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A tale of three cities: Washington, Baghdad, Tehran

The United States's war in Iraq failed to curb Iranian influence in the region. The war's architects now seek to make Tehran pay for their mistake.
Paul Rogers
22 April 2010

The political and security conditions in Iraq continue to be a major concern for United States policy-makers, seven years after the war that eliminated the Saddam Hussein regime. What these evolving conditions reveal is that one of the objectives of this war, the containment and reduction of Iranian power in the region, is very far from being achieved. An awareness of this outcome is causing particular anguish among the American neo-conservatives who played a central role in the drive to war. If they have their way once more, the political consequences for the region could again be destructive.

Two incidents in Iraq in the past week say much about the state of security in the country. A senior Sunni Muslim figure, Sheikh Ghazi Jabbouri, was assassinated on 14 April 2010 as he returned home from prayers at the Rahman mosque in the Al-Adhamiya district of Baghdad (see Abdu Rahman & Dahr Jamail, “Imam Assassination Sparks Fears of Violence in Iraq”, TerraViva/IPS, 21 April 2010). The attack, which comes at a time of increased violence in some parts of Baghdad, was most likely perpetrated by a Shi’a group and intended to increase sectarian tensions. This would make it even more potent, as it would suggest an element of retaliation following the regular attacks mounted by Sunni militias in 2009-10: both against Shi’a neighbourhoods (such as bombs in market-places) and against government offices, embassies and other institutions.

The assassination of Sheikh Jabbouri was followed by a publicity-coup for the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki: an announcement that two leading al-Qaida associates in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, had been killed in the western province of Anbar (see “US and Iraqi forces kill Al Masri and Baghdadi, al Qaeda in Iraq's top two leaders”, Long War Journal, 19 April 2010).  This is reported as having been the outcome of a joint United States/Iraqi operation, and one of the most substantial and coordinated actions against al-Qaida in Iraq for several years.

Iraq’s change

This coup against al-Qaida (and linked insurgent groups) has clear significance both in security and political terms. The insurgents have proved capable of inflicting huge and continual damage on the infrastructure and personnel of the nascent Iraqi state, and any serious diminishment of this capacity is welcome to both American and Iraqi forces. The arrests are also seen, not least in Washington, as encouraging evidence that the Barack Obama administration’s troop-withdrawal timetable might indeed be implemented.

The United States’s troop-levels in Iraq have remained around 150,000 over the seven years since the three-week war of March-April 2003 which overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime. There was a substantial increase at the time of the military “surge” in 2007-08, after which the strategy of phased withdrawal began to reduce the numbers.

There are now around 95,000 American military personnel in Iraq - most of whom, after the redeployment agreement with the Iraqi government took effect in 30 June 2009, are now concentrated away from Iraq’s urban centres; the total is due to fall to 50,000 by 31 August 2010 (when combat-operations are scheduled to end). The plan is that a very large proportion of those remaining will be military advisers and technicians who will be both combat-ready and capable of training Iraqis and conducting base-security operations (see Daniel Wasserbly, “US forces analyse future role of advise-and-assist brigades in Iraq”, Jane’s International Defence Review, January 2010).

But as events on the ground in Iraq evolve - and as pressures on US forces elsewhere (especially Afghanistan and its military surge) escalate - the overall argument in Washington is now moving on. The developing view is that the the security situation in Iraq is improving (albeit with some major challenges still to face); that this is making unnecessary any combat-role for the American military personnel left after the drawdown; and that a more comprehensive evacuation of Iraq will free even more troops for the Afghanistan campaign (see “Iraq’s shadow over Afghanistan”, 4 February 2010). This assessment has the further political advantage of enabling Barack Obama and his team to claim some success in avoiding what was long predicted: that whatever its intentions the US could be trapped for many more years in the “quagmire” of Iraq.

For all the layers of the entire edifice to work, however, the regional security and political situation in Iraq’s neighbourhood also has to be guaranteed. There are only three countries of major significance in Iraq’s immediate vicinity: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first two exercise little political influence in Iraq, apart from on fairly small communities. But Iran is a different case altogether.

Iran’s gain

Washington’s worry over Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider region has been a central factor in its strategic calculations across the entire spectrum of the Iraq war. This is if anything on an upward curve as the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime - having survived the crisis following the presidential election of June 2009 - is exerting more control over the domestic opposition, and showing little sign of responding to foreign pressure over its nuclear ambitions.

Whatever the precise nature of the Tehran regime’s current nuclear plans and developments, its uncompromising line and the shroud of uncertainty appear to some in the United States - in particular among the neo-conservative circles which provided the main ideological fuel for the Iraq war - as alarming evidence of a major uncompleted foreign-policy job on Washington’s part (see “Iran, Israel, America: the nuclear gamble”, 2 October 2009).

Their attitude is rooted in the expectations that surrounded the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. In the immediate aftermath of what seemed a decisive victory, the neocon vision was in essence that Iran was now contained. To the east, a pro-American regime in Kabul had been installed, with the large bases at Bagram and Kandahar guaranteeing a long-term military presence; to the south and southwest, control of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf by the US navy secured command of oil-routes and containment of any threat from Iran; and now to the west, the imposition of a totally free-market system under a weak and pro-western government under the tutelage of Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) - and again, protected by a permanent US military presence concentrated in four large bases.

This high-tide of neocon confidence, in early summer 2003, thus saw Tehran “covered” and confined on three sides by American forces and influence. The attitude in Washington was that victory in Iraq would so squeeze Iran that further action again the regime there would be unnecessary: “if we get Iraq right, we won’t have to go for Iran” (see Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons [Anchor Books, 2009]).

Many in and around the Obama administration, whether or not they supported the war in the first place, have indeed persuaded themselves that Iraq has been “got right” - at least to the extent that American forces can begin to be safely withdrawn and redeployed. The administration is acutely aware of the Iran challenge, and engaged in deep discussion about how best to counter it (see David E Sanger & Thom Shankfer, “Gates Says U.S. Lacks a Policy to Thwart Iran”, New York Times, 17 April 2010). But for the recomposed neo-conservatives, who invested so much in Iraq, the spectre of Iran looms even larger.

The danger from their perspective is that the result of all the fighting and dying of the last seven years in Iraq has been to hand Iran a political victory without its having to fire a shot - and it is compounded by the plan of a dangerously liberal president in the White House to withdraw completely from the country. The conclusion they draw is the need to refocus the US’s combative energies on Iran in a quite major way, even if that extends to aiding regime change or as far as military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities (see Michael Rubin, “Iran: the Case for ‘Regime Change’”, Commentary, April 2010).

In the absence of such a bold approach, the neocon argument runs, Iran will come to dominate Iraq as the US drawdown continues. Tehran will establish effective control over a fifth of the world’s oil wealth; will feel emboldened to advance its interests further, to the Gulf states and through greater support for Hamas and Hizbollah; will threaten directly the existence of Israel; and eclipse US interests across the middle east.

America’s choice

It is beyond dispute that Iran has gained from the war, though this has far more to do with the neocons’ own failures of analysis and policy than with any decisions by Barack Obama’s administration. But in any event, three aspects of the Iran-Iraq relationship (and more widely, Iran’s role in the western Gulf region as a whole) put the crude view of Iran’s inevitable dominance over Iraq into perspective.

The first is that while Iraq may be (like Iran) a country where Shi’a Muslims are in the majority, most of the main Shi’a political parties competing for power after the inconclusive election of 7 March 2010 are not particularly susceptible to Iranian control. Most certainly seek cooperation with Tehran, but are disinclined to act as or become Iran’s puppets; indeed, the currents of nationalism that run strongly in Iraq (including southern and Shi’a Iraq) are part of their own worldview.

The second is that the Shi’a religious authorities in Iran do not wield excessive control over Iraq’s Shi’a communities. Indeed, Iraq is as much a heartland of Shi’a Islam in geographical terms: Qom in Iran is a holy city and crucial seat of learning, but pilgrims also flock in their hundreds of thousands from Iran to Iraq to visit the shrines at Karbala and Najaf.

The third aspect is that the closest social connection between Iran and Iraq is at the level of basic economics - markets, trade, and commerce - rather than religion. It is easily forgotten too that Iran has powerful (if informal) trading and financial connections with western Gulf states, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia; many members of the substantial Shi’a communities along the western Gulf coast are part of this nexus. The number of branches of Iranian banks in downtown Dubai is evidence of these strong cross-Gulf connections. The reality is apparent in Iran too, in the many luxury houses and estates among the hills northeast of Tehran which serve as summer-homes for wealthy Shi’a businesspeople seeking to escape from the Gulf’s stifling heat.

This complex set of commercial, political, cultural and religious relationships underlines the fact that Iran is in many respects part of the social texture of life in the countries to its west - which may translate into a form of influence, but as a whole is very far from the image of an invasive and controlling power that is projected by hawks in Washington (see Neil Arun & Abeer Mohammed, “Rise of Iran Reveals Polarised Iraq”, Institute of War & Peace Reporting, 10 April 2010).

The mindset of United States neo-conservatives cannot accommodate such complexity. Its fixation on the Iranian threat, which they regard as sharpened by what it regards as Barack Obama’s precipitate withdrawal from Iraq, tends towards the seductive view that only force will solve the Iran problem - and that if America’s leadership no longer has the backbone for the task, then it will fall to Israel’s (see “Israel’s shadow over Iran”, 14 January 2010). The architects and ideologues of the Iraq war, haunted by awareness that Iraq after all was not “got right”, are determined that Iran must be dealt with sooner or later - and preferably sooner.

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