One of the most critical factors in the 13 colonies’ defeat of Britain in the American Revolution was the financial, political and military aid given to America by France. The autocratic French king, though, was not motivated in his support by a love of the individual liberty and right to populist revolution espoused in the Declaration of Independence or the pamphlets and speeches of the American rebels. He just wanted to badly wound England and its king—his great rival for power.
In this endeavor, there can be little doubt that he succeeded beyond his greatest expectation. However, in retrospect, the example of overthrow of monarchy set by the Revolution may not have been the wisest ever supported by the French “sun kings.” Within 10 years of the American victory, a Revolution had swept France, which was partially inspired by and consciously emulative of the American Revolution. By 1793, the French king had been beheaded.
I do not believe that last part was what he had in mind when he came to our aid in 1778. As my mother used to tell me, “Be careful what you wish for.”
I bring all this up not only because I am getting old, and old people are obliged to tell crotchety old stories about things that are no longer taught in school. But also, because we may be witnessing a similar moment of poor judgment in Iraq. No, I’m not referring to one of the United States’ alleged blunders, despite the fact that all American coverage of the war is negative and totally self-centered. I’m talking about a huge potential blunder being committed by one of the other interventionist powers in the war: Iran.
There is little doubt that Iran sees the American intervention in Iraq as a godsend, a wonderful opportunity to ensnare and exhaust the great Satan while expanding its own sphere of influence into a now Shia-dominated Iraq.
There is a constant stream of reports, many credible, that Shiite Iran is not only arming, funding and jockeying the more radical elements of the Iraqi Shiite community, but is also giving logistical and technical support to some factions among the Sunni insurgency that is dedicated to killing American soldiers at a slow, but steady rate. Such support makes sense if one’s primary goal is to destroy America’s power in the region. But it makes less sense when such insurgents also turn their weapons on Iraqi Shiites. And it makes very little sense if the instability grows into full fledged civil war and results in a partition of Iraq into multiple states.
Although the disintegration of Iraq into ethno-religious mini-states (split between the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs) would certainly be hailed as a defeat for the United States (and what outcome couldn’t be hailed as a defeat by opponents of the war), it would set a dangerous precedent for Iran, which in some ways is even more tribally divided than Iraq.
The dominant ethnic group in Iran, the Persians, whom hold most political power and influence, constitute only about half of the population of Iran. The remainder of the population is composed of several other groups, who are geographically concentrated into different regions of Iran—a classic formula for separatism.
Significantly, the extreme northwestern regions of Iran are inhabited primarily by ethnic Kurds, who compose about 8% of the total population of the nation. Independent by nature, ethnically and religiously distinct, and linguistically and geographically isolated, the effect on Iranian Kurds of suddenly sharing a border with an independent Kurdistan where Northern Iraq once lay on the map would be hard to overestimate. The region is already heavily militarized by the Iranian Army, and has seen outbreaks of rebellious unrest for decades.
An independent Kurdistan in Iraq could be expected to fuel a new wave of nationalism among the Kurds of Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and all three Kurdish populations could, in the event of rebellion, count on safe haven and support within Iraqi Kurdistan. Already the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan begun under the northern no-fly zone after the first Gulf War has inspired a revival of Kurdish culture, language and political life. Turkey’s greatest concern over the current war was the prospect of a free Kurdistan rising from the ruins of a destabilized Iraq, and fueling the violent independence movements that Turkey faces in the (currently) Turkish portions of Kurdistan.
In the southwestern province of Iran lies a considerable population of Shia Arabs, who border the Shia Arab heartland of Iraq. In a “rational” map of the Middle East based on language, religion and ethnicity, these people, who constitute about 3% of Iran’s population would have been grouped with the Iraqi Shia Arab community. Indeed, Iraq has long claimed the territory and population as its own. While the population is small, the land does contain many of Iran’s richest oil fields. Saddam Hussein was very conscious of these facts when he invaded Iran in 1980. Annexing this Arab portion of Iran would have brought great wealth to Iraq, and it may yet.
The southeast of Iran is inhabited by a small population of Balochs with an active armed independence movement.
But the great wildcard in an ethnically destabilized Persian Gulf might be the Azeris of Iran. Constituting at least 25% of the population and bordering the now independent nation of Azerbaijan (composed of the Azeri population of the former Soviet Union), the Iranian Azeri currently show few signs of a desire for independence. However, tensions with the majority Persians do exist, as demonstrated by recent riots and arrests in the Azeri region following an official (Persian) Iranian newspaper publishing a cartoon in which Azeris were portrayed as cockroaches. Whether such tensions could find a new outlet in an Iran suppressing independence movements in Kurdish, Arab or other ethnic regions is an interesting question.
Already the strains of war have necessitated growing official recognition of the independence of the Kurds within Iraq. The weaker the central government becomes due to insurgency, the more concessions it will make to the Kurds to maintain their support. It would take little provocation from the central government to unleash outright Kurdish independence. Within their region, the Kurds have their own government, military, language, schools, media, customs, trade, and peace and stability. They will fight to maintain these, if threatened by the chaos of the insurgency or the new power of a victorious Shia government following the end of the insurgency.
The birth of a Kurdish nation could easily set of a decades-long chain of events leading to a greater Kurdistan and a much reduced Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Looked at this way, Iran is playing with fire in Iraq, hoping to burn only America in the flame. And it makes one wonder why partition of Iraq has been so resisted by the U.S. coalition.