Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Questions Than Answers On Iran-Iraq Oil Field Dispute

On December 18, 2009 eleven Iranian soldiers stormed Well Number Four in the Fauqi oil field that straddles the Iran-Iraq border, and chased off Iraqi workers who were there. Two days later the Iranians withdrew, although Iraqi officials claim they are still on Iraqi territory. The Iranian action led to protests in Karbala and Anbar, and a tribal council in Basra threatened to retake the oil well by force if Baghdad wasn’t able to reclaim it. Tehran on the other hand, said it was all a misunderstanding that was being blown out of proportion by Iran’s enemies. There are still several unanswered questions as the incident is coming to an end.

First, why were Iraqis at Well Number Four? A sheikh from Maysan’s tribal council said that the Iranians had been acting belligerently around the Fauqi field since the beginning of December, harassing both Iraqi civilians and members of the security forces. Well Number Four is also dormant, and a spokesman from the Oil Ministry said no Iraqi workers had been there to extract oil before the Iranian take over. The two countries have an unwritten agreement not to work on disputed parts of the oil field as well. Given this situation, it would seem a provocative action for Iraqi oil workers to go to Number Four last week, and put up the Iraqi flag. Were they there for some routine maintenance, or did they go there on purpose as part of a tit for tat game the two countries had been playing recently at disputed oil fields along the border?

Second, why has Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki been completely silent on the issue? Iraq’s Interior Minister said it was not a big deal, while the Foreign Ministry said Iraq and Iran would meet soon to work on the border, but Maliki has said absolutely nothing. This seems like an odd thing, especially because the country is in full election mode for the 2010 vote, and the Prime Minister has been running on his nationalist credentials. This has raised questions about Iran’s role in Iraqi politics amongst some.

Despite these questions, this incident is likely to go down as a minor event. It’s not going to change the larger political, economic, and cultural relationship the two countries have forged since the overthrow of Saddam, but it does show there are underlying tensions between the two. It will also provide fodder for nationalists who would like to see that be more of an equal exchange between the two, and who want Tehran’s influence in the government to end.


Agence France Presse, “Iran troops still on Iraq’s soil: Iraqi politician,” 12/21/09

Alsumaria, “Hashemi calls on Iran to withdraw from Iraq,” 12/23/09
- “Iran: Iraq border incident misunderstanding,” 12/23/09
- “Iraq awaits Iran troops exit from oil well,” 12/23/09
- “Iraq tribal council forms combat brigades in face of Iranian troops,” 12/23/09

Aswat al-Iraq, “Joint committees to determine Fakka oilfield’s fate – amb.,” 12/23/09
- “Parliament to host FM on Iranian violation,” 12/23/09

Lando, Ben, “The Iranian invasion,” Iraq Oil Report, 12/18/09

Latif, Nizar, “Iraq-Iran oil well tensions simmered ‘for weeks,’” The National, 12/21/09

Al-Rafidayn, Al-Sumarianews, Al-Mada, Al-Zaman, “Iranian Occupation of Oil Field in Iraq Unleashes Widespread Anti-Iran Reactions,” MEMRI Blog, 12/23/09

Rao, Prashant, “Iraq protests against Iranian takeover of oil well,” Agence France Presse, 12/18/09

Williams, Timothy and Adnan, Duraid, “Iran-Iraq Standoff Over Oil Field Ends,” New York Times, 12/20/09


Insurance Clerk said...

Could this border incident be an Iranian provocation whereby that government hopes to incite an American or Iraqi response that would distract the Iranian public from its internal political quarrels?

Joel Wing said...

I'm not sure anyone is really clear about Tehran's motivations for the take over. Some think that it was a message to Iraq over its newly signed oil deals. Others think that the Iranian government has been so disrupted by power struggles and dealing with protesters that they weren't watching their border forces and that this was a completely spontaneous event. There are plenty of other theories floating around as well.

The way Tehran has played the incident however, half denying that they even took the well over and then saying that they will negotiate with Iraq over the border, etc. does not lead me to believe that they wanted to provoke anything bigger than what happened.

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