The diverse trajectories of the “Arab spring”, from Syria’s suppression of dissent to Libya’s civil war, continue to dominate the attention of analysts and policy-makers concerned with the middle east. In these circumstances, the evolving relationship between Iran and its most populous Arab neighbour, Iraq, is receiving less attention than the region’s current conflicts - though its long-term impact may be equally great.
Most international worry over Iran continues to relate to Tehran’s civil-nuclear programme and its possible use in a covert weapon-building project. There are reports that Iran is planning to treble its production of uranium enriched to a 20% level (see Simon Morgan, “World powers concerned over Iran nuclear programme”, AFP, 9 June 2011). This is substantially higher than the enrichment level required for power-reactors, though it is also appropriate for a reactor that can produce radio-isotopes for medical, industrial or agricultural purposes. In a familiar pattern, the development is unsettling to western states without itself proving that Iran is working to manufacture nuclear weapons.
The external focus on Iran’s nuclear intentions, and on the fate of its domestic opposition amid elite infighting, is already well established. Another constant in the international attitude to Iran (especially Washington’s), namely Tehran’s policy towards and influence in Iraq, is now giving renewed cause for concern.
The seven-year hitch
A landmark moment in the aftermath of the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in April 2003 was when, at the start of the following month, George W Bush made a speech on the deck of the aircraft-carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln with a large banner proclaiming “mission accomplished” as the backdrop. The speech was in its way the high point of the “war on terror” declared by the United States president in the aftermath of 9/11. The United States military had vanquished the Taliban and Saddam regimes and dispersed al-Qaida; now what the Bush administration regarded as the US’s principal enemy in the region, namely Iran, could be targeted.
The new constraint imposed on Iran by the broadly successful first eighteen months of the "war on terror" was pithily conveyed by a Washington phrase of early 2003: “The road to Tehran runs through Baghdad”.
The thinking was straightforward: Iran was being encircled. To the east in Afghanistan, US forces had destroyed the Taliban, installed major fortresses at Bagram and Kandahar, and were increasing influence in central Asia; to the west in Iraq, they had eliminated the Ba’athist regime and planned to establish a network of large military bases; to the south, over the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, the US fifth fleet would exert control. These changes had transformed the strategic balance to Tehran’s disadvantage, and no Iranian regime would be foolish enough to challenge the US’s new regional supremacy.
By mid-2010, a mere seven years later, this neat portrait had dissolved. The US, having endured two gruelling and costly wars, was either seeking (in Afghanistan) or in process of (Iraq) withdrawal - in neither case with any certainty of lasting strategic benefit once it was completed. In the case of Iraq, moreover, the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad was building good economic links with Iran; a disturbing process that led some voices in Washington to recommend a freeze of the military pull-out. Barack Obama’s administration was always unlikely to consider this, but cannot ignore an even more serious event.
On 2 May 2011, the head of Iraq’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Babakar Zebari, held a meeting with Iran's ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Danaifar. The ambassador is an interesting as well as influential figure: a native of Baghdad expelled by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s who subsequently rose through the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); he was appointed to his present post in 2010.
At the meeting, Zebari proposed to Danaifar that Iraq and Iran be form the core of a new regional-security organisation. This would go far beyond existing arrangements for economic cooperation, and reach to the heart of US and western European security interests (see Ellen Knickmeyer, “Iraq seeks security agreement”, International Defence Review, June 2011).
The proposed regional-security arrangement has the potential greatly to increase Iran's influence among its largest Arab neighbour, in a way that will deeply worry the United States and its coalition allies as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel. In practical terms the early steps are likely to be in air-power: Iraq’s substantial army now numbers 250,000 troops, but it so far has little more than a nominal air-force.
The road to Baghdad
The United States still wields influence in Iraq. It is likely to maintain at least 25,000 personnel in the country after the current withdrawal deadline of end-2011, including around 5,000 private-security contractors. At his confirmation hearings on 9 June 2011, the defence-secretary nominee Leon Panetta spoke of the continuing insecurity and threat from Islamist radicals in Iraq and indicated Washington’s desire for a prolonged military presence in the country. But the likelihood is that Washington’s hard power in Iraq is in effect ending, and there is little it can do to avert independent cooperation between two states it has sought to dominate or subdue.
The fact that the planned security organisation is Iraq’s brainchild is greatly significant, for it reflects the belief in Baghdad that its best interests involve scaling down its relationship with the United States. Indeed, there is a compelling symbolism about the prospect of Iranian air-force planes operating out of the very Iraqi air-bases that United States forces had upgraded and expanded for their own purposes.
If that should come to pass in 2011, and the road to Baghdad after all run through Tehran, the sheer contrast with the triumphalism of May 2003 would be so great as to make it one of the most important regional developments of an already momentous year.