Iraq, Iran and the United States: Problems and Prospects
Iraq, Iran and the United States: Problems and Prospects
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 8 minutes

Iraq, Iran and the United States: Problems and Prospects

A major political initiative is required to build the long-term foundations for stability in Iraq. But with the potential for violent confrontation ever-present, and the three countries involved facing elections in 2008-09, this outcome is far from certain. Joost Hiltermann reports.

The restoration of a semblance of normalcy in key parts of Iraq, the Nouri al-Maliki government's new assertiveness and a growing clamour for a timetable for the withdrawal of United States troops all demand a reassessment of the US's military "surge" policy and a fresh look at Iraq's future. The questions are interlinked and pressing:

  • did the surge succeed?
  • has the al-Maliki government really been successful in restoring law and order?
  • are political conflicts on the way to resolution, via legislation and provincial elections?
  • what would happen if US forces began to withdraw after January 2009?

The cautious conclusion must be that while significant progress has been made on the security front, it has not been matched by progress on the political front. Without political accommodation at the top, the gains wrought by the surge are likely to prove unsustainable. To understand this requires in turn a closer and more nuanced look at Iraq's current security situation and political dynamics.

The Iraqi inheritance

The basic challenge Iraq faced after April 2003 was how to fill the political, security and managerial vacuums which the US's had created when it removed the regime, disbanded the army and other security forces, and decapitated the bureaucracy through blanket de-Ba'athification. The seed and fruit of these policies - reality-blinding triumphalism, misdirected policies, endemic administrative dysfunction and crippling corruption - conspired to thwart the aim of the US and the successive Iraqi governments it helped instal in the effort to stabilise the country. Iraq spun out of control. Deep-seated ethnic and sectarian differences were allowed to come to the fore and set the tone of the political debate, prompting a descent into violence and chaos.

The military surge begun in early 2007 was designed to fight the symptoms (that is, to dampen the sectarian war) and, if successful on the military front, generate a new opportunity to tackle the original challenge of recreating the Iraqi state. Thanks in large part to unanticipated salutary developments triggered by the US's re-commitment to Iraq - evident from the insertion of extra troops at a time when the US public was calling for withdrawal - the surge made a significant difference.

The most violent actors, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army (MA), were either pushed back or forced to change their posture. Sunni Arab "awakening" councils - which had cautiously emerged a few months before the surge but found critical protection only once it got underway - succeeded in driving AQI out of Anbar and Baghdad. AQI remains active in Diyala but is on the defensive; and, having learned its lesson, it melted away in Ninewa ahead of a combined US-Iraqi government assault earlier in 2008. Its fighters are biding their time; they may join legitimate structures if these open up to them or rejoin the insurgency if and when Arab leaders determine they have failed in their bid to reinvest in state structures.

The Mahdi army has gone to ground as well. The al-Sadr movement, unlike AQI, has popular support (among Shi'a); its main rival is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The MA has no interest in a military confrontation with combined US/Iraqi forces that would decimate its ranks and thus could only serve ISCI's interests. It knows the Americans will leave eventually, and al-Sadr expects at that point to have the strongest force: capable of prevailing over ISCI, practiced in guerrilla tactics, experienced in popular action, and ensconced in the security apparatus. Muqtada al-Sadr's political cleverness can be seen in the way he kept in place a unilateral ceasefire in the face of ISCI-inspired provocations, and facilitated government forces' entry into neighbourhoods the MA controlled by allowing them to take over his movement's offices in Basra, Baghdad and Amara.

The Nouri al-Maliki government has been the main short-term beneficiary of al-Sadr's clear-eyed strategy not to elicit violent confrontation but wait out the storm. The citizenry of once-turbulent districts could breathe a sigh of relief; al-Maliki was able to project himself as a non-sectarian leader (even though his Dawa party is intrinsically sectarian); and he convinced the US that at present there is no viable alternative to his government.

The three-way options

The drop in violence is significant; but the current relative security is both fragile and (even more important) not sustainable unless it is buttressed by a set of basic accords that cut across the ethnic, sectarian and political divide. In approaching such a project, however, fundamental questions remain unresolved:

  • how much power should regions have vis-à-vis the federal government?
  • should new regions be allowed; if so, how and how many?
  • who has the right to manage the country's oilfields? How will revenues be shared?

If agreement is found on these issues, it would lay the basis for rebuilding a non-sectarian state apparatus and its security forces.

The current immobility derives from a number of factors:

  • the conflict over Kirkuk, which has contaminated other main issues (such as the debate over the oil law and the constitutional review)
  • a lack of trust between the principal stakeholders, who could only find accommodation if pushed to do so by outside actors
  • the weakness of the George W Bush administration, which cannot muster any bold initiatives at this late stage
  • the spoiler role Iran plays as long as it feels under military threat from Israel and the US over its nuclear activities. Iran has serious strategic interests in Iraq - that it be friendly but weak, without weapons of mass destruction, and relatively coherent. The bottom line is that there will not be substantive progress in Iraq without Iran's green light and active participation.

In this uncertainty, politics is deadlocked while the actors themselves are in flux. Between now and the end of 2009, elections in the United States, Iran and Iraq promise to bring changes, possibly with dramatic impact:

  • a new US president might reach out to Iran and offer to engage in meaningful negotiations on a range of concerns
  • a new Iranian president might reciprocate, and this alone could lead to a lessening of tensions throughout the middle east
  • the provincial elections in Iraq could spawn a new generation of local leaders less beholden to the unpopular former exiles who have ruled Baghdad since 2003, untarnished by the record of corruption and overall poor governance of the Nouri al-Maliki government and its provincial representatives, more in touch with the needs of their constituents, more nationalist and thus protective of the country's unity, and potentially therefore enjoying a great deal more legitimacy than the current local leadership. There could be further effects: some local leaders could start graduating to national office via parliamentary elections that should take place before the end of 2009.

Such developments would lead to further progress inside Iraq, and in the region.

True, the reverse of these three developments could happen instead:

  • a new US president could continue the George W Bush administration's hawkish approach toward Iran
  • the Iranian leadership would respond in kind, or serious negotiations between the two sides could falter over unbridgeable differences
  • Iraq's ruling parties could perpetuate their power at the local level by rigging elections or pushing out their competitors.

Such developments would be fatal for stability, in both Iraq and the region.

An American choice

Amid these imponderables, the fundamental questions in 2009 will be:

  • whether and how fast a new US president will withdraw American forces from Iraq
  • whether this will occur in the context of a new US-Iran understanding or unremitting rivalry
  • what the impact of this change will be on Iraq and the region.

The first possible option, an indefinite deployment of US troops in Iraq, would be opposed by Iraqi nationalism, a potent force that has been underestimated repeatedly (and at great cost to the liberators/occupiers). While the ruling parties need US troops for protection and training, a majority of the Iraqi people would rather see them go. This popular feeling means that Iraqi government leaders cannot afford not to sound nationalistic; hence al-Maliki's call for a timetable as part of a status-of-forces agreement with the US.

The second possible option is a major drawdown of US troops, occurring in the absence of key political deals and without viable Iraqi security forces supported by a unified state structure ready to replace them. This could trigger a return to violent conflict between a number of actors; encourage centrifugal forces; and, in the worst-case scenario, drive the country to chaos and break-up. Large swathes of Iraq would fall under foreign influence: in Baghdad and the south (Iran), in the Kurdistan region (Turkey), in the Sunni Arab areas on Iraq's various borders (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria).

There is unlikely to be a neat division between these spheres, however, nor settled boundaries; instead the prospect will be one of endemic conflict that could suck in local actors' external sponsors and bring them into direct confrontation. In such a scenario, the US would keep sufficient forces on hand (special forces and air support) to intervene in conflicts when needed and protect its strategic interests through a divide-and-rule approach. The situation would be highly unstable, with the potential for regional war.

The third possible option is a gradual drawdown of US forces, with clear benchmarks and some kind of defined time-horizon. This outcome would far the most preferable. It would require above all a new US initiative to bring rival groups together and, with an appropriate package of incentives and sanctions, induce them to make compromises on power, resources and territory in order to forge a new national compact.

In its reporting, the International Crisis Group has suggested what an overall compromise might look like. It would have to involve some concessions by the Kurds on territory they claim, especially Kirkuk, in exchange for the right to manage oil resources in the Kurdish region; there would have to be agreement also on an asymmetric federal structure that recognises the Kurdistan region but decentralises power in the rest of Iraq along governorate boundaries. These deals would need to be reflected in the constitution, currently under review.

It is highly unlikely, however, that Iraqi groups would agree to such compromises, or even negotiate them in an official forum; it is significant here that current discussions have excluded some key stakeholders, such as leaders of the "awakening" councils and the so-called Sons of Iraq amalgam of groups, who are predominantly Sunni Arabs. This heightened approach would require a increased role for such recognised multilateral actors as the United Nations; and equally important, some basic consensus of, coordination with, and active input from all of Iraq's neighbours. This latter requirement cannot be fulfilled as long as US-Iranian hostility endures.

The conclusion is also a dilemma. If accommodation between Iran and the United States that is sufficient to reach an understanding of shared interests in Iraq proves impossible, should the US nonetheless withdraw its forces from Iraq - knowing that in doing so it will bequeath to Iraq and the region a legacy of chaos? In turn, this will force the question whether for the US the harm from having an over-stressed and over-extended military and a reputation at an all-time low internationally exceeds any damage to its strategic interests in the Persian Gulf.

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