The major aim of the battles in the region during the years which followed the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime has been Iraq, the strategic country located in the middle of the paths where Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey regionally intersect. Iraq is also a global oil reservoir, similar to Saudi Arabia.
Washington was concerned the most about Iraq from the point of view of expanding its influence following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein hastened this process. Months before invading Kuwait he had said that end of the Soviet empire had left a vacuum in the region and one of the regional powers must fill it.
Saddam’s analysis was right but he was wrong at calculating who the competent party to carry out this role is and what are the limits of this activity. Accordingly, he invaded Kuwait and this act reflected his simple understanding of international relations and major interests in the region.
Kuwait is an important country that has 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves and the world would not leave it under Saddam’s rule and allow him to threaten Saudi Arabia’s security from it. He was therefore defeated and besieged for 12 years. Changing the regime in Baghdad became a goal regardless of the excuses made.
The Americans succeeded at changing the regime but failed to manage Iraq and its crises. Then, the Barack Obama administration came to power and adopted a different vision: cooperate with the enemy, i.e. Iran, in Iraq and the region in general to solidify American interests and achieve stability. Now Obama administration realizes that Iran used the nuclear agreement and American leniency to expand and threaten the region’s security as well as American interests.
Iraq will probably be the test of Trump administration’s seriousness when it comes to dealing with IranAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Complicated situation in Iraq
This short review is necessary to understand the complicated Iraqi situation. The struggle in Syria is in fact based on struggles in Iraq and on attempts to dominate it. The region – the Gulf countries and Turkey – are aware of these attempts and have tried to prevent Iran from expanding but they have so far failed. The war is ongoing in Syria while the struggle in Iraq is still on.
Russians tried to infiltrate Iraq through oil and military deals but this won’t last long considering the US views Iraq as a country that is important for its interests in the region and is much more important than Syria. It’s probable that Iraq will be the focus of US upcoming political, economic and perhaps military battle.
The Republican Party’s victory in US presidential elections and control of the majority of the two chambers of the Congress is likely to bring attention back to Iraq on many issues, such as confronting Iranian influence over the governance of Baghdad.
This has increased as a result of the US withdrawal during Obama’s term. Governance has deteriorated due to ethnic and sectarian struggles and addressing of regional relations linked to Iraq as a result of its strategic location which I highlighted at the beginning of this article.
All this harms American interests in particular and western interests in general particularly on the level of enhancing regional security, fighting terrorism and confronting Kremlin’s ambitions in vital areas across the world.
Worsening military disputes?
Will the expected American concern in Iraq increase tensions and perhaps even worsen military disputes? It may, unless Iran accepts the fact that it will not be allowed to expand and dominate Iraq and the Gulf and unless the administration of the newly-elected US president shows its intentions to confront Iran.
Among Donald Trump’s new commanders are men who believe that Tehran’s regime has been the source of crises and wars in the region, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan and of course the Gulf, since the early 1980’s and that it is more dangerous than North Korea’s regime. Iraq will probably be the test of Trump administration’s seriousness when it comes to dealing with Iran.
This does not mean the American administration will have to directly intervene on the military level. There are many parties that oppose Iran in Iraq and they include Shiite powers or parties that are allied with Washington, such as the Kurds. It’s possible to resist Iranian interferences by working through the political system which the Americans built in the wake of the invasion and without having to establish opposing armed groups.
What about the division which has been reported recently? I don’t think it is a proposed option as despite its crises, Iraq is still intact and it has not slipped into the abyss of civil war. Countries in the region, including Iran, Turkey and the Gulf, may politically disagree over Iraq but they all agree on its geographic unity and understand that dividing a huge country is a dangerous move.
Regional and international powers will have to compete by working through the political system in Baghdad and decreasing Iran’s domination over it.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on December 20, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.