Tuesday, March 21, 2006


The-Three State Solution (2)

In front of us today, wrapped in attractive gold, is the proposal to split Iraq in three: a country each for Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. But is it, as Juan Cole suggests, fools gold? For me, what seems like an elegant geographical solution seems less so when you consider not just what's above ground, but below. I keep coming back to the question of oil. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, with 112-125 million barrels of proven reserves, a potential 200-250 in unproven reserves, and another 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

(More data: Iraq currently produces 2 million barrels a day, compared with 3 million in 1990. Ten percent of the reserves are in Northern Iraq; the majority of the oil is in the South, near Basra. Sixty percent of Iraq's GDP comes from oil. You can click the map at right to enlarge it.)

Oil is a decidedly destabilizing resource; most of the world's richest oil reserves have created political nightmares for the people living above. Here's the top ten: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Canada, Iran, Kuwait, UAE, Venezuela, Russia, Libya, Nigeria. Maple Leafs excepted, not exactly a who's who of democracy. Whatever scenario one imagines, Iraq's oil makes creating stable government(s) more difficult.

(Another compounding factor of the three-state solution are Iraq's neighbors, all of whom have a stake in what Iraq becomes. Let's put that aside for the moment.)

In broad strokes, I tend to disagree with Juan Cole's analysis that culture and ethnicity are fluid enough that they aren't the main barrier; given the bloody history of the country and its current instability, culture and ethnicity do seem unavoidable factors. In the long term, I think he's right--we have many examples of stable, multi-ethnic societies with bloody pasts but healthy democracies.

So we have (bad) blood and oil, and three groups jockeying for control. I am ultimately persuaded that a three-state solution won't work as long as oil and gas are unequally distributed among the groups. I wonder if a form of radical federalism, where the three groups have regions over which they have great autonomy might not be the solution. The oil would be held in trust by a national entity and wealth distributed among the three. It's the only way I can think of to separate groups long enough for the cycle of revenge to abate, but which doesn't create new cycles in a mad dash for oil wealth.


iggi said...

Turkey has already said they will violently oppose a Kurdish state...i don't think even the EU could cajole them into supporting one.

Jeff Alworth said...

Yeah, I left out players like that. Syria and Iran are also volatile players in a three-state solution. Though I don't think Turkey is the biggest problem--they want into the EU badly enough that they'd probably keep their mouths shut on Kurdish independence.

Absent Mindful said...

Perfect solution: Stitch another star, we got ourselves a 51st state! Yee-haah!

iggi said...

i say we pave the whole country over and build a shopping mall...that's the ultimate goal of capitalism after all.