The Great Debate

If Iraq must be divided, here’s the right way to do it

Shi'ite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight ISIL, hold a sign during a graduation ceremony in Najaf

As Iraq spirals toward chaos and its Kurdish region talks independence, the issue of partition, or federalism, has resurfaced. This is a concept that then-Senator Joe Biden strongly advocated in 2006. Though it would be difficult to accomplish, federalism could still be a helpful element as Iraqis struggle through their current tragic mess.

The appeal of federalism could grow if Iraqi leaders in Baghdad cannot agree soon on a government of national unity, ideally one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has proven so divisive. Whether a “soft partition” — meaning the creation of a Sunni autonomous zone to complement the existing Kurdish one — or “hard partition” –meaning the formal redrawing of regional lines — it would seem a natural idea. Not only because of the recent violence, which has caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, but also the arbitrariness with which state borders were drawn by the European powers after World War One.

We did a study of the possible soft partition of Iraq in 2007, and found that the new Sunni autonomous zone would need the following:

    A proportionate share of Iraq’s total oil revenue (perhaps 15 percent to 20 percent) because the Sunni regions generally lack oil resources; An arrangement with Baghdad allowing Sunnistan police to patrol the region’s cities on a routine basis, but with Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds continuing to support a national army for the country’s overall defense; A means for Sunnis to safely sell their property so those seeking to leave places like Baghdad (now roughly 10 percent to 15 percent Sunni) could settle in the new autonomous region with enough means to buy homes; An economic transition fund to help create job opportunities for resettled Sunnis; Clearly defined, enforced and monitored minority rights for all Iraqis choosing to stay in regions where they are not in the ethnic/sectarian majority, an inevitability since many Iraqis are in mixed marriages, and Physical protection by a combination of national and local security forces for people relocating.

These ideas should be part of the public conversation today as Iraqis debate their political futures.

Members of the new Iraqi parliament attend a session at the parliament headquarters in BaghdadThe Iraqi constitution even allows for these possibilities. The idea of a Sunni autonomous region, largely protected from any further predations by future Shi’ite leaders in Baghdad, may even persuade moderate Sunni leaders at the national, provincial and tribal levels to support a new government of national unity. In other words, it could help resolve the current crisis.

Iran: More than Persia

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was campaigning, he promised the country’s many ethnic minorities to expand the use of their languages. Rouhani recently signaled his intent to keep that promise, by appointing Iran’s first presidential aid for ethnic and religious minority affairs, acknowledging the country’s minority challenges.

In the multi-ethnic state that is Iran, the political meaning of the population’s diversity will have serious consequences as political normalization with the West continues. Both the United States and the European Union should understand the significance of Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup and prepare policies that can address it.

Washington and Brussels should view this process as similar to when Mikhail Gorbachev began opening the Soviet Union to the West, it quickly became apparent that the Soviet Union was –not only composed of Russians. Later, it became clear that what the West had considered to be “Yugoslavians” or “Czechoslovakians” were, in fact, many different ethnic groups.  Few of these peoples shared a civic-state identity.