Over at the Foreign Policy Association, I’ve written a brief review of a memo published by the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “Renewed Violence in Iraq.” Authored by Douglas Ollivant of the New America Foundation, the report offers practical recommendations as to how the U.S. can help the Iraqi government cope with a number of relevant security contingencies.
“To what end..?” you may be asking yourself. These days, if we speak of the war in Iraq, we do so in brief, terse terms reserved for an ultimately unpopular war. A war best remembered for false start declarations of missions accomplished and the slow bleed of American blood and treasure. Not a popular subject…but one that demands our attention.
Ollivant summates the security implications, expertly:
"Iraq is also not only an influencer but a participant in the "Arab-Persian" axis. It is primarily an Arab country like much of the Middle East, but it has a Shia majority like Iran that exercises political control. Similarly, Iraq is a frontline state in the conflict between moderate Islam and al-Qaeda, a battle for ideas that will continue to be of major import in the fight against terrorism. Iraq has a significant minority Kurdish population, a distinction it shares with the otherwise dissimilar Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian regimes. With the world's fifth-largest oil reserves, Iraq's output can stabilize or roil markets, directly affecting the U.S. economy. As Iraq moves back into the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quota system, how it aligns within the organization—whether with the stability-oriented bloc of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States or with the more ideological bloc led by Iran and Venezuela—will have clear implications for U.S. energy policy."
As I wrote for FPA, that list provides an effective aggregate of America’s enduring interest in the future of Iraqi governance and energy output.
Having detailed all the internecine and intra-national spats that have plagued the country since the 2003 invasion (plus newly emergent ‘Shi’a vs. Shi’a’ frictions), Ollivant pleads stubbornly optimistic that the state has potential as an “emerging regional power.” In theory, he’s correct.
As I wrote for the Foreign Policy Association, Iraqi oil production now outpaces Iran, while the parliamentary democracy (although fragile) and “quietest Shi’a tradition” (as embodied by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s opposition to Khomenei’s vision of Islamic guardianship) remain obstacles to the brittle legitimacy and power of Iran’s titular theocracy.
Of course, Iraqi opposition to Iranian influence is a matter of profound intricacy, hinging on matters of religious, social and political identity. Although it’s a matter many would like to forget, U.S. policymakers would alienate Iraq at our peril…as Ollivant suggests, delicate American assistance, regional, bilateral partnerships (e.g., with Ankara) and electoral stability could still prove an effective counterbalance Iran’s regional sway.