U.S. Iraq Withdrawal a Gift to Iran? No, the U.S. Iraq Invasion Was the Gift to Iran

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, October 13, 2011. (Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images)

Outlandish posturing on foreign policy matters is par for the course in a U.S. electoral season, but the claim that President Barack Obama will deliver Iraq on a plate to Iran by honoring the U.S. treaty obligation to withdraw American troops by New Year’s Day is worth closer scrutiny. It might be said that Obama’s critics, many of whom championed the Iraq invasion, doth protest too much (more on that in minute) but even his own Administration seems to buy into the logic:  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday warned Tehran in her most menacing megaphone tones not to underestimate U.S. military commitment to Iraq by seeking to expand its influence there in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal.

Clinton’s comments were greeted with a sarcastic smile by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — and not without reason. He assured CNN that Tehran’s relations with Baghdad would not change as a result of the U.S. withdrawal, precisely because Iran has “a very good relationship” with Iran’s government and parliament. Indeed, Iran has far more influence in Baghdad’s decision-making than the U.S. does — and it built and maintained that influence despite the presence of 170,000 U.S. troops at the peak of the mission. While Tehran has funded and armed  Shi’ite militias that have fought the U.S. and waged sectarian war on Sunni communities, Tehran’s primary influence remains its relationships with a variety of Shi’ite (and also Kurdish) politicians of Iraq’s elected government. By using that influence to help bring an end to the U.S. troop presence on its Western flank, Iran is closing out a decade of remarkable strategic advances — made with considerable, if inadvertent, help from Washington.

From the moment the U.S. first backed down in 2004 to the demand by Iraqi Shi’ites for democratic elections, Iraqis began to shape their own destiny. From the first election in 2005 onward, governments in Baghdad have been (and still are) led by Iran-friendly Shi’ite Islamist parties. The Maliki government is independent and nationalist inclined, of course, and has no interest in being a cat’s paw for Iran. But it is even less inclined to align itself with Washington’s regional agenda, least of all on its efforts to isolate Iran. And while maintaining its independence requires good relations with both, it has often been more responsive to Iran’s needs than to Washington’s.

Iran began the last decade squeezed on its Western flank by its most reviled and menacing enemy — Saddam Hussein — and on its eastern flank by the lesser, but nonetheless dangerous foe of the Taliban. The Bush Administration did Iran an epic favor by eliminating both within the space of two years (which, of course, is why Iran welcomed the U.S. invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan).  Saddam had, with Saudi and U.S. backing, waged a brutal eight-year war against Iran aimed at throttling the Islamic Revolution in its cradle, and making use of chemical weapons in order to do so. The Taliban, spurred by a vicious sectarian hatred of Shi’ites, had murdered Iranian diplomats in 1997, almost triggering a war. Bringing down the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had been Iranian objectives long before the Bush Administration adopted them. And Tehran prospered, geopolitically, in the years that followed, even as the U.S. ability to influence events in the Middle East began to decline.

Saddam’s demise also brought an end to centuries  of Sunni Arab minority rule in Baghdad. Iran had long cultivated exiled Shi’ite groups such as the Islamic Supreme Council and the Dawa Party (of which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been a leader) and it blessed their participation in the Iraqi Governing Council set up by the U.S. occupation authority.

Initially, the U.S. has assumed that a post-Saddam Iraq would be a grateful satrapy happy to provide a base for the projection of American power throughout the region.  “Look back on the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century,” said General Jay Garner, the first American viceroy in Baghdad, setting out his vision of future U.S.-Iraqi relations. “They were a coaling station for the Navy, and that allowed us to keep a great presence in the Pacific. That’s what Iraq is for the next few decades: our coaling station that gives us great presence in the Middle East.”

Garner lasted all of three weeks in charge of Iraq’s reconstruction, before he was replaced by L. Paul Bremer, the counterterrorism expert best remembered for his catastrophic decision to disband the Iraqi military. Bremer’s had envisaged a three-year transition to democracy, during which time Iraq would be ruled by a government of Iraqis chosen in regional “caucuses” controlled by the U.S.

But Bremer’s transition plan, like Garner’s “coal station” fantasy and the strategic delusions of the Administration that sent both men to Iraq, failed to reckon with the Iraqi people, who had no intention of allowing their country to become a launching pad for U.S. projection of power in the Middle East, and weren’t about to accept Washington’s right to choose their government. Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani, the most prominent spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority — who refused to ever meet with U.S. officials lest he be deemed to be legitimizing the occupation, although his rejection of the principle of clerical rule also made him a longtime rival to Iran’s ruling clerics  — forced Washington’s hand. Sistani insisted that Iraqis be allowed to elect their own government, and brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets to back that demand, forcing even the U.S.-picked Governing Council to back away from Bremer’s plan.

The rest, as they say, is history. Even with tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq, Iran remained the key outside influence over Baghdad’s politics. After 2008, when President Bush signed the agreement that requires U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of this year, Washington’s lack of leverage in Baghdad became increasingly obvious.

The U.S. will likely maintain a presence through thousands of security contractors engaged by the State Department and as trainers on weapons systems purchased by the Iraqis. It is also likely to maintain a substantial covert presence, perhaps with a nod and wink from Maliki, to help his forces tackle their enemies — although they could become locked in an increasingly bitter battle with Iranian allies in the Iraqi military and among Shi’ite militias.

The situation in Iraq remains perilous on a number of fronts, with scope for an escalation in proxy warfare between Iran and Saudi Arabia translating into a revival of the sectarian civil war, tensions within the Iraqi military between veteran officers of Saddam’s mliitary and political appointees from the Shi’ite militias, Kurdish-Arab tensions in the north and more. But from Iran’s strategic perspective, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has worked out rather nicely thus far. It’s friends and allies are in power in Baghdad; its staunch enemies among Iraqis are in opposition. The prime security threat to Iran from Iraq would be the presence of U.S. forces. But they’re leaving, thanks in no small part to the opposition of Iran-allied Shi’ite political parties.

So why would Iran want to go and jeopardize those gains? It makes little sense for Iran to start a new war in Iraq when they’re arguably winning the peace.