US Foreign Policy

The US-Iran-Iraq Triangle: Uncertainty and Anxiety

in Program

A summer of pain and uncertainty grinds on in Iraq.  Next door, Iran has elected a new president, which does not augur well for any positive change in US-Iran relations.  The interaction of the three states most critical to Gulf security – Iran, Iraq and the United States – comprises many moving parts and paradoxes.  Two of the interactions, namely, Iran-Iraq, and Iraq-US, are dynamically evolving, while the third, Iran-US, remains stagnant.  

Iraq needs to manage and balance its relations with Tehran and Washington, and probably seeks to avoid a zero-sum approach in its dealing with the two suitors for Iraq’s soul.  The absence of any forward movement in US-Iran relations, on the one hand, provides Iraqi leaders with some strange assurance that it will not be marginalized by some shift in Washington’s attention, but on the other, it leaves Iraq’s new foreign policy team in a perpetual balancing game, trying to manage its relations with both the global and regional hegemons who happen to hate each other.  

The US-Iraqi relationship is showing signs of strain.  High ranking American visitors, including the Secretaries of Defense and State, show up for lightening speed briefings, driven by official Washington’s deep worries about the potential failure of their ambitious project of transformation.  The insurgency is robust, despite Orwellian proclamations of its waning, and other political trends suggest that many Iraqis are simply not following America’s script.  The debate and delay over the constitution suggests that all the fundamental principles, from unity and federalism to rights of women enjoy only fragile support.  Even in peaceful, highly literate societies, votes on constitutional matters rarely evoke deep understanding or interest on the part of citizenry, as witnessed recently in Europe.  So by year’s end, the US could face sustained violence and no persuasive indicators of an emerging societal consensus over peace and security, justice and democracy issues.  

As Congress begins to talk about plans for withdrawal of American troops, one senses the same conversation is happening behind closed doors in the executive branch as well.  Washington, driven by a domestic political imperative, will look for any signs of progress in building Iraqi security capacity, while Iraqis in leadership positions will almost certainly have a very different sense of timing.  When will it be safe to pull back well-trained and equipped American troops and rely only on Iraqi forces to quell the insurgency?   Some Iraqi leaders have begun to acknowledge that changes in the US military posture are coming, but creating the confidence and capability on the Iraqi side still requires US attention.  Should American troops start to focus on drawing down and packing up, tensions can be expected as young Iraqi recruits feel let down and left to their own devices.  Others may welcome a US drawdown, which may further validate political views that the US came to Iraq for its own purposes, not to help Iraqis.   American politicians have to worry about whether the net effect of US engagement in Iraq is more negative than positive.  

The US-Iraq agenda is not only about shaping Iraq’s domestic political institiutions and quelling the insurgency; it is also about Iraq’s regional role and its policies toward its neighbors. As Iraq has moved through its political phases (governing Council, Interim Iraqi Government and now the transitional government), its various leaders have looked to the neighbors to build their personal stature and to persuade the neighbors that Iraqi stability is in their interest.  Each of Iraq’s recent leaders has made important visits to the country in which they spent their exile years: former Prime Minister Allawi to Jordan, former President Yawar to Saudi Arabia, current Prime Minister Jaafari to Iran.  While the US and Iraq share the strategic goal of seeing Iraq at peace with its neighbors, and seeing the neighbors work to prevent the spread of instability, the US cannot always grasp the deeply personal ties and the private arrangements and understandings that are surely being made between individual Iraqi power centers and their religious, ethnic and political allies across Iraq’s borders. 

Most worrying is Iraq’s relations with its eastern neighbor, although it is a permanent reality, and not specific to current circumstances, that Iraq has to manage with great care a neighbor that is three times its size and has deep connections to the majority Shia community.   The United States too often sees a worst case scenario in Iran-Iraq ties, and has trouble conceptualizing a “normal” or non-threatening bilateral relationship.  Iraqis too may have trouble imagining a normal relationship with Iran, after decades of tensions, and recognizing the deep asymmetries, but the challenge is to have Iraqis determine the redlines in that relationship and not give Tehran the impression that Iraq’s policy is dictated by Washington.

It is difficult for Washington to define acceptable boundaries in this three-way political dynamic.  Officials are alarmed at signs of Iran’s involvement in Iraq’s electoral process, but it must be at least in part out of chagrin that the US itself has not been as effective a supporter of institution building as expected.  Washington worries about Iranian ties to the bad guys who make life in Iraq today so miserable, but in truth, the insurgency would be lethal even absent support from outside sources.  Iran’s interference in domestic politics probably plays out most clearly in the Shia areas, although some see Iranian influence in the largely Sunni insurgency as well.  Iran is also an overt player in Iraq’s economy:  Iran is probably Iraq’s main trading partner these days, if there were reliable statistics to refer to, and its willingness to arrange mutually beneficial energy swaps is more than US companies are doing for Iraq’s underperforming oil sector.

Iran’s presidential election produced a clear victory for the hardliners, and could have repercussions for Iraq.  According to one theory, President Ahmedinejad’s loyalty to the Supreme Leader could result in a more simplistic, dogmatic foreign policy, not tempered by an internal debate between hardliners and reformists as occurred with modest results in the Khatami years.  For Iraq, it could mean an expectation in Tehran for solidarity between the Shia majority and the Islamic Republic, and there are already many disturbing reports of social pressures against women in southern Iraq in particular that are reminiscent of the early days of the Iranian revolution.  But so far, Prime Minister Jaafari and other more worldly Shia have shown a commitment to a more balanced and inclusive Iraqi political culture, with room for diversity of view and of life style among Shia as well as the other major constituencies in Iraq.  Iraqis know well the shortcomings of Iran’s economy and its public life since the revolution, and many Shia are well aware that the Iranian model is not right for them.

Should a more confidently conservative Iran assert a new and different pressure on the political and social life of Iraq, it would surely cross a redline for Washington and for other outside powers trying to support Iraq’s difficult transition.  It could stimulate Washington, whose Iran policy has recently been focused on the nuclear issue, to review some more proactive options to contain Iran and its ambitions.

For now, the burden is on Iraq and its stressed leaders to manage Tehran, to encourage trade, cultural and communal ties, and even a prominent place among foreign embassies, but to signal some boundaries and set some limits on Iran’s relations with radical Shia groups that could disrupt the constitutional process over the coming months.  Iraqi leaders pressed by Washington to demonstrate their growing competence in security matters also have to be agile in talking about an American troop reduction in ways that do not appear to be a strategic win for Tehran.  A gradual withdrawal of American presence in Iraq cannot be seen as a new vulnerability for Iraq, inviting more predatory behavior by Iran.  For now, Iraq is in the unenviable position of having these great powers care too much about the outcome of this turbulent season. 

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