Abdelhussein Shaban: Washington set to face difficulties in Iraq if it fails to limit Iranian Influence

sau-shaban1.jpgAbdelhussein Shaban
 Iran has a sectarian, ideological, national, Persian project with Safavid dimensions. This role increases when the rest of the world keeps silent on Iran’s role in Iraq. The political process was fragile because it is based on sectarian division and the external balancing factor (the United States). A fragmentation in the political process has begun to appear in the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Iraq. Iranian leaders have historical ambitions. They must consider that time has changed. Imposing hegemony or recruiting followers under the cover of a radical and ideological project is no longer possible.
Abdelhussein Shaban, a thinker and a human rights activist, told Arab News that ongoing events taking place these days was a function of the imbalance in the political process. The American withdrawal from Iraq will lead to the collapse of the political process and the country will descend into chaos, said Shaban.

Arab News: The recent Gulf Summit was convened amid critical regional conditions. How do you view this summit given the calls for unity among the Gulf countries?

Shaban: The 32nd Gulf Summit has brought cooperation, integration, and coordination to unprecedented levels close to Gulf unity. This was explicit in the speech of King Abdullah during the summit. The royal statement expressed higher ambitions regarding Gulf work. The beginning was in 1981, when the GCC was established and took the initial preliminary steps. Yet, the acquired expertise and experience, in addition to the accumulation of common interests, demonstrated that there was a need for unity not only at the political level but through legal, social, economic cooperation among common institutions, and needless to mention the privileges of residence, freedom to movement etc. I do believe that this summit is a distinguished one in terms of outlook especially with regard to responding to internal and external challenges.
Despite the advancement of the GCC, still it needs to reinforce some particular issues; here we are talking about the common currency. There is also a need to establish common commissions through coordinating common external work and external trade and industry with a particular focus on division of labor.
This can materialize only if the GCC can stand up to external challenges that aim at destabilizing the region and ripping off its resources. Chief among these challenges is the ongoing Iranian threat aiming to dominate the Gulf region.
In addition to Iran’s attempt to extend its sectarian influence, they attempt to stir internal seditions through direct and indirect intelligence work and with the pretext of confronting the western imperial influence that aim to surround Iran. Not surprisingly, the GCC is worried about Iran’s insistence on building its nuclear reactor as this will pose a threat in case a war erupts in the future. This will only increase the level of already existing tension in the region. This tension is the direct consequence of the aggressive Israeli policy that denies Palestinians basic rights. In this case the security of the Gulf will not be targeted alone, but all the security of the Arab world, particularly if just peace does not materialize and if an independent Palestinian state is not going to see the light.

Arab News: Iran has been obviously interfering in the internal affairs of the GCC and Iraq. It supports some forces and parties and do espionage, how do you see the future relations with Iran given all of what said?

Shaban: First and foremost, there is an important geographical fact which states that Iran is a big neighbor to the Arab World. For this reason, Iran should behave exactly like us; for instance, it should respect international law and maintain good neighborly relations. This entails a respect of others’ sovereignty, which in turns requires non-interference in the internal affairs of others. Short of respecting these principles, we run the risk of having to face dangerous imbalance. In fact, the region witnessed a catastrophe that lasted for some eight years during the Iraq-Iran war. Iranian leaders may have some ambitions. Yet they have to remember that there is a need to look for and find a good neighbor rather than an enemy. This position should be based on looking for a potential friend and not an old or new enemy. Seen in this way, any espionage act is nothing but contravening international law and will therefore hurt Iran and its Arab relations. This cannot be more harming as Iran is still suffering from international isolation and siege.

Arab News: The Arab Spring has created challenges such as stability and civil democratic transition. Also, there are fears of building a distorted democracy as well as conflicts that may degenerate into armed conflicts. What do you make of these developments and where do we go from here?

Shaban: Well, change is the social law of history. We have seen different kinds of change. Sometimes it came as a result of revolution and a break with the past. But sometimes, it came as a logical conclusion of continuous reform. In line with this understanding, there is a necessity to restructure and develop rather than deconstruct countries. As change has become a necessity, the graphic curve of reform will be positive. Rational people should understand this basic law and act accordingly instead of taking things toward a collision course.
Therefore, political solutions such as more liberties, respecting the dignity of people, fighting corruption, and allowing people to freely and routinely elect their representatives is a must. As far as I am concerned, I believe that a political solution rather than a security or economic solution is the starting point. Social and economic solutions can only complement the political solution. This entails a gradual yet continuous reform. I think we should resort to the rule of law and ensuring the state has a monopoly over using arms. The army should retreat to its barracks and new elections to draft a modern constitution – focusing on principles of equality, liberties, and citizenship – is needed more than ever. Short of doing that, anarchy and chaos will dominate the state thus further damaging the economy, development, and national unity.

Arab News: Amid the continuation of repression and the lack of clarity on genuine reform in Syria, do you think the Arab League’s initiative is enough to put an end to the crisis?

Shaban: Well, the initiative is still on and the Syrian crisis should not be transferred to the Security Council. The UN Security Council can adopt measures that will take all parties to the point of no return. In this case the beginning of a civil war will be more dangerous for Syrian society as well as the region as a whole. Such a scenario will be inviting foreign intervention. On the other hand, the Arab League’s initiative is not connected to a mechanism for power transfer but for protecting civilians.

Clearly, an initiative for a peaceful solution requires the participation of all contending parties in a dialogue and to try to agree on how they can guarantee a peaceful transfer of power from dictatorship to democracy in an interim period.
One can think of some ideas, such as power in the interim period could be divided three way: one third for the opposition, another third for independents (neutral technocrats), and the last third for those in power right now provided that they are accepted by others. Then, they can think of four to six months to hold elections and establishing an interim national assembly to draft a constitution that will be subject to referendum. It is only after that they can elect a permanent Parliament for four to five years.
Other political issues can be subject to upfront agreement. We can think of forming political parties, the right of participation, citizenship, respect of human rights, freedom of expression, and free media. As far as violence is concerned, there may be a possibility of offering a guarantee that participants in violence are not going to be prosecuted as is the case in Yemen, but again this depends on the degree of the regime’s concession and the opinion of the opposition. It is only then they can find a political way out of the crisis and avoid civil war, sectarian fighting, or even targeting Christians.

Arab News: Do you think that the initiative will merely represent extra time given to the Syrian President, especially when some confirm that it came as a response to the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian demands? Will this mean that the positions of the various countries vary in the future?

Shaban: It all depends on the degree of commitment of the contending parties and here I want to highlight the role of the government in particular. It also depends on a degree of self-control to allow for the initiative to succeed and pave the way for a comprehensive dialogue under the supervision of Arab and international partners. Alternatively, the positions of these states will vary and the outcome can be catastrophic.

Arab News: After the American withdrawal from Iraq, all predictions indicate that the Al-Maliki government would mismanage the political process, thus leading to its failure as the president of the Kurdistan region predicted.

Shaban: Well, the legacy of the American occupation is heavy. This is true particularly when it comes to the issue of national unity, mistrust among all sides, the ascendance of the sectarian issue, violence, and the spread of corruption and bribery. It seems that each party felt that his battle is a zero sum one and therefore they all decided to preempt. Prime Minister Al-Maliki launched a campaign of extensive detention and he accused his opponents of preparing a coup. Others counterattack Al-Maliki accusing him of going toward dictatorship. Therefore, if this problem is not preempted, troubles lay ahead.

Arab News: What do you make of the accusation directed at the Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi and deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlak? Could this be a new dictatorship after the Al-Maliki government had managed to exclude the Iraqi List?

Shaban: These kinds of accusations come within the context of mistrust. It also reflects that the political process was a fragile one as it is based on sectarian division and the existence of a balancing external factor and here I refer to the United States. We fear the worse is yet to come, especially if Al-Maliki will have a monopoly over ruling.

Arab News: Are there fears of a full Iranian control of Iraq and its resources? Iran has been inciting sectarian mobilization. But at the same time, there are calls for a civic state. What do you make of that?

Shaban: Iran was present in Iraq with the pretext of occupation and now to fill the vacuum. Yet, its influence has gotten greater at all political, sectarian, security, military, and ideological levels. The only way to cut Iran down to size is by banning sectarianism. There should be an agreement to enact a legislation banning sectarianism and making it close to high treason.

Arab News: There are changes in the region that may have a reflection on the Iraqi political process. Also Al-Maliki’s visit to Washington revealed the United States would approach the political process with an even-handed approach and this scares Al-Maliki and Iran.

Shaban: America was defeated in Iraq and lost both its status and influence. I rule out the possibility that America will leave Iraq but the irony is that when America was in Iraq it concentrated all power in the hand of Al-Maliki and followers of Iran.

Arab News: How do you view Iran’s appointed Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi as Wali Al-Faqih? Is that not a marginalization of the Arab Shiite reference?

Shaban: The Shiite reference was a bone of contention between Najaf and Qum. The latter managed to restore it during the ruling of the Bath regime in Baghdad, but Najaf restored its status after that. It will not be possible to see the appointment of Shahroudi as a replacement of the role played by Najaf.

Arab News: How do you see the outcome of the Arab Spring and whether the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate the political stage?

Shaban: It is not surprising that Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco won the contest. However, Islamists might change their discourse into a moderate one and this will lead to a different reality. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot be but moderate because the Arab masses are moderates as well.

Arab News: Is there a clash of competing projects in the region? Iran presents a radical Islamic project whereas Turkey presents a civic Islamic project that is backed by the West, and the Arabs have their own project.

Shaban: Yes, there are a number of projects but who will be successful and influential? Iran has its own sectarian, ideological, national, Persian project with Safavid dimensions. Turkey has its version of Islamism, one that reconciles between Islam and secularism. The competition between the two projects is historical. All we need to see now is an Arab progressive project that depends on reviving the nation. This Arab project can bring about a balance between the two Iranian and the Turkish projects and it is possible to cooperate with them within the framework of mutual interests, good neighborly relationships, respect of the others uniqueness, and based on international law.
Arab news, 25/12/2011,