If the Middle East is to have a future, that can only be achieved in the framework of the nation state as defined by its post-independence borders that were established either after World War I, World War II or the end of the colonial era.
Any remaining border issues were handled with the utmost wisdom during recent decades, and where that proved impossible historical realities prevailed and accommodations were made.
All that would have led to stability in the region and given a boost to progress and prosperity had it not been for revolutionary movements in their assorted Arab nationalist, Arab Spring and Islamist stripes, which came along at different historical junctures to precipitate tremors, rock stability and cripple the prospects of growth throughout the entire region.
The Iranian Islamic Revolution was the most vicious of these movements and the one that most exploited sectarian tensions.
It soon linked sect and ethnicity in order to render the nation state hostage to a particular party and group, as occurred in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, and it extended the “empire” to Arab capitals in the hope of winning a place at the world powers’ table on the basis of the influence it acquired in a volatile region and its nuclear capacities.
Iranian actions follow an established pattern: sectarian penetration, then intelligence infiltration combined with financial and commercial infiltration.
On top of this, it may also establish a military presence, whether through terrorist groups or, directly, with forces from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The Arab state did not remain passive in the face of these quakes. Within a few years, it not only halted the revolutionary movements, regardless of their ideological covers, it also succeeded in reasserting the role of the state.
We have spoken before, here, of the return of the Iraqi state to the Arab fold. Perhaps testimony to the beginning of this process is to be found in the Iraq government’s rejection of the referendum on the secession of the Kurdish region.
In fact, the Iraqi state succeeded in accomplishing three major national goals in a short time.
Firstly, with the removal of Nouri Al-Maliki from power and his replacement by Haidar Al-Abadi, it began to roll back the insidious sectarian under-structure of the state which operated under direct orders from Tehran.
Secondly, came the defeat of the Islamic State group, the liberation of Mosul and the retreat of terrorism.
Thirdly, the state resumed its functions in an institutionalised manner and in keeping with the current constitution which was promulgated in 2006.
Perhaps the election of Barham Salih as president of Iraq, succeeding Fouad Masoum, and his nomination of Adel Abdul-Mahdi to succeed Al-Abadi as prime minister serves as proof that Iraqi institutions of government, regardless of their problems, are the entities that Iraqi political elites are determined to use in order to safeguard the state, secure its stability and promote its development through economic and political reform.
Iraq is an important Arab country, and not just because of its ancient civilisational heritage and its outstanding economic potential thanks to the Tigris and Euphrates, oil and a people who have sustained numerous adversities and hardships from which they emerged with their Iraqi identity intact.
Iraq is also the Arab window with the Shia and the historic bridge with the Kurds.
Historically, Iraqi sectarian and ethnic diversity had long acted as a testimonial to Arab civilisation until it fell into the grips of Saddam Hussein who dragged that country into a bottomless chasm. Saddam’s rule brought catastrophe not just to Iraq, but to the Arabs as a whole.
When he fell, he left a terrifying strategic vacuum that became a playground for assorted terrorist groups and Iran.
Regardless of how history judges this phase of Arab history, Iraq remains an important state in the Arab world and in the Arab League.
Moreover, it is a cornerstone in the political geography of the Arab world. ordering both Iran and Turkey, it has a population of around 38 million, a GDP at purchasing power parity of $753 billion and one of the largest petroleum reserves in the world.
Iraq’s return is a strategic necessity for the Arab world. The choice of Barham Salih and Adel Abdul-Mahdi is a step on the road to the stability of the state and the ability to rise to the challenges it faces.
As Iraq, today, emerges from its long ordeal, it needs to contend with tattered relations between religious communities, decimated infrastructure, remaining pockets of terrorism and numerous Iranian penetrations.
It may be too soon to speak of an Arab role for Iraq. But it is possible, as of now, to help the state stand on its feet again by lending a hand with reconstruction and by contributing to the establishment of bonds between the various ethnic and religious groups which appear to be resisting Iranian meddling and pressures.
Barham Salih has considerable political and economic expertise in his capacity as a minister of planning and a deputy prime minister in the Iraqi government, or as a prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Such qualities, despite the relatively limited powers of the presidency, make him an inspiration for the executive and the management of its relationships with the legislative and judicial authorities.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi has both the academic qualifications and political expertise to enable him to navigate the intricate paths of Iraqi politics which grew increasingly complex during the past three decades.
While a candidate with a Shia affiliation, the choice this time was influenced by groups affiliated with Muqtada Al-Sadr and Haidar Al-Abadi, both of whom have independent visions for Iraq. Albdul-Mahdi’s father had served as a minister under King Faisal I.
In the course of his extensive career, he was a Baath Party member as well as a member of Maoist groups, and he studied public administration and political economy in France.
After Saddam Hussein was overthrown, he has served as Iraqi vice president, as a member of the constitutional drafting committee and as minister of petroleum.
Iraq has been gone from the Arab world for too long. Once, this was the fault of Saddam Hussein who chose to realise Arab unity by invading Kuwait, thereby setting off one of the most disastrous Arab catastrophes that would end up overthrowing him and overturning Iraq as well.
A second time, it was the fault of the US occupation of Iraq which not only deprived Iraq of its independence but also stripped it of its identity and tore apart its people and its regions.
The third time occurred when Nouri Al-Maliki thought he could create an Iranian controlled emirate in Iraq. It looks like this last instance is what triggered an Iraqi awakening that succeeded in achieving that progress, mentioned above, towards the reconstruction and reestablishment of the stability of the state.
Of course, there is still a long road ahead. The election of a president and appointment of a prime minister are only milestones.
Many different kinds of crises continue to loom and these can be triggered by different parties.
Most likely, Iran will not cease intervening. But the state is also situated in a region where there are so many intersecting regional and international interventions.
As for the Arabs, they need to summon considerable degrees of understanding and sympathy in order to deal with Iraqi leaders from all sides.
The long Iraqi separation has generated a knowledge gap about Baghdad. So perhaps the first step is for us to get to know Iraq better and to learn from the Iraqis themselves what they want at this delicate phase in their history and ours as well.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s return