Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Maliki vs Shahristani?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 7 February 2011 15:08

This is becoming somewhat farcical, but today the Iraqi deputy premier for oil and energy affairs, Hussein al-Shahristani, tells Reuters that the Iraqi premier, Nuri al-Maliki, was misquoted when he said the Kurdish contracts with foreign oil companies had been approved. Shahristani reiterates the argument that he has always made about the need for the central government to review the contracts before they are approved, even going as far as explicitly saying they need to be converted to technical service contracts (more similar to what is being used by the central government for oil contracts in the south).

It is rather remarkable for the deputy premier to contradict the premier on such a key issue, and the suggestion about a “misquote” does not quite make sense: Maliki was presenting an elaborate argument about the geological differences between Basra and Kurdistan and the interview included several comments which all went in the same direction. Surely no simple “misunderstanding” can assert itself in this way across a whole section of an interview even though it seems likely that the interview with Shahristani was conducted in English and the one with Maliki in Arabic? Nonetheless, the refutation seems to reflect the prevailing mood in the Iraqi oil ministry, where Reuters reported astonishment and even disbelief during the weekend when the news of Maliki’s comments broke. No one, it was said, had heard anything.

So who is right and who is wrong? On the one hand, Shahristani himself has a record of recent misquotes, as when he allegedly said Iraq would reach an oil production of 4 million barrels per day at yearend – a figure which was promptly adjusted downwards by one million bpd by the oil ministry. But Maliki has also been acting strangely since the start of his second term. First, there was the seemingly suicidal attempt to alienate almost every force in Iraqi politics by attaching IHEC and other independent commissions to the executive, which just weeks ago brought about an alliance of critics reminiscent of the opposition Maliki was facing in early 2010 at the time of the budget. And then there was this latest episode involving the Kurdish oil deals, in which Maliki seemed to abruptly give up his pretensions to keep Baghdad as the ultimate power broker as far as the energy sector is concerned.

Perhaps what we are seeing is Maliki’s old tendency of turning to the Kurds in times of trouble, which was evident already in autumn 2009. If that is the case, the key question is how many members of his own Shiite alliance are willing to follow him in that direction, and how far are they willing to go when it comes to making concessions to the Kurds on issues like oil/energy, Kirkuk and generally enshrining the kind of quota-based, ethnicity-oriented political system that the Kurds are seeking. The latest move by Maliki was surprising in that it seemed to indicate that Shiite attempts to assert a centralist policy in energy questions were dead; Shahristani’s response today suggest that the centralist/nationalist element in the National Alliance, which also includes Sadrist and Turkmen components, is still there and at least is putting up some kind of resistance when it comes to independent energy deals by provincial authorities. Alongside Maliki and Shahristani, a third force to watch for is erstwhile Daawa member Ibrahim al-Jaafari, now parliamentary head of the National Alliance bloc, who is cutting a dominant figure both in parliament and at NA meetings, sometimes at the expense of Maliki himself. Jaafari was famously deselected as premier for a second term in 2006 thanks in part to Kurdish pressure.

A meeting of the National Alliance on 31 January 2011. Maliki is sitting to the right of Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Meanwhile, parliament was supposed to have done the second reading of the budget today, but the budget had not arrived in parliament from government! The second reading was postponed until tomorrow, to be followed by a vote later in February.

24 Responses to “Maliki vs Shahristani?”

  1. Agreed on the point about Maliki turning to the Kurds in times of trouble. I’m wondering if this is a quid pro quo on the security portfolio issue. This is becoming a big headache for Maliki, harder even than getting reelected. Allawi opposes him on the issue of course, but so do the Sadrists over interior, and the Kurds have been demanding a piece as well.

    A note about Shahristani is that he is one of the few within State of Law who can stand up to Maliki. He heads his own party within the bloc – or subbloc, if you will – and his long-term ties to Sistani and personal status make him a substantive figure in his own right. As for Jaafari, he and Maliki have had a rapproachment of late, but I view him as largely having cast his lot with Iran. And unlike ISCI, he actually got something for not opposing Maliki the way they did.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Yeah, as far as I remember I saw a report that the Kurds had won the leadership of the secret services and that Chalabi was still being talked about as a potential interior minister so who knows. The remarkable thing is that Iraqiyya is reportedly seeking the good offices of Barzani over the strategic policy council which is somewhat ironic in this context since they and Shahristani ostensibly agree on the need to have a minimum of central oil ministry coordination in the energy sector. It’s just another side effect of the poor personal relationship between Allawi and Maliki. They’re supposed to have another “summit” soon but sources close to Maliki said no date has been set so far.

  3. Thaqalain said

    So a weaker Baghdad will be just an observer/reviewer without any powers to hold, suspend, terminate PSAs. Al Maliki and Shahrestani think we are fool and dumb.
    I agree with Reidar , sooner regional power lords or governors will start signing deals directly and a copy will be sent to Baghdad for review. It won’t be limited to Oil & Gas, it will be broad and many DUBAI type of mini states will be developed but in the long run IRAQ will be totally fragmented and vanished.
    One should note division of Sudan today.

  4. Kjetting said

    This is within an established pattern. Maliki makes a statement on oil policy, more or less lofty – less this time perhaps – then Shahristani “corrects” the statement and moves HIS policy along.

    Before the Kurds or anybody else have a signed, generally agreed paper in their hand, there is no reason to celebrate or to hold your breath.

  5. Tom P said

    In light of the fact that these contracts have been a bone of contention for so long, it seems odd that Maliki seemingly has gone behind the back of his cabinet or at least members of it, to conclude a deal with the Kurds. What are your thoughts on this? Is this precedented?

    When it comes to interpreting a Kurdish victory in this matter as a victory for ethno-nationalism that may endanger the unity of Iraq in the long run, isn’t that to over-emphasize such an outcome? After all they have their own constitution and its understandable that they want to have more than ceremonial powers. Would it, in comparison, be unheard of if say California made a deal with an oil company without Washington knowing about it? Any thoughts?

  6. Reidar Visser said

    A couple of thoughts on the first point. Yes and no. Under normal circumstances it would be unusual for a PM to say something with such far-reaching implications without checking that he had the backing of his own government first. But Maliki just did precisely that, in fact, with the attachment of the independent commissions to the executive, which he did against the wishes of the Kurds, Iraqiyya and half of his own National Alliance. So it’s not totally inconceivable or unprecedented. Another precedent, of course, is that the Kurds previously claimed to have obtained promises and signatures, I think from both Jaafari and Maliki, that articles 58 of the TAL and 140 of the constitution would be implemented, i.e. by end of 2007, and we all know how that ended.

    A complicating factor in all of this is the near complete media blackout on these questions in the Arabic Iraqi press. There is almost zero coverage of this. People who read international financial newspapers may find it odd that an issue which attracts so much attention internationally should not produce some clearer answers in the country where all of this is going on. But the fact is that the issue is almost not being discussed in the Arabic media in Iraq (only Al-Hayat, a pan-Arab daily, had a brief article today) and this is probably one of the reasons so much ambiguity remains.

    On your second question, consider the following: What will be left for Baghdad to do unless the central government at least has a minimum of power to coordinate the energy sector? Remember that Iraq is a completely oil-reliant economy. Remember also that all the governorates have exactly the same rights as the Kurds have when it comes to oil according to the constitution. So that leaves the question of what happens to the glue of the federation if centralised power is being systematically dismantled by giving provincial authorities full control of so-called “future” fields. It leaves us also with a likely scenario of violent fragmentation in which ethno-sectarian propaganda can once more thrive.

  7. martin rutt said

    Reider, your comments are both interesting and helpful.
    Picking up on the last thread (with Tom P) how do you see this issue being resolved? The impasse is surely lose-lose for all?

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Martin, I agree this is an unhelpful stalemate. In general, my take is that the Kurds would get a better deal if they reverted to their position as it was more or less in 2003 when they wanted a bi-national federation of Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, with the federal government responsible for defence and the oil sector. International guarantees for this autonomy was a main demand back then, and I think this should be offered to the Kurds. I think the central government would be prepared to cede some rural parts of Nineveh and Tamim province under this kind of arrangement, if not Kirkuk itself.

    As for the oil sector, based on the argument outlined above about central-government control over energy as the glue in the federation, I think it makes sense that Baghdad should have some kind of role – though not necessarily the dominant role – in all contracts, “existing” and “future” fields alike. In fact, one can argue that this is already contained in article 112 second of the constitution. Now, when it comes to the existing deals that the Kurds have already signed, I’m sure it would be possible to reach some kind of compromise. The DNO contract has been published and if I understand correctly, the company takes a more moderate share of the income than some had predicted, so the parties may not be that far apart. But I think the basic principle of agreement with the centre in energy issues makes sense if one wants to keep Iraq in one piece and avoid bloody wars of separation in the years to come.

  9. Ali W said

    Many suspect that now Maliki has decided he wont stand for the PM position again, Shahristani will take charge of SLA and could potentially be the next PM. This could be Shahristani flexing his muscles to gain some publicity and exploit the anit Kurdish feelings that is growing in Arab Iraq.

    What I find interesting is that although some nationalist resistance remain within NA, no loud shouts are coming from Iraqia on this subject or other issues with the Kurds. However I doubt this will last long, sooner or later fores will join up to counter these moves by the Kurds.

  10. martin rutt said

    Reidar, I am interested that you don’t mention the KRG’s very high take in the PSC’s as being the real issue. It seems to me that the PSC’s provide a not unreasonable return for the E & P company’s risk. However, and especially with the ‘Infrastructure tax’ introduced, for example, into the GKP contracts following the default of Etamic last year, the KRG benefits hugely and directly, even before the 17% share of national income. I could see that issue being very difficult for the ICG to swallow.
    I rather hope(d) that the ultimate compromise lay in smoothing such an obvious wrinkle. Whatever the answer is, it is an undeniably frustrating disappointment that politicians – usually so adept at redefining the undefinable – seem incapable of doing so. And I don’t have to live there!

  11. Reidar Visser said

    Martin, any KRG deductions before the national distribution are constitutionally problematic. As far as I can see, KRG taxes are not enumerated among the pre-distribution deductions to be approved in the general budget, so that is certainly something that can come up for debate. As Ali says, it will be interesting to see how Iraqiyya responds. In theory, their oil policy has a lot in common with that of Shahristani, but they seem to be vaccilating, probably because they feel they want to have Kurdish support on other issues where Maliki is their number one enemy, including the strategic policy council. In a way, right now this is an issue where Iraqiyya must choose between being a nationalist party (on oil) or a muhasasa-oriented party (i.e. seeking more quotas of the government pie).

  12. Tore said

    The KRG’s direct ownership in most licenses is not an issue, since the money from those assets will go to the central government once the deals are approved, as I understand it.

  13. Salah said


    With regards to your points of ” KRG deductions before the national distribution” and “KRG taxes”

    The revenue from the production is more important in comparison with the fractions of tax deductions or any form of tax regime.

  14. Ahmed Al-Shammari said

    @Ali W: You claim that Shahristani is ‘flexing his muscles to gain some publicity and exploit the anit Kurdish feelings that is growing in Arab Iraq’

    To answer that, the days of anti-Kurdish sentiment are not like they were before. In the 60’s and 70’s when I was growing up in Baghdad, there was much larger anti-Kurdish sentiment than there is now. A number of factors contribute to this which would require an article to write. I think you will find a lot of Arabs hoping Baghdad becomes like Erbil, and that whatever one thinks of the KRG, they do spend on their own people. One has to only visit the Kurdistan Region to see the remarkable difference.

    @ Thaqalain: I am not sure how you can compare southern Sudan to Kurdistan, only in the fact that the people living in both areas are minorities that were deprived of a state of their own because of colonial powers and their redrawing of Middle Eastern and African borders.

    Also on a side note, Shahristani is an individual who has personal animosity to the Kurdish people in Iraq. The reasons are not to be written on a forum but relate to his time living in the Kurdistan Region, and involve family members of his. I do not wish to defame him, only hope that he tries to focus more on bringing electricity and basic services to the provinces outside the Kurdistan Region, rather than becoming completely obsessed with Kurds. The saddest part is that he is not even an oil man, and this is what baffles me and most Iraqis. I am sure Da3wa have Iraqis with backgrounds in the energy sector who would at least be taken more seriously than Shahristani

  15. Thaqalain said

    Ahmed if thats true , he won’t be able to work so long in the oil ministry and now as Energy Ministry. I think its the way how he thinks about Iraq as an Iraqi not on linguistic grounds, developed some issues regarding contracts control procedure. He is right as long as Kurdish territory remains in current Iraqi geography.
    He is a nuclear scientist and a foreign national above all prejudices against any ethnic group.

  16. Reidar Visser said

    Thaqalain, what do you mean with “foreign national”? Shahristani’s family, despite having an Iranian name, has lived in Iraq for centuries I think, as have many others with Iranian names, Sunnis and Shiites, who are as Iraqi as any other. I’m not sure if he has a second passport from his time in exile but then again many other leading politicians have that. Also, I think his position on the Kurdish oil issues is more than just a personal grudge. There are many Iraqis who take a centrist position on this, i.e. sympathising with the Kurds for their suffering and hardship in the past but at the same time saying some of their new policies go too far in weakening the central government generally, including some of the “19 points”.

  17. Ahmed Al-Shammari said

    @Reidar: I completely agree with your analysis that their are many Iraqis who adopt this centrist position and they have every right to. The problem with Shahristani is not that he has adopted this position, but to be very honest, he has become a little bit embarrassed. He was promoted to become deputy prime minister for energy affairs, but he is no longer the master of Iraqi oil policy.

    I think Thaqalian said it best, he was a nuclear scientist. He should stick to a field more relevant to his skill set. As for personal issues, again I could probably tell you them off the record, and you can easily verify them by calling direct members of his family and asking them for quotes. I am not here to slander him, I am here to say that the fact is, Shahristani is a divisive figure, and there are others who want a centrist policy, but again I ask you:

    What has he done in terms of electricity and oil? In the end of the day, Maliki is a much more popular figure among Iraqi Shi’ites with a centrist leaning. I don’t like the term that you use ‘nationalist’ as Iraq’s borders of today were created under the British Mandate, and like that famous saying goes ‘somebody’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, we can also say that in Iraq ‘one man’s nationalist is another man’s traitor’. Arab nationalism, Kurdish nationalism yes, but Iraqi nationalism is a concept extremely difficult to define.

  18. Reidar Visser said

    Ahmed, the main body of my research is on Basra in the 1920s and focused precisely on the question of whether Iraq was indeed “artificial” and “constructed by the British”. My conclusion was that Iraqi nationalism was surprisingly strong on the popular level in Basra in the 1920s and built on antecedents from late Ottoman times. I have no problems with Kurdish nationalism at all, because it has historical roots too (even if they are not as continuous as some Kurds claim today). What I react to is when the Kurds try to deny the existence of Iraqi nationalism south of Kurdistan and the desire for many in those parts to have a centralised government for the rest of Iraq, and instead try to weaken the government in Baghdad generally. I think they would do better by reverting to their pre-2003 position which was to focus on a bi-national Arab-Kurdish federation in Iraq. They should forget about trying to sow the seeds of federalism in the rest of Iraq, where it is unlikely to prosper.

  19. Thaqalain said


    I am not supporting either. If we will start checking qualifications or skills of +40 ministers, it will be hard to govern people.
    To Govern or Administer, you don’t need to be qualified in a specific area as far as one is educated with best credentials, he is best fit to perform his job as per public mandate within Judicial, Constitutional framework.

  20. Ahmed Al-Shammari said

    Reidar Visser, I love debating with you because you are well informed and well versed. I have studied and read many books on both Iraqi and Kurdish history and politics. I the current borders of Iraq are constructed under a British mandate, I mean, without getting into too much detail, there is really no evidence to show that the current map of Iraq is the one that existed before 1920’s.

    My problem in essence is that if they Kurds would like their own state, and we have our own, we can work together to build a better region. In reality, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a state of their own, and unless western powers as well as Middle Eastern leaders admit and recognised that, there will always be problems. I am sure from your study of Iraqi history, you will see that the current disputes between Arabs and Kurds of Iraq keep occurring, in the 30′, in 40’s, in the 50’s, in the 70’s…..

    I strongly believe that the using federalism or the model of a bi-national federation is only going to result in everybody going round in circles.

    I understand and have read from your published articles that you promote the belief that centrist controlled Iraq would be more stable and beneficial, but I don’t follow the same beliefs.

  21. Reidar Visser said

    Ahmed, many thanks for that. This is probably not the right forum (or the right post) to pursue this subject much further, but let me just add a reference for an article where I have elaborated this point in much greater detail and with full source references: “Proto-political Conceptions of Iraq in Late Ottoman Times”, in International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies vol. 3 no. 2 (2009). I have pasted the abstract below; specifically my congruence argument focuses on the striking similarities between, on the one hand, the “bigger Baghdad” vilayet in the nineteenth century as well as mameluke Iraq in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and, on the other, the “modern”, so-called “invented” Iraq. I have treated this subject also in my book Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (2005).

    “The article criticizes the so-called ‘artificiality paradigm’ concerning the emergence of the modern state on Iraq, according to which the kingdom of Iraq that came into being in 1921 was nothing but a random collection of Ottoman provinces that had little in common. On the basis of documents from the late Ottoman period, the article shows that the opposite appears to be the case: In many ways, the modern state of Iraq had regional antecedents that predated the British invasion in 1914. The article shows that for long periods before 1914 there existed a pattern of administrative centralization of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul under Baghdad as a paramount regional capital, that this regional entity was often described as ‘Iraq’ in administrative and diplomatic correspondence, and that the local inhabitants often referred to Iraq in a patriotic sense.”

  22. Thaqalain said

    I believe Kuwait was part of those days ‘Iraq’ in administrative and diplomatic correspondence as you said.
    So Kurdish nation deserves the same liberty, honor, prestige as todays Kuwait.
    I am looking a wave of tectonic revolutions in the Gulf and it will be hard for Emirs, Sultans, Khalifas, Malaks, Malikis, Shahinshahs to keep oppressing communities in their administrative shackles.
    One can’t be kept silent and patriot if he is not having the same rights, interests as others.
    Can you write a single paragraph or article about overall situation of current day Gulf/Middle East?

  23. Reidar Visser said

    You cannot compare the Ottoman footprint in Kuwait and Kurdistan. It was far more extensive in the Kurdish areas, which remained intimately connected with Baghdad for most of the Ottoman period.

    For your other questions, as explained before, I’m not a generalist and don’t want to make sweeping generalisations on subjects and areas that I don’t know enough about. I’m only gradually beginning to do more research on some other areas of the Gulf, so you’ll have to turn elsewhere for that kind of discussion.

  24. Riyadh said

    It is obvious and clear that the changing of people who play the roles(changing of faces) in the Ministry will do difference
    It is political compensation.

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