On the eve of the U.S. withdrawal, it may be difficult to see the extent to which Iran’s policy in Iraq is in shambles. Since the displacement of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tehran has pursued two contradictory policies. On the one hand, the clerical state seeks cordial relations with the Iraqi government and has provided aid and commerce as a means of solidifying bilateral relations. Yet Iran has also been arming and nurturing Shiite militias that plot against authorities in Baghdad. Such a paradoxical approach seemed sustainable during the civil war, as Iraq’s hard-pressed Shiites looked to Iran for assistance and thus countenanced its interventions in their country. The end of Iraq’s war, however, has left Iran without a coherent policy. Tehran’s inability or unwillingness to resolve the fundamental contradictions in its approach have done much to alienate the Iraqi government and a populace eager to put the burdens of conflict behind it. Whereas Washington was ill-prepared to deal with the start of Iraq’s civil war, Iran seems unable to deal with its aftermath.
Whether the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is wise is an issue worthy of debate. But the imperative at hand is to ensure Iraq’s continued stability and prevent Iranian mischief in light of America’s departure. The key to this lies as much in diplomacy as in military deployments.
Today, the essential estrangement of Iraqi Shiites from the larger Arab world, and the neighboring Sunni regimes’ unease with their empowerment, makes them vulnerable to Iranian machination. A more forceful U.S. diplomacy, pressing allies to integrate Iraq into the Arab state system, would offer Baghdad additional economic partners and regional interlocutors as well as a means of reestablishing itself as a pivotal state of the Arab world. As the Middle East struggles with transitions that often pit identities against interests, Iraq can offer some useful lessons. Indeed, such a development would not only aid Iraq’s rehabilitation and assist the region political evolution but would further isolate Iran in its immediate environment.
Others, including most notably Charles Krauthammer, see this very differently. They see the American withdrawal as either proof of American defeat or a prelude to it. As I wrote before, if the Iraqis need or want more American troops, more can be arranged. It may be politically difficult in the US, but so will watching Iraq unravel and Iran blatantly and visibly exert its influence during the process. I’m not so sure that the withdrawal of American troops will lead to Iraq’s downfall. The Iraqi government, security forces, and people will have more work to do, but that is inevitable. Let’s hope it’s not too soon for them to take those responsibilities. Douglas Ollivant makes the persuasive case that the withdrawal is both necessary and worthwhile. It is well worth the read.