Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki seems for the moment to be winning his high stakes bet on hosting the Arab League summit this week in Baghdad. The first bar is set pretty low: if the meeting comes off without any major security incidents or diplomatic kerfuffles, Iraq will be able to herald it as a successful milestone marking the return of Baghdad to regional prominence and a renewed role in the Arab world.
It could amount to more. It already says something about the Arab League that a Kurdish president and a Shia prime minister are leading an Arab League summit. Maliki has successfully courted improvements in relations with Sunni-dominated Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the last couple of months. Some are hoping he might use the occasion to tilt Iraq away from Iran, perhaps even capturing a significant role with Russia in the effort to manage a negotiated transition in Syria.
Of course the whole thing might still blow up, too. Either literally, if Al Qaeda in Iraq slips through Baghdad’s well-manned but still porous security cordons, or figuratively, if heads of state decline to attend or the Syria issue leads to a serious diplomatic breach with the Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that would like to boot Bashar al Assad.
A successful Arab League summit could significantly improve Maliki’s standing at home, where he has also been doing some fence mending. His big achievement was passing the budget in parliament. His Sunni and Kurdish putative allies in parliament might still like to bring him down, but they have been unable to mount a serious threat and have not managed even to suggest an alternative majority. Besides, they like their cushy jobs.
Maliki may be mending his fences, but they are still fences. His majority is increasingly dependent on support from the Sadrists, whose reliance on Iran will limit his room to maneuver.
What does this mean for the U.S.? The most immediate issue is Syria: Washington would like Baghdad to help get Bashar to walk the plank. Tehran will resist that mightily, and if it happens will redouble its effort to create in Iraq any “strategic depth” it loses in Syria. Maliki can only gain from an end to the Assad regime if it gets him serious support from the Kurds and Sunnis within Iraq, as well as the broader Arab world. I’d like to believe that would happen, but he is unlikely to have enough confidence it would.
The longer-term issue is the political orientation of Iraq. Will it stand on its own and develop strong ties with the West, as well as with the Arab world and Iran? Or will it tilt inexorably in Iran’s direction, risking internal strife as well as its own independence? The Arab League summit is unlikely to have much long-term impact in determining this question. Iraq’s Sunnis are convinced Maliki is an Iranian stooge. The Americans still hope he’ll come around in their direction.
One major factor determining the outcome is rarely discussed, even in expert circles: how Iraq exports its oil and eventually also its gas. If it continues to put the vast bulk of its oil on to ships that have to pass through the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz under Iranian guns, Tehran’s influence will grow. But there is an alternative. If Baghdad repairs and expands the “strategic” pipeline to enable export of large quantities of oil (and eventually gas) to the north (to Turkey) and west (to Syria or Jordan), any government in Baghdad will see its links to the West as truly vital. Maliki’s government has been doing the needed feasibility studies, but it is not yet clear that it is ready to make the necessary decisions, since export to the north and west would mean crossing Kurdish and Sunni controlled territory.
Iraq once seemed hopelessly divided. But those divisions can be bridged, if there is political will to do so. Geography and oil are fate.