US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition in Iraq
September 27, 2011
US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades. It is clear that it is also a game that is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.
The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled US and Iranian Competition: Competition in Iraq, which is now available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/110927_Iran_Chapter_6_Iraq.pdf.
Comments on this draft will be extremely helpful and should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Iraq has become a key focus of the strategic competition between the United States and Iran. The history of this competition has been shaped by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the 1991 Gulf War. Since the 2003 Iraq War, both the US and Iran have competed to shape the structure of Post-Saddam Iraq’s politics, governance, economics, and security.
The US has gone to great lengths to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, including using its status as an occupying power and Iraq’s main source of aid, as well as through information operations and more traditional press statements highlighting Iranian meddling.
However, containing Iranian influence, while important, is not America’s main goal in Iraq. It is rather to create a stable democratic Iraq that can defeat the remaining extremist and insurgent elements, defend against foreign threats, sustain an able civil society, and emerge as a stable power friendly to the US.
Iran has its own goals in Iraq: at maximum to dominate the Iraqi state and make it an ally, and at a minimum to ensure that Iraq does not serve as a base for the US, serve US interests, or reemerge as a threat to Iran. Iran shares a long and porous border with Iraq, and seeks to create a stable and malleable ally, not a peer competitor. It seeks to rid the country of American influence – particularly of American military personnel – to the greatest extent possible. Iran has aggressively used its networks, patronage, economic ties, religious ties, aid money, and military support to various factions in Iraq to achieve these goals.
Iran, however, has overplayed its hand at times and created an anti-Iranian popular backlash. Resentment over Iran’s political and economic influence, as well as Iranian incursions into Iraqi territory, fuel deeply seeded Iraqi mistrust of Iran. Politically, Iraq’s Shi’ites are far from united and in the most recent elections lost seats to Iraqiya, which loudly attacked Iranian influence. The ISCI, Iran’s closest ally, badly lost ground, though the Sadrist continue to be critical to the Maliki coalition.
The competition between the US and Iran has reached a critical stage as the US prepares to withdraw its military forces and drastically scale down its aid program. The advancement of Iranian ambitions following the US withdrawal depends on how successful US efforts are in building an enduring strategic partnership with Iraq. Much will depend on the level of continued US diplomatic, advisory, military, and police training presence in Iraq, and on Iran’s ability to exploit the diminished US presence.
The State Department assumes full responsibility of the US mission in Iraq in October 2011, and will broaden diplomatic, advisory, training, and other development goals characterized under the Strategic Framework Agreement. The $6.8 billion operation will be of unprecedented scope for State and will be tested by budgetary restraints, security concerns, the withdrawal of US troops, and the inconsistent political will on both sides.
A continued US troop presence past the December 2011 deadline could potentially ease the burden on State and allow it to assume a more traditional role; however, a small number of troops would likely only be able to focus on limited training objectives. Private security contractors will make up a majority of the 16,000 personnel under State’s mission and their presence is particularly sensitive to Iraqis. Their current lack of oversight could also limit the scope of State’s mission and the nascent Iraqi forces will bear the huge burden of internal security.
Continuing the US troop presence might fuel violent retaliations against the US and the government of Iraq. It might, however, limit the mission of security contractors, provide critical assistance to Iraqi security force training, address counterinsurgency needs and internal tensions, and grant Iraq the time needed to address barriers to oil sector growth and economic diversification. However, a renegotiation of the Security Agreement that leaves US troop levels low will subsequently limit their capabilities.
Ultimately, the US will depend on State Department-led political, economic, and military efforts to bolster Iraq’s capacities and to counter Iranian influence. Many of the broader economic and political incentives are as important as military and police training. Enforcing measures that stem corruption and enforce rule-of-law give the Iraqi government legitimacy while building the foundation for security. Necessary reforms will likely depend on US support and do not necessary reflect Iranian interests.
Iran now enjoys deep ties in a neighboring country with which it once fought a fierce and bloody eight-year war. Iran has a great deal of cultural, military, and economic resources available to influence Iraq. Iran will leverage its resources to ensure Iraq prevails as a malleable ally. Yet Iran’s role in Iraq is complex, and it will be no simple task to mold Iraq into the ally Iran wishes it to be.
The US and Iran will continue to compete for influence, especially in aid, political development, military sales, and security training, and if the US does not compete consistently and adeptly, Iraq’s insecurity and close ties to Iran might advance key Iranian interests.
Other Burke Chair Reports on Iran and Gulf Security can be found here:
Additional Reports on U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition:
U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition Involving the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States
September 22, 2011
Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan
September 12, 2011
U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition - Competition Involving China and Russia
August 11, 2011
Iran’s Accelerating Military Competition with the US and Arab States – Part One Conventional, Asymmetric, and Missile Capabilities
August 1, 2011
U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Iran’s Perceptions of its Internal Developments
May 17, 2011
U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition – Iranian Views of How Iran’s Asymmetric Warfare Developments Affect Competition with the US and the Gulf, Sept. 2010 – Feb. 2011
Mar 29, 2011