Dangers of an Iraqi-Iranian border deal
A new border treaty with Iran has come as a test for Iraq’s leaders, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraq and Iran have been holding talks behind closed doors on a new border agreement that the two countries hope will end a decades-long dispute amid fears that Tehran holds the upper hand because of Baghdad’s weakness and Iran’s strong influence in the war-battered country.
The talks are also being held at a time when events in the Middle East have benefited Iran and helped the largely Shia nation to bolster its regional position at the expense of its mostly Arab Sunni neighbours.
Officials have said secret bilateral negotiations have been going on for months in order to reach a deal on the demarcation of the 1,400km long joint border, including key oil fields and the strategic waterway of the Shatt Al-Arab.
The first news of the contacts came last month when Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif announced during a visit to Baghdad that “a significant deal” would be signed on the border with Iraq “within the coming two weeks”.
“The ground for the expansion of cooperation is well prepared despite existing threats and challenges,” Zarif was quoted as saying by the official Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
Zarif said Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari would travel to Tehran to sign the deal. IRNA, however, reported during Zarif’s visit to Baghdad on 14 January that the two ministers “discussed implementing an agreement that has already been signed between Iran and Iraq on broadening cooperation on border issues.”
Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, announced last week that technical teams from both sides were “making progress” in the negotiations on the demarcation of the land and river borders.
In a statement, the ministry confirmed that Zebari would visit Tehran soon for further talks.
With the talks shrouded in secrecy, the full picture of the anticipated deal remains unclear, spurring growing concerns about the Iraqi negotiators’ ability to push an agenda that is in line with Iraq’s national interests on a range of issues.
Because of its Shia allies in the government, many Iraqis fear that Iran may be pushing for a resolution to the long-standing border dispute to make territorial gains and settle scores in the historic rivalry between the two nations which have fought wars and competed for regional supremacy.
In November, Zebari acknowledged that he had tried to derail previous Iranian attempts to open discussions on the Algiers Treaty, the last boundary agreement concluded in 1975 that was later abrogated by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
In a lengthy interview with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, Zebari said he had warned Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and his predecessor Ibrahim Al-Jaafari against making any commitment to Iran regarding the Algiers Agreement.
“This agreement was signed on the body of the Kurdish people and the body of the Iraqi [anti-Saddam] opposition at that time, and it divided the Shatt Al-Arab,” said Zebari, a former guerrilla in the anti-Baghdad Kurdish insurgency.
Zebari did not elaborate, but he was apparently referring to one of the major purposes of the Algiers Agreement, which was to stop Iran from supplying the Kurds with arms in their struggle against Saddam’s regime, eventually leading to the collapse of the Kurdish insurgency.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the idea of re-negotiating the border issue with Iran should now fuel fears among many Iraqis who feel their country is ill-prepared to deal with such a major diplomatic challenge while it is enmeshed in an ever-deepening ethno-sectarian struggle.
The border conflict between Iraq and Iran is deeply rooted in history and regional geopolitics, and its last bloody manifestation was during the 1980-1988 War which left some one million people dead, wounded or disabled. Collateral damage to the economy of the two countries was also immense.
The dispute goes back to the 17th century, when in 1639 the former Ottoman Empire, in control of Iraq at the time, signed the first of a series of treaties with Persia to ease territorial disputes.
A protocol was signed in 1913 that established the land boundary, detailing the border between Iran and Iraq and defining the thalweg principle, or the deepest point in the river, as the border line in the Shatt Al-Arab.
In 1937, the two countries signed a treaty under which Iran clearly recognised modern Iraq’s claim of sovereignty to almost the entire Shatt Al-Arab with the exception of areas around certain key Iranian port cities.
The then shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, abrogated this treaty in 1969, triggering a standoff followed by a severe deterioration in bilateral relations.
Iraq has always maintained that the Shatt Al-Arab, which represents its only true outlet to the Arabian Gulf, is a vital artery for its communications. Iran, on the other hand, has argued that the thalweg principle should be applied to the entire length of the Shatt Al-Arab.
In 1975, the then shah and Saddam signed the Algiers Agreement under which Iraq finally conceded to Iran’s long-standing demand that the thalweg principle be used to delimit the border in the Shatt Al-Arab.
However, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the opening of a new chapter of antagonism between the two countries, Saddam declared the 1975 Treaty abrogated.
He claimed that the Islamic regime’s frequent violations of the accord had necessitated the abrogation, setting off a bloody war lasting eight years.
The border zone is also known for its extensive oil fields, and many of these are in disputed areas. Since the ouster of Saddam in the US-led invasion in 2003, Iranian soldiers have temporarily occupied the oil wells several times. In December 2009, Iranian troops seized an oil field in a desert area south of Baghdad and raised the Iranian flag.
They withdrew a few days later.
Reports in the Iraqi media have repeatedly claimed that Iran is stealing large amounts of oil from Iraqi fields and making profits of billions of dollars a year.
Some of the oil is believed to be drilled from horizontal wells on the disputed border.
Iraq’s territorial borders with its neighbours have long been the source of bitter disagreements. Last year, Iraq and Kuwait completed the demarcation of their border under a UN Security Council resolution more than 20 years after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Since the modern state of Iraq came into being in 1923, successive Iraqi governments have not accepted the British-drawn borders that established Kuwait as a separate sheikhdom after the First World War.
Many Iraqis have remained opposed to the demarcation agreement, saying that the new border has robbed them of property, territory and oil fields. Many of the country’s MPs have also blamed the government for signing the deal from a point of weakness and called for the re-negotiation of the border deal.
The construction of a new giant Kuwaiti port on Boubyan Island on the Khor Abdullah Waterway, which is the only strategic access to the sea for Iraq, has also raised concerns about Iraqi access to the sea.
For now, as officials in both Iraq and Iran remain tight-lipped about the details of their negotiations, there are a lot of questions about the timing of the process and its intentions as Iraq sinks deeper into political and sectarian conflicts that threaten its very existence as a state.
The lack of transparency and the absence of parliamentary discussion and public debate about the negotiations only increases suspicions and will not create the climate needed to find a national consensus on any possible deal.
Fundamentally, the long-standing territorial dispute with Iran is a major diplomatic challenge for Iraq that the country’s Shia-led government may not be well suited to handle.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iran’s influence has steadily grown in Iraq, and many Iraqis now fear that their country has become a de facto client state of Iran.
Moreover, the country is mired in sectarian violence and an acute political crisis. The Iraqi government is dysfunctional and it cannot task itself with negotiating such a huge undertaking and commitment.
On the other hand, efforts to settle the dispute are unlikely to be effective unless they are based on the broad perspective of the entire Middle East and Gulf region. Iran is in a much stronger position due largely to its recent nuclear deal with the West, and it could now work out an agreement that would give it more leverage in the region.
All this should remind the Iraqi leadership of the country’s national interests and of the complexities associated with the border problems when its negotiators sit down with their Iranian counterparts to strike a deal.