Soft partition, strong federalism, devolution of power — these are all terms bandied about when it comes to the future of Iraq. Formal partition has never been a serious option, at least not among those who hope for a reduction of rather than an increase in bloodshed. The intermingling of Shia and Sunni, Arab and Kurdish communities in Baghdad, Kirkuk and elsewhere (notwithstanding wartime ethnic cleansing) serves to rule out partition as a viable policy. However, a new version of Vice President Joseph Biden’s old plan for partition has emerged as the conventional wisdom du jour. For proof of this, look no further than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who is now promoting such a plan, particularly for Iraq’s Sunnis.
A more realistic solution based on the parties’ relevant interests can be found in the recent statement by Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “The only way you’re going to keep Iraq together is to give up power from Baghdad,” he said. While autonomy for Iraq’s Kurds (largely already achieved) and Sunni Arabs may be laudable goals and might help in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), there is a tension inherent in the Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni positions, for they seem to have two mutually exclusive objectives. On the one hand, they want a Baghdad that cedes power, one that is weak enough not to interfere with their regional arrangements. On the other hand, they also want a strong Baghdad, one that has the ability to pull oil revenue from Basra province (the source of about 80 percent of Iraq’s oil income) and distribute it throughout the country.
The Kurds view themselves as entitled to 17 percent (minus federal overhead) of oil revenues, on the basis of their reading of the admittedly ambiguous Articles 117 and 121 of the Iraqi Constitution. While it is perhaps not impossible to envision an Iraq that centralizes and then distributes oil revenue but makes no demands on how the money is used or imposes any conditions on the revenue, this would be a highly unusual, even an unprecedented arrangement. In general, a central government is either strong or weak, not weak in one area and strong in another. Put another way, central-government money tends to come with strings attached. Ask any governor in the United States if he or she can lower the drinking age but still keep getting federal highway funds.
Moreover, at least twice in the past decade, prominent Basrawi politicians have hinted ominously at secession if they perceive that their oil patrimony is being siphoned off to too great a degree. While similar secessionist sentiments in Basra petered out in the 1920s, recent events in Flanders, Catalonia, northern Italy and even Scotland demonstrate that a region viewing itself as potentially self-sufficient —as Biafra in Nigeria did in the late 1960s — may eventually grow tired of serving as the cash cow for a bloated state and an impoverished, resource-poor populace.
Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds do not appear to appreciate this tension. There is a reason that Baghdad has a strong central government. Simply put, natural resources are not uniformly distributed throughout the country. The bulk of the oil fields are in Iraq’s south, with supplementary fields around Kirkuk and Erbil, and lesser fields scattered elsewhere. Were power to decentralize, the likely outcome of this distribution is somewhat obvious: The deep south would be reluctant to share its resource wealth and would therefore grow much, much richer while the rest of the country would have to find alternative sources of revenue. Other provinces or regions could attempt to generate economies that leverage the resources from the south, but generating services for a resource economy is far more complex than merely getting a share of the resource itself. It is far from clear that this would foster stability.
Fortunately, at least for the present, we do not have to be concerned about resource inequality. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Nouri al-Maliki’s successor, has insisted that “Iraqi oil belongs to all Iraqis.” While some read this cynically as a national claim on Kurdish oil, the statement is about far more than the Kurds. It is meant to assuage Iraqis in all areas — chiefly those in the poorer, primarily agricultural Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninewah, which are currently under ISIL’s control — that Baghdad intends to use its power to centralize and then redistribute the petro-wealth of Iraq.
Such statements are of obvious concern to those who sit on the bulk of the wealth, most notably the Basrawis, who are overwhelmingly Shia Arabs, and, to a lesser extent, the Kurds. But oil nationalism is the fundamental arrangement underlying the Iraqi state, which all sides seem to see as being in their self-interest, particularly in the wake of Turkey’s making it clear to the Iraqi Kurds that it will not tolerate any moves toward independence.
For the foreseeable future, Iraq — at least the portions not lost to ISIL — will remain unified, and oil wealth, despite lower prices, will remain the engine of Iraq’s economy. A relatively equitable distribution of this wealth will be key to future stability, but this distribution will also require a relatively strong Baghdad. While more federalism may be desirable, it must be one that devolves power uniformly throughout the country. And those provinces promoting a weaker Baghdad must always keep in mind just how much power they wish Baghdad to have relative to Basra before proposing that Baghdad have less power relative to them.