things that could happen here. I think the Iranians have figured out by now that Assad is gone. I think the Russians have concluded that as well. So it’s only a matter of time, and so the first thing that Iran and Russia would do would be to work to establish if not friendly, at least tolerable relations with the new coalition in Syria. They’re not all Islamists or Muslim Brotherhood, and so, who knows, maybe something will emerge out of the ashes in theory. Let’s hope it doesn’t go the other direction, towards a civil war.

The same thing holds with Iraq. I disagree with you; I think Maliki is quite deft; I think that’s why he’s been able to stay in power this long. He seems to know how to balance heavy-handed use of force with behind-the-scenes deal making, so my guess is that it’s more likely that Iraq will muddle along than it will dissolve into civil war. Let’s be hopeful for 2013 that Iran sees that its best interest lies in reaching an accord with the United States, that Obama feels the same way and that he keeps the lid on Israel, which he seems to have done effectively so far, so that the Israelis don’t attack Iran.

Certainly he’s freer now in his second term to make concessions to Iran, which he would not have been able to do so easily when he was preparing to run for reelection. Now that Obama is reelected, he has a lot more maneuverability in conceding to Iran to allow them to continue to enrich uranium under guidelines, inspections, and so forth, and the Iranians in turn have a reason to make that deal, especially if it can lead to the end of sanctions. Before we go all apocalyptic about the idea that the Middle East is falling apart, let’s remember that people who live in these countries have gigantic incentives to avoid going over the cliff, and I think they’ll all work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. Let’s just hope that the United States doesn’t do anything stupid to make it worse in the next year or two.

Ian Masters: Well, I thank you for joining me here today.

If the events play out in 2013 as one of the scenarios mentioned in the above conversation, where Syria falls to a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition, and Anbar province in Iraq asserts its independence from the Iran-leaning Iraqi government, then Iran could face a shrunken sphere of influence as indicated in blue in the map below, which originally appeared in Prof. Juan Cole’s blog Informed Comment.

iran_me2

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