In public and in even in its diplomatic dealings, Iran has adamantly opposed the partition of Iraq, variously deriding the idea as a "diabolical plot," a "colonial scheme," and "divide-and-rule politics." Yet, behind the façade of opposition, Iranian leaders seem to have quietly concluded that a tri-partite partition of Iraq along ethnic-confessional lines may be in Iran's best interests.
The issue of partitioning Iraq burst into the public arena during the height of Iraq's mini-civil war in 2006. Although the Bush administration strongly opposed the partition concept, some politicians, notably Senator Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat, embraced the idea enthusiastically.
The success of the Bush administration's surge policy, along with ethnic relocations of the recent past, has contributed to a reduction in inter-ethnic violence in Iraq, and with that the partition debate has receded. But according to Reider Visser, the editor of www.historiae.org and a top expert on Iraqi federalism, as long as Iraqi Nuri Kamel al-Maliki's main government allies -- the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) -- continue to support the idea, the concept could always be revived.
Since the Kurds are unlikely to drop the idea for obvious reasons, that leaves the the ISCI. "If the ISCI drops the project, then the tri-partite partition scheme is dead," Visser told EurasiaNet. But the ISCI does not appear likely to drop the scheme. The movement currently controls seven out of the nine Shi'a southern provinces and is expected to do well in the October provincial elections. A semi-autonomous south under ISCI influence could -- in the event of the withdrawal of coalition forces or the flare up of another round of civil warfare -- end up controlling most of Iraq's oil, and wield great influence over Iraqi Shi'a politics for many years to come.
The ISCI is Iran's closest ally and friend in Iraq. It was formed in the early 80's by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and the group's partisans maintained safe havens in Iran prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
An argument can be mounted that as early as August 2005, Iran was inclined to support the partition concept. That was when ISCI chief Abdul al-Aziz al-Hakim returned from a round of consultations with Iranian leaders, and, according to a special report on ISCI by the International Crisis Group, endorsed the partition idea in a speech in the city of Najaf. According to Visser, al-Hakim did exactly the same thing after a second visit to Iran in July 2006. Observers believe this could not have been coincidental. Plus, al-Hakim would have never snubbed his Iranians friends by touching on so sensitive a subject right after his visits to the Islamic Republic, unless political and religious leaders in Tehran also supported it.
Iran has strong reasons for quietly supporting partition. First, a divided Iraq would be seen as a major political defeat for the Bush administration. It would give ammunition to US critics, who claim that Bush administration policies have done far more to destroy Iraq than to rebuild it.
Second, a semi- or fully autonomous south, where much of the country's oil is located, and which enjoys easy access to the Persian Gulf, would enhance Iran's geo-strategic position in the region. Public opinion research indicates that the majority of the population in that region is not sympathetic to the United States, thanks to present and past policies. Surrounded by hostile Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia or its own Iraqi Sunnis, southern Shi'as would have no choice but to rely on Iran's fellow-Shi'as for economic, political and security support.
In pondering the potential downsides of partitioning Iraq, Iranian leaders do not appear overly concerned about the impact on Iran's Kurdish population. With Iraqi Kurds already enjoying quasi-autonomy, Iranian leaders in Tehran, starting in 2003, quietly expanded the social and cultural rights of Kurds in Iran, aiming to keep discontent in check. At the same time, Tehran significantly strengthened the security apparatus in the region. The results of these policies have so far pleased the government.
Far more worrisome for officials in Tehran is the effect that a division of Iraq would have on the Sunni-dominated areas of central Iraq. This is where Iran's arch foe al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups have been gaining ground. A partitioning of Iraq would leave the Sunni regions landlocked and with few valuable economic resources. That combination of geographic and economic reality could easily end up inflaming and radicalizing Sunnis. One factor that is reassuring for Iranian leaders is the knowledge that Washington would never tolerate the re-emergence of al Qaeda bases anywhere in the world.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.