All American troops are scheduled to depart Iraq within three years. The results for the region could be catastrophic.
The Bush administration and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have agreed on a Status of Forces Agreement that mandates total American withdrawal by January 2012 and the removal of coalition forces from Iraqi cities and towns by the end of June 2009. Factor in President-elect Barack Obama’s stated intention to remove all combat brigades within 16 months, along with the American public’s almost inevitable response to all this — i.e., Why keep spending billions every month to maintain a force we know is coming home anyway? — and the timetable is likely to be even shorter than many anticipate. Indeed, even in the event that the Iraqi parliament rejects the SOFA, the withdrawal would likely only be accelerated due to the absence of a basis for official coordination between the two governments.
So far, the debate over all this in Iraq and the Arab world has been incredibly short-sighted. It has focused on the most sensational but least strategically significant aspects of the issue: questions of legal liability and responsibility for American soldiers’ actions in Iraq, the blame game over who put Iraq under the American yoke in 2003 and who is responsible for having kept it there since then, and complaints that three years is too long to continue to compromise Iraqi sovereignty.
Three years, however, is a mere speck in the broad sweep of Middle East history. What we should be looking at is not what happens in Iraq until the Americans leave but what will transpire afterward.
The American departure is liable to generate frantic maneuvering for power in three interlocking spheres: Iraq’s domestic scene, Iran and its interests, and Iraq’s Arab and Turkish neighbors.
Inside Iraq, the dominant domestic power is almost certain to be the party that can claim credit for having expelled the Western invader. Until that issue is settled, Sunnis will fight Shiites, and Shiites will fight Shiites. With American forces confined to barracks after June, Iran will make sure “its” Shiites — and most of the principal Shiite forces in Iraq are pro-Iranian — win the day. Panicky Saudis, Jordanians and even Syrians may try to intervene politically, financially and perhaps militarily. Ensuing events could encourage the American public to demand an even faster pullout, and President Obama is unlikely to argue that the collapse or corruption of Iraq’s fragile democracy is still America’s business.
In this regard, any attempt by the departing Americans to blunt Iran’s drive for hegemony in all or most of Iraq is not likely to be played out on the streets of Baghdad and Basra. Rather, it will of necessity become an agenda item in Obama’s initiative to open a dialogue with Tehran. In the ensuing give and take, Washington will be hard put to demand that Iran — whose acceptance of enhanced American efforts in Afghanistan will be critical — give up both its nuclear weapons ambitions and its designs on Iraq. Yet this is what Israel and Washington’s moderate Sunni allies will want.
Here it behooves us to recall that the Bush administration’s biggest mistake in invading and occupying Iraq was ignoring Saddam Hussein’s single saving grace in the eyes of his Sunni Arab neighbors: Saddam kept Islamic revolutionary Iran out of the Arab Middle East. Now that Saddam is gone, and once America leaves, there will be few if any physical barriers to an attempt by Iran to radically expand its sphere of influence.
Thus we are likely to see, in the course of 2009, the effective merging of Washington’s plans for Iraq and for Iran. The withdrawal from Baghdad cannot be detached from the dialogue with Tehran. The specter of Iran extending its active influence all the way to Iraq’s borders with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria is in many ways as frightening to the region as an Iranian nuclear weapon. The Jordan-Iraq border, lest we forget, is only about 300 miles from Israel.
To be sure, there are numerous potential mitigating circumstances. The Kurds of northern Iraq are offering America long-term basing arrangements that would keep U.S. forces in the region and preserve Kurdish semi-independence (though this is hardly compatible with the SOFA). The governments of neighboring Sunni Arab states have, however reluctantly, begun restoring relations with Maliki’s Shiite government in Baghdad. Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds meanwhile are exploring better bilateral relations. New developments such as these could conceivably create a counterweight to Iran.
Then, too, Obama intends to be tough with Iran, possibly tightening sanctions, even as he proposes dialogue. And an American-brokered Israeli-Syrian peace could strike a strategic blow at Iran and its allies on Israel’s borders, Hezbollah and Hamas, and render an Iraq transition more peaceful.
These are intriguing possibilities. They can be advanced through creative diplomacy. But this can only happen if the Obama team adopts as its point of departure for dealing with Iraq withdrawal a clear recognition of the resulting dangers to the entire region — and a clear resolve to prevent or at least mitigate them.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications.