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Opinion | Iran after the Iraq Pullout

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

24 Oct 2011 23:39Comments

The ties that bind.

resized-el125396.jpg[ opinion ] The U.S. announcement that virtually all American troops would be out of Iraq by December 31 has led to a wave of recriminations that the United States was abandoning Baghdad to the tender mercies of Tehran. In one respect, the caterwauling is many years too late, since Iran's influence in Iraq has been growing steadily since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which itself installed a panoply of Iraqi exiles who'd spent decades in Iran.

Besides outright Iranian agents, such as the leaders of what used to be called the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), various other Iraqi leaders, too, were beholden to Iran, including the duplicitous Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, and key Iraqi politicians such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, who spent years in Iran. And then there's Iran's Quds Force-backed Iraqi militia, from Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army to the so-called Special Groups, Shiite armed gangs whose shape-shifting presence has been established in Basra, Maysan, Karbala, and Najaf provinces.

That's not to mention Iran's soft power influence, from the hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims who visit each year -- under the direction of Ayatollah Reyshahri, a former minister of intelligence, who oversees the hajj from his post at the Dar al-Hadith in Qom -- to Iran's huge economic investments in Iraq, its supply of electricity to Iraq's starving grid, and more.

Now, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that it's time for Iran to start actively providing military assistance to Iraq. In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the ever-provocative Ahmadinejad was asked whether Iran would be willing to go into Iraq to help its military. He replied: "I think we should -- we should have done it sooner, maybe seven or eight years ago, and they would avoid killing so many Iraqi people or Americans, as well. I think they should have done it much earlier. But the people in the Iraqi government did not accept the increased presence of the Americans. The Iraqi government is independent and sovereign. They should decide how to provide trainings for their military personnel."

At present, although Iraq and Iran have struck a series of strategic agreements in recent years, it's not likely that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps will be ferrying training personnel to Iraqi military bases anytime soon. From Tehran's point of view, that would be inflammatory, and unnecessarily so. From Iraq's point of view, in building up its armed forces it knows it can't rely on Iranian weaponry, which will very likely come from the United States and Europe, along with a retinue of training and maintenance specialists. And Iran isn't too worried about Iraq armed with U.S. weapons systems, as long as the weak Iraqi armed forces can't conceivably emerge as a threat to Iran in the future. By that measure, U.S. efforts to help Maliki build up his army aren't a bad thing, since in so doing the United States will bolster the political standing of the Iran-friendly Maliki against his internal opponents, especially the remnants of the old, Sunni-led Iraqi armed forces and their Saudi-backed allies.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have let forth a steady stream of warnings to Iran not to take advantage of the U.S. departure.

"Iran," said Clinton, "would be badly miscalculating if they did not look at the entire region and all of our presence in many countries in the region, both in bases [and] in training, with NATO allies, like Turkey."

And Panetta, pledging a sustained effort to maintain U.S. military ties to Iraq in 2012, gave reporters a detailed accounting of the American military presence in the Persian Gulf arrayed against Iran. "Well, you know, I guess I'd remind you that when we talk about normal relationships in that part of the world, we have a number of them in the region, and they vary in number," he said "For example, in Bahrain I think, you know, we've got almost 5,000 troops that we have in Bahrain. We've got about ... 3,000 in the UAE and about 7,500 in Qatar." That, plus a formidable U.S. naval presence and Centcom's local headquarters in Qatar. In another talk, Panetta noted that the United States has 23,000 troops in Kuwait, too.

Ahmadinejad, in his CNN interview, coolly took note of the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf, blaming the United States for stoking conflict in the region in order to justify its overweening presence. "They create tensions," said Ahmadinejad. "They create problems among nations because they want to maintain their military bases in the region. ... What are the American bases doing in our region? Even the current year, they made military contract amounting to $90 billion with the countries of the region. If the United States is not going to provoke tension in our region, and if they do not make artificial threats, they would not be able to sell their arms."

Barring an unexpected U.S.-Iranian clash in the Persian Gulf, perhaps following an incident at sea that escalates toward confrontation, the chances of a shooting war between Iran and the United States are extremely low. But there's little doubt that, going forward, as the U.S. role in Iraq is reduced, Iran's will grow. Iraq has already sided with Iran on the civil conflict in Syria, and it's endorsed Iran's right to nuclear enrichment. Because Iran's economy is floundering, some American analysts tell Tehran Bureau that Iraq will be dependent on U.S., Western, and Gulf Cooperation Council loans and investments in order to build up its shattered oil industry and infrastructure. But if Iraq devolves into civil strife, especially along the Arab-Kurdish hot border internally, Iran is well positioned to add security ties to its existing political and economic connections.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, various Republican candidates, neoconservatives, and hawks have begun beating the drums on Iraq, accusing President Obama of having abandoned Baghdad and putting at risk the supposed gains from the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein. Never mind that the 2011 withdrawal date was established in 2008 by President George W. Bush, who acquiesced to an Iraqi fait accompli, and that Obama faced the same trenchant Iraqi refusal to extend the mandate for even a small contingent of American troops.

Over at the American Enterprise Institute, Fred Kagan, one of the key architects of Bush's 2007 surge in Iraq, raged that Obama is engaging in abject retreat. "It makes a mockery ... of the notion that the United States is somehow isolating Iran and increasing pressure on the Islamic Republic mere days after the revelation of an elaborate Iranian plot to conduct attacks on American soil," he wrote. "What sort of sanctions regime can we maintain if Iraq is effectively a free-trade corridor with Iran? How can we argue that Iran is being isolated when its ability to operate terror groups and training areas within Iraq is growing unchecked? How can we claim to be taking a firm line against Iran while giving Tehran the single most important demand it has pursued for years -- the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq?"

Similar denunciations of Obama came from Senators Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and John McCain. "This decision will be viewed as a strategic victory for our enemies in the Middle East, especially the Iranian regime, which has worked relentlessly to ensure a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq," charged McCain. And retired General John Keane, another architect of the surge, joined in. "I think it's an absolute disaster," he said. "We should be staying there to strengthen that democracy, to let them get the kind of political gains they need to get and keep the Iranians away from strangling that country."

Nearly all of the comments, however, missed the central point, namely, that the United States had long since lost its ability to impose its will on Iraq. It was left to Michele Bachmann to express sheer frustration at what she seemed to believe was Baghdad's inexplicable lack of gratitude to the United States for ridding Iraq of its dictator. "We are there [in Iraq] as the nation that liberated these people," said Bachmann. "That's the thanks that the United States is getting after 4,400 lives were expended and over $800 billion? And so on the way out, we're being kicked out of the country?" Exactly so.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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