U.S. fears Iranian influence in Iraq

In Iraq, the United States is pursuing measures aimed at keeping troops in the country past the deadline of the end of this year.

With much of the region roiling with political instability and revolution, and a confident Iran on the rise, Washington sees staying in Iraq longer as a means of maintaining some influence in the regional situation.

Stratfor reported April 26,

The American concern, of course, has to do with Iran. The United States has been unable to block Iranian influence in Iraq’s post-Baathist government. Indeed, the degree to which the Iraqi government is a coherent entity is questionable, and its military and security forces have limited logistical and planning ability and are not capable of territorial defense. The issue is not the intent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who himself is enigmatic. The problem is that the coalition that governs Iraq is fragmented and still not yet finalized, dominated by Iranian proxies such Muqtada al-Sadr—and it only intermittently controls the operations of the ministries under it, or the military and security forces.As such, Iraq is vulnerable to the influence of any substantial power, and the most important substantial power following the withdrawal of the United States will be Iran. There has been much discussion of the historic tension between Iraqi Shia and Iranian Shia, all of which is true. But Iran has been systematically building its influence in Iraq among all factions using money, blackmail and ideology delivered by a sophisticated intelligence service. More important, as the United States withdraws, Iraqis, regardless of their feelings toward Iran (those Iraqis who haven’t always felt this way), are clearly sensing that resisting Iran is dangerous and accommodation with Iran is the only solution. They see Iran as the rising power in the region, and that perception is neither unreasonable nor something to which the United States or Saudi Arabia has an easy counter.

Hence the U.S. telling the Iraqi government last week that if it wanted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after the December 31 deadline that had been agreed between the two countries, it must make its request known soon. Iraq’s response? “While some quietly want the United States to remain, the general response has ranged from dismissal to threats if the United States did not leave,” reported Stratfor.

Given that the United States has reportedly offered to leave as many as 20,000 troops in a country that 170,000 American troops could not impose order on, the Iraqi perception is that this is merely a symbolic presence and that endorsing it would get Iraq into trouble with Iran, which has far more than 20,000 troops and ever-present intelligence services. It is not clear that the Iraqis were ever prepared to allow U.S. troops to remain, but 20,000 is enough to enrage Iran and not enough to deal with the consequences.

In another attempt toward the same end, Iraqi media is reporting that the U.S. is seeking to broker a deal between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite State of Law coalition and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya List to form a new unity government—a realignment that would, Washington hopes, enable an amendment of the agreement demanding that all U.S. troops leave Iraq at the end of the year.

It seems U.S. policymakers are beginning to understand what was clear all along: If U.S. troops leave Iraq, Iran will take over. As columnist Joel Hilliker wrote in February 2007, “In immediate terms, the day America pulls out is the day it places a crown on Iran’s head: king of the Persian Gulf.”