If the U.S. goes forward with its plan to drawdown troops in Iraq this year, critics argue that it will open the door for Iranian dominance. Those in favor of the U.S. exit strategy contend that Tehran has already kicked that door down, and maintaining an American military presence would only expand Iranian influence, not contain it.
According to the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by President George W. Bush and Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, all U.S. forces are supposed to withdraw from Iraq by December 31, 2011. But the Obama administration is pondering whether or not to leave 10,000 troops beyond the end-of-year withdrawal deadline.
However, any new agreement would have to be blessed by a deadlocked Iraqi parliament. And even if it could, the U.S. must calculate the benefits of bearing such a financial burden in addition to its investments in Afghanistan and Libya, amidst unfavorable domestic political atmospherics charged by the debt-ceiling crisis and a struggling economy.
Iranian ascendance in Iraq
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that security conditions are deteriorating in Iraq and much of it appears to be the handiwork of Tehran, who has waged an effective proxy-war against the U.S. military for the past 8 years.
June was the bloodiest month in two years for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, with nearly all of the deaths coming at the hands of Iranian-backed Shiite militant groups.
For Iran, Iraq is the entire ballgame – it is foundation of the country’s entire security strategy and lies at the heart of its designs to become the predominant force in the Persian Gulf and spread the Islamic revolution abroad. From the Iranian perspective, at stake in Iraq is no less than who gets to shape the destiny of the heartland of Arabia.
In fact, Iran’s nuclear issue has been a sideshow according to Reva Bhalla of STRATFOR Global Intelligence who recently wrote: “…a nuclear deterrent, if actually achieved, would certainly enhance Iranian security, but the most immediate imperative for Iran is to consolidate its position in Iraq.”
Iraq has become even more critical to the regime in Tehran in light of the possibility Iran’s partner in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, whose ruling Allawite clan has links to Shia Islam, could fall as the result of political unrest.
The extent to which Iran has sunk its tendrils into Iraq’s political machinery and has undermined the country’s self-determination is no less than mind-boggling.
Iraqi lawmakers and politicians have firmly attested to Iran’s tight and far-reaching grip, best illustrated by the influence of the enigmatic head of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani. Many Iraqis claim that Suleimani literally runs their country.
This reality was underlined by Iraq’s former national security minister, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who said: “He [Suleimani] is the most powerful man in Iraq without question. Nothing gets done without him.”
Suleimani’s influence amongst Shiite groups is understandable considering who he receives his orders from. One of Iraq’s deputy prime ministers, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni, was quoted as saying: “His power comes straight from (the country’s lead cleric Ayatollah) Khamenei. It bypasses everyone else, including Ahmadinejad.”
It seems Iran’s strategy in Iraq is to keep the country in a permanent but manageable state of chaos. Iran’s ability to incite unrest with its subversive tactics provides it with a strategic advantage because, unlike the U.S., Iran can cause extensive damage without actually engaging in conventional war.
Stay to check Iran
Proponents of keeping troops in Iraq believe a U.S. military presence is needed in order to deter Iran from supplying IEDs to Shia militants and to mitigate Iran’s long-term influence.
Marisa Cochrane Sullivan in a Wall Street Journal piece characterized Obama’s Iraqi policy as “abdication”. To Sullivan, it’s obvious a U.S. presence is needed considering June had the highest monthly total of combat-related deaths since June 2008, when there were nearly three times as many U.S. troops in Iraq.
She also pointed out that more than half of these deaths were caused by improvised rocket-assisted mortars that contain improvised explosive devices in their warheads, which first surfaced in 2007 and 2008 but were used infrequently and were not constructed or employed well. This has since changed as one U.S. military official told Sullivan: “They’re getting more sophisticated, more lethal, more precise in targeting.” Sullivan also wrote:
It is in U.S. interests to keep a meaningful troop presence in Iraq to continue the training and professionalization of Iraqi forces, to conduct counterterrorism missions alongside Iraqis, to counter malign Iranian influence, to contain ethnic strife in the disputed areas of northern Iraq, and to bolster Iraq’s nascent democracy.
Leave before it gets worse
In turn, opponents of the Iraqi intervention argue that Baghdad acted as a bulwark throughout the 80s against the spread of the Islamic revolution until the 2003 Iraq war opened the door for Tehran.
Micah Zenko in Foreign Affairs points out the false logic of the U.S. keeping soldiers in Iraq to prevent Iranians from providing Iraqi Shias with weapons to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Zenko quoted from the Pentagon’s “Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq” report of last summer to insinuate what will drive Iran’s tactics: “Iran will likely continue providing Shi’a proxy groups in Iraq with funding and lethal aid, calibrating support based on several factors, including Iran’s assessment of U.S. Force posture during redeployment.”
Zenko claims staying in Iraq doesn’t meet U.S. national interests and will certainly not deter Iran, because it hasn’t to date. As Zenko writes:
If the 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now (and the 166,000 U.S. troops deployed there during the 2007 surge) have not been able to shut down the Iranian weapons pipeline, there is no reason to believe that the 10,000 troops the Obama administration would have stay in the country could do so. And even if Iran’s weapons continued to flow into Iraq after 2011, the U.S. military would have few appealing options for addressing the problem along the 900-mile Iran-Iraq border.