Thursday, May 25, 2006

Also Not About The Oil. Honest.

Back in late February, Ted Koppel penned an op-ed in the New York Times that sketched out a brief history of the foreign policies of both the US and Britain in the Middle East over the past century or so. He did so to puncture the specious, yet persistent and forceful, claims from Bush administration officials that the invasion of Iraq (and continued presence of American military forces) had (and has) nothing to do with oil.

But the Bush administration's touchiness about charges that we acted - and are still acting - in Iraq "because of oil"? Now that's curious. Keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz has been bedrock American foreign policy for more than a half-century. [...]

If those considerations did not enter into the Bush administration's calculations when the president ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it would have been the first time in more than 50 years that the uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil was not a central element of American foreign policy.
Color me unconvinced - Andrew Sullivan's "evidence" notwithstanding. That is not to say that the invasion of Iraq was only about oil for every party involved in the decision making process - directly or indirectly - but surely it was the primary motivator to many. That Iraq sits atop the second largest oil reserve in the world was not mere coincidence, or serendipitous happenstance. In reaction to this politically inconvenient reality, the Bush administration doth protest too much.

This is also not to say that such concerns should not enter the calculus. On the contrary, they must. Oil is simply too important to our national security, economic well being and several other vital interests. In the realm of foreign policy, oil is a very demanding and jealous mistress.

So too has oil inserted itself in the Iraqi political process - becoming an important feature in the ongoing violence due to the competing claims of the various factions. Sunni demands for more of a stake in the control over oil production and revenue - both of which were largely delegated to the Kurds and the Shiites via the Constitution adopted in October - remain one of the most significant stumbling blocks to forging a political solution.

But it doesn't end there. Oil has been a source of intra-party tension as well. As Swopa noticed earlier this month, oil has become the ultimate deal breaker even within the Shiite coalition [emphasis mine throughout]:
A Shiite political party said Friday that it would not participate in the formation of a new Cabinet, saying the selection of the ministers was being dictated by personal interests that ran counter to the spirit of national unity.

"We have found that the way the negotiations are progressing, and the way (ministerial) posts are being distributed, which is based on personal interest and selfish desires ... will not lead to the formation of a truly new Iraq," Sabah al-Saadi, spokesman for the Fadhila party, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Fadhila [or "Virtue"] - which holds 15 seats in Iraq's 275-seat parliament - is one of seven parties comprising the powerful Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance.
Like the Bush administration, the Virtue Party claimed that their motivations had nothing to do with oil. Rather, it was their concern for the respect shown to national unity in the post-distribution process. But it turns out that the alleged "selfish desires" behind the distribution of posts criticized by the "Virtue" Party's spokesman had to do with the fact that a candidate other than Virtue's was awarded the highly coveted Oil Ministry. Virtue was angry about its exclusion, not the general lack of inclusiveness. As Swopa said, "In Iraq, there is no Virtue without oil."

Speaking of the Oil Ministry, the man who actually got the job ahead of Virtue's candidate, Hussein al-Shahristani, is already making noises - encouraging ones at that. In response to Kurdish moves to set up their own separate oil ministry, and negotiate deals with foreign powers for oil exploration and extraction on their own, without any input or insight from the central government in Baghdad, Shahristani is attempting to reverse the trend.
Iraq's newly appointed oil minister said on Tuesday that the central government should handle all contracts related to petroleum exploration and production, putting him on a potential collision course with the autonomous Kurdish region which has recently begun to develop its own oil resources. [...]

"Any oil production, exports or exploration should be handled by the [Baghdad] ministry of oil," said Mr. Shahristani, a member of the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, in one of his first statements since a national unity government was announced at the weekend.

He had earlier said that Iraq's new government needed to get "national agreement" from regional oil officials on ambiguous articles in the constitution governing investment.

Under their own interpretation of the constitutional articles governing oil resources, the northern Kurdistan regional government signed an agreement in November with a Norwegian company to begin the first new drilling in post-invasion Iraq. Since then, a Canadian and a Turkish company have also began drilling in the north.
These words are encouraging because of the larger backdrop of insurgent violence - and the associated economic/political impetus. Unless the Constitution is amended in a way that creates a more equitable system of control over oil production and distribution of revenues, I don't think most Sunnis will buy into the political process to the exclusion of more violent means of asserting their demands. Part of this realignment of oil rights must involve reining in Kurdistan's attempts to establish a pattern of practice - and facts on the ground - that might make such Constitutional amending impossible or, if achieved, moot.

Solving this predicament is, again, easier said than done. Because the central government is headed by the UIA coalition, and that coalition has only a minority stake in the legislature, the ability of Shahristani and even Maliki to act along these lines shall be severely constrained. In an unfortunate synergistic twist, the departure of the 15 Fadhila ministers from the UIA coalition over the issue of oil has further weakened Shahristani's position vis-a-vis the Kurds. What was a minority position for the UIA is now a super-minority.

Maliki - and by extension Shahristani - find themselves in the following bind: Due to a lack of strength in the legislature, they must rely on coalition partners to rule - namely, the Kurds. So they're not exactly in a position to dictate terms to the Kurds, or tell them how to conduct their business - with respect to oil or otherwise. Instead of demands, they must make requests. Maliki and Shahristani can ask the Kurds to stop, but when the Kurds say no (as they likely will absent some unforseen incentive), I'm not sure what else Maliki can do. Intractable problems such as these are part of the reason that I was slightly underwhelmed at the replacement of Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister. Hopefully Maliki the Great can prove my pessimism wrong.

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