Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:15 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:15 | SYDNEY

Between Iraq and a hard place


Raoul Heinrichs

12 March 2010 10:17

In dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, President Obama is in a tight spot.

His preferred strategy of engagement, with all carrot and no stick, has predictably failed to deliver. The military option is off the table.

And even if the US is able to secure the acquiescence of Russia and China to a new UN Security Council resolution — an uncertain prospect, given the recent deterioration in US–China relations — nobody seriously expects the resulting sanctions to change Iran’s course.

Needless to say Iran has not unclenched its fist, as Obama had hoped, but instead raised its middle finger.

With the clock ticking and few preventative options at hand, the Obama administration finds itself, once again, quietly lowering its objectives. As an alternative, it’s begun assembling a containment strategy designed to check the expanding power of a potentially nuclear armed Iran, politically unreconstructed and casting a wider shadow over the Persian Gulf.

Over the past year or so, Washington’s strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have been tightened. US arms sales to the region have been boosted. And new diplomatic efforts are underway to pull Syria out of Iran’s orbit.

Meanwhile, US officials are being dispatched to the region on an increasingly regular basis to garner support for sanctions which, despite having no chance of preventing a nuclear Iran, would be part of containment.

Like engagement, however, there’s a problem at the heart of Obama’s containment strategy which might well cause it to fail before it’s even properly begun. While the US is tightening the screws around Iran’s periphery, by withdrawing US forces from Iraq — from 90,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August, with the rest out by the end of 2011 — Obama is alleviating the pressure on Iran in the one place that really matters.

For decades, the central organising principle of Washington’s Middle East policy was to maintain a balance of power between Iran and Iraq, preventing either one from dominating the other and establishing a foothold from which it might attempt to gain control over the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states.

When the US toppled Saddam and dismantled the Iraqi military in 2003, it removed Iraq from that balance of power and injected itself in Iraq’s place.

The problem for Obama as he tries to withdraw is that Iraq is in no position to resume its former role in the balance of power, as a bulwark against Iranian expansion — and won’t be for at least the next few years. While a relatively stable equilibrium may have taken hold in Iraq, sufficient at least to hold elections and begin rebuilding the country, Iraq remains unable — and to an extent, unwilling — to resist Iran’s strategic encroachment.

So far Iranian intrusions have been relatively low key, conducted so as not to undermine stability and prolong the presence of US forces. But these can be expected to become more frequent and pervasive, and possibly militarised, as an effective US counterbalance disappears and as Tehran edges closer to a nuclear capability. 

Which leaves Obama facing a major dilemma — though one, I suspect, he may not yet have fully contemplated: he can contain Iran, but only by abandoning his commitment to withdraw hastily and fully from Iraq. Or, he can withdraw from Iraq and hand a potentially nuclear armed Iran the regional hegemony to which it’s long aspired.

That’s a tough call to make, and it’s hard to see much middle ground. So, which is it going to be?

Photo by Flickr user Rishi Menon's photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.