The U.S: Out of Iraq and Into Iran? Pinhas Inbari

14 November 2011
Last week the International Atomic Energy Agency‏ (IAEA) published a report that exposed the atomic 'smoking gun' hidden deep inside the Iranian nuclear installations. This report, however, is not the only recent game changer in the ever changing fabric of the Middle East. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is another gigantic development, which, combined with the Iranian challenge, will dominate Middle Eastern politics in the near future.

US withdrawal from Iraq by the end of December fulfills the basic electoral commitments president Obama made during his presidential campaign in 2008. How closely is the American withdrawal from Iraq linked to the Iranian nuclear crisis, if at all, and is it a precursor to future military options in Iran? It is widely believed that by distancing American troops out reach of a retaliatory strike, the United States is advancing a military option.

President Obama’s timing in announcing the withdrawal suggests that it has little to do with Iran and more to do with American outreach to Islam. It is worth remembering that the announcement was given on the same day that former Libyan despot, Muammar Gaddafi, was butchered on the streets of Sirte, paving the way for the advent of Islam in the troubled country. One can make the linkage between the two and come to the conclusion that the American president sent a message to nascent Muslim Brotherhood regimes stating that a major obstacle has been removed from establishing a new foundation for East-West relations, clear of any Western occupation of Muslim lands. It is also the governing logic behind the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Accordingly, an offensive against Iran, another Muslim land, would be out of the question.

However, the withdrawal from Iraq may unleash developments that could compel Washington to re-consider its reluctance to employ offensive measures to contain Iran, whether crippling sanctions or aggressive military steps.

The balance between Iran and its Sunni neighbors will be violated with the disappearance of the equalizing force of the American army stationed in Iraq. Middle Eastern nations are already aware of this eventuality and fear its consequences. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, King Abdullah II of Jordan expressed disappointment with Obama's regional policy and hinted that the countries in the region will make their decisions independently of the United States.

While Abdullah's statement may come as a surprise, a similar statement by Iran is no surpre at all. A prominent Shiite scholar, Ahmad Khatami, said in the holiday sermon in Tehran that the United States was a 'paper tiger' past its prime and that Muslim Iran equalled it in power. It is clear that both Sunnis and Shiites share this perception of American weakness.

The United States may be forced to reconsider its Middle East policy not only to maintain the balance between Sunna and Shia, but also due to dramatic developments in Kurdistan, which may pull the US into the Iraq-Iran-Syria-Turkey configuration following the withdrawal from Iraq. Kurdish leadership in Iraq currently controls an autonomous region. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and his opponent Masud Barzani are very careful not to provoke its powerful neighbors, Turkey, Syria and Iran, knowing the three powers are largely interested in putting an end to Kurdish autonomy, which threatens their fragile governments.

The Arab upheaval changed the balance in Kurdistan, as the mood of "change" has infected young Kurds’ nascent leadership. They may become more radical in their demands for Kurdish freedom in Syria, Turkey and Iran. Despite the rivalries between the three powers, the Kurdish community considers them to be co-conspirators as far as their freedom and self-determination. For example, Turkey has betrayed splinters from the Syrian army of Kurdish origin, fearing they may share the rule in future Syria and inspire Kurds in Turkey proper to seek political power. How will the American administration react, should the three powers unite in their policy toward the Kurds? Will Obama's administration betray the Kurds in the middle of an electoral campaign?

In addition, American regional considerations may be affected by developments in southern Iraq – the home of the Shia, who pose a problem for Iran. With the exception of the Sadri militia, Iraqi Shia do not accept Qom’s supremacy over Najaf and Karbala or the Iranian principle of 'Wilayat al-Faqih' – the rule of Iranian scholars as manifested in Khamenei’s leadership. While the Sadris represent Iranian interests and the predominance of the rule of the Faqih, much like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Sistani School preserves Arab dignity and choices, while rejecting Khanenai's superiority.

Oddly, American presence helped balance the equilibrium between the various religious streams. However, it is possible that circumstances will push Arab Shia and Sunna to unite and ask America for help. Thus, American military withdrawal from Iraq is far from signaling its political disengagement from the region, leaving the option of Iranian containment wide open, either through sanctions or a new military campaign.

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