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8.6: Iraq, Turkey, and Iran

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize Iraq’s role in the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War in 2003.
    2. Understand how Iraq is divided ethnically and by the branches of Islam.
    3. Explain why Turkey wants to be a member of the European Union (EU) and why it has not been accepted.
    4. Outline Iran’s physical geography and how it has used natural resources for economic gain.
    5. Determine why young people might be dissatisfied with the policies of the Iranian government.


    Figure 8.45 The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the Shatt al-Arab Waterway between Iraq and Iran


    Map courtesy of CIA World Factbook – public domain.

    Iraq lies in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia were established. Ancient cities such as Nineveh, Ur, and Babylon were located here. Present-day Iraq and Kuwait were established out of the British Mandate territory gained following Britain’s defeat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Britain established straight-line political boundaries between Iraq and Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. These types of boundaries are called geometric boundaries because they do not follow any physical feature. In 1961, when Britain withdrew from the region, the emir controlling the southern region bordering the Persian Gulf requested that Britain separate his oil-rich kingdom as an independent country. This country became Kuwait, and the rest of the region became Iraq. After a series of governments in Iraq, the Baath party came to power in 1968, paving the way for Saddam Hussein to gain power in 1979.

    Figure 8.46 Iraq’s Divisions of Islam as of 2008


    The two ethnic divisions are Arab and Kurd. The two religious divisions of Islam are Shia and Sunni. Karbala and Najaf both have holy sites for Shia Muslims.

    Iran-Iraq War (1980–88)

    In 1980, a disagreement arose over the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the Persian Gulf on the border between Iraq and Iran, and the feud led to war between the two countries. The people of Iran are not Arabs; their ethnic background is Persian. Most Iranians are Shia Muslims. Saddam Hussein and his Baath party were Arabs and Sunni Muslims. Ethnic and religious differences thus fueled the conflict. The Shatt al-Arab waterway was quickly filled with wrecked ships. The local battle escalated into an all-out war, which ended in 1988 without anyone declaring a victory. The Iran-Iraq War was as close to World War III as the world has ever seen, with more than a million casualties and a cost of more than one hundred billion dollars. World powers aligned themselves with one side or the other. Before the war, the Iranian government had been taken over by Islamic fundamentalists who opposed the US intervention in the region; therefore, in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States supported Hussein and provided him with industrial supplies and materials.

    The Persian Gulf War (1990–91)

    After the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein looked to Kuwait to gain new oil wealth and expand access to the Persian Gulf. By taking over Kuwait, Iraq would gain an excellent port on the Persian Gulf and earn more income from oil reserves. Hussein accused Kuwait of slant drilling oil wells along the Iraqi border and removing oil that was legally Iraq’s. It was common knowledge that both sides were engaged in this practice, but it was the excuse Hussein needed to invade Kuwait and reclaim it as the nineteenth province of Iraq.

    In 1990, the Iraqi military invaded and occupied Kuwait. Though the world community opposed this action, it was not until Hussein nationalized all the oil assets of the international oil corporations that resistance was organized. Under the leadership of US president George H. W. Bush, the United Nations (UN) organized a military coalition to remove Hussein from Kuwait. On January 16, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began. After forty-five days of fighting, Iraq was overwhelmingly defeated and its military was ousted from Kuwait. This was a major victory for the coalition. It was during this time that President Bush publicly announced the emergence of the potential New World Order. Kuwait was not a democracy but a monarchy ruled by an emir. Clearly, the war was not a war over democracy; it was a war over the control of resources.

    When it became evident that Hussein would lose Kuwait, his forces dynamited all the oil facilities and set all the oil wells in Kuwait on fire. His position was that if he could not have the oil, then nobody would. This was one of the worst environmental catastrophes regarding oil on record. Oil flowed into the Persian Gulf and covered the water’s surface up to three feet thick. Most mammals, birds, and organisms living on the water’s surface died. Oil flowed out onto the desert sand into large petroleum lakes. The air pollution caused by burning oil wells dimmed the sun and caused serious health problems.

    Ethnic and Cultural Divisions

    To keep Iraq from breaking apart after Operation Desert Storm, coalition forces allowed Hussein to remain in power. Ethnically and religiously, Iraq is divided into three primary groups that generally do not get along. Sunni Arabs dominate central Iraq in a region often referred to as the Sunni Triangle, which includes the three cities of Baghdad, Tikrit (Hussein’s hometown), and Ramadi. Sunnis were the most loyal to the Hussein government. Southeastern Iraq is dominated by Arabs who follow the Shia division of Islam, which is also followed by most of Iran’s population. A group that is ethnically Kurdish and follows the Sunni division dominates northern Iraq. Kurds are not Arabs or Persians; rather, they originated from somewhere in northern Europe centuries ago with their own religion, language, and customs. Many have converted to Islam.

    Hussein was a Sunni Muslim, and when he was in power, he kept the other two groups in check. He used chemical weapons on the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1988, he used chemical weapons on the Kurdish town of Halabja and killed about 10 percent of the eighty thousand who lived there. Thousands of Kurds died in other attacks, and thousands more continue to suffer serious health effects. After Operation Desert Storm, Hussein pushed the Kurds north until the UN and the United States restricted him at the thirty-sixth parallel, which became a security zone for the Kurds. The Arab Shia population in the south often clashed with Hussein’s military in an attempt to gain more political power, and Hussein subjected them to similar harsh conditions and treatment.

    Figure 8.47 Homelands of the Kurdish People, Indicated by the Shaded Areas


    Future Kurdistan would be the main portions in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey and a corner of Syria. The city of Diyarbakir in Turkey would be the Kurdish capital city.

    Map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries.

    The Arab Shia population in the southeast makes up most of the Iraqi people. The two main cities of Karbala and Najaf contain holy sites for Shia followers worldwide. The Shia population is three times larger than the Kurdish population in Iraq; more Kurds live outside Iraq than live in Iraq. The Kurds are the largest nation of people in the world without a country. About twenty-five million Kurds live in the Middle East, and most—about fourteen million—live in Turkey. About eight million Kurds live in Iran, about seven million live in Iraq, and a few others live in neighboring countries. At the 1945 conference of the UN, they petitioned to have their own country called Kurdistan carved out of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, but they were denied. You will recall from Section 8.4 “Israel and Its Neighbors” that Israel was approved to become a nation at the same UN conference.

    The Iraq War (2003–11)

    After the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, there was a renewed interest in weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Knowing that Hussein had used chemical weapons on the Kurds, the Iranians, and the Shia, there was a concern that he would use them again. UN Weapons inspectors in Iraq never could confirm that Hussein retained WMD. They had been destroyed, moved out of Iraq, or hidden. US president George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003 to remove Hussein from power. In the invasion, Hussein’s two sons were killed and Hussein was captured. One aspect of the invasion plan was to use Iraq’s vast oil reserves to help pay for the cost of the war, which quickly ballooned to more than a billion dollars a week. Fundamentalist Islamic insurgents made the war difficult.

    The US invasion of Iraq brought about the removal of the Baath Party from power and Iraq came under a military occupation by a multinational coalition. An Iraqi Interim Government was formed that assumed sovereignty in 2004. A new constitution was drafted and approved by vote of the Iraqi people. Elections were held and a new government was formed under the newly drafted constitution. Occupying troops continued to remain as the country struggled to adapt to the reforms. Insurgencies developed that brought about an increase in violence that peaked in about 2007. By 2010, the combat operations by occupying troops were ending and the country worked to sustain stable political conditions. Under an agreed upon mandate all combat troops were to withdraw as of the end of 2011. A number of US troops will remain in Iraq in an advisory capacity.

    Figure 8.48 Soldiers from the 926th Engineer Brigade Combat Team and the Army 432d Civil Affairs Battalion Patrol in Baghdad’s District of Sadr City


    The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and removed Saddam Hussein from power.

    US Department of Defense – public domain.

    Resources and Globalization

    In geographic terms, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War were wars over resources—namely, oil. Wars have historically been fought over territory and resources. When the United States invaded in 2003, Hussein was contracting billions of dollars worth of projects to oil companies in France, Russia, and China. Other support projects were contracted out to other European countries. When the United States invaded, the contracts with were summarily canceled, and British and US oil contractors took over the projects.

    Figure 8.49 News Reports of Iraqi Contracts at the Time of the US Invasion of Iraq


    After the US invasion, many of the contracts Iraq had with other countries were canceled.

    Source: New York Times, December 10, 2003.

    Iraq is an example of the second wave of globalization. Neocolonialism has been the dominant force in Iraq’s economy since before the Persian Gulf War. Industrialization requires high energy demands; therefore, the industrialized countries of the world consume energy on a massive scale. Iraq is not a core economic country, but it holds vast petroleum reserves, making it vulnerable to exploitation by industrialized core countries. It is interesting to note that the Persian Gulf War, initiated in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, can be traced directly to globalism. It was Britain that established the straight-line borders separating Kuwait and Iraq. The war over the control of Kuwait in 1991 was a war over the control of resources, just as the ongoing competition between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, for example, is a competition for the control of political power or resources and not a competition related to ethnic principles.

    Figure 8.50 The Three Core Economic Areas of the World That Consume High Levels of Energy


    The East African Community (EAC) is not an official organization but a core economic area.

    Hussein proved to be a destabilizing force and a potential threat to the established so-called New World Order of global security and trade as outlined by US president George H. W. Bush. The removal of Hussein from power brought to the surface the competition between the trilateral powers of North America, Europe, and East Asia. It remains to be seen who will have control of or access to Iraq’s natural resources.

    Politics, Oil Companies, and the Administration of US President George W. Bush

    There are many connections between the administration of former US president George W. Bush and the international oil industry. Bush once owned the failed Texas oil company Arbusto Energy and was president of Spectrum 7 Energy Corporation, which bought out Arbusto. Bush was also on the board of Harken Energy Corporation when it bought out Spectrum 7 Energy. Bush’s father, former US president George H. W. Bush, owned the Zapata Oil Company, which drilled the first offshore Kuwaiti oil well and later merged to become Pennzoil. US vice president Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton, the world’s most extensive oil service company. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans was former CEO of Tom Brown Inc., an independent oil and gas company based out of Denver. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a Chevron Corporation board member and had an oil supertanker named after her—the Condoleezza Rice. The former US secretary of state under former president George H. W. Bush (Sr.) was James Baker III, who had been a central attorney for an oil consortium building one of the largest oil pipelines in Central Asia. President George W. Bush appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, a former aide to the American oil company UNOCAL, as special envoy to Afghanistan, then as ambassador to Iraq, and then to the UN.

    Figure 8.51 Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice During the US Presidential Administration of George W. Bush


    Photo courtesy of the White House – public domain.

    The globalized economy forces political units to compete over valuable resources, which often results in the blending of those in leadership roles in the corporate world with those in positions of power in the political arena. The top personnel in the George W. Bush administration (2001–9) is an example of the relationships that develops between corporate leaders and political leaders. In this case, the relationship centered on the oil industry.