Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:23 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:23 | SYDNEY

Iran: The tie that binds America to Iraq


Hugh White

18 February 2009 09:51

Sam mentioned to me last week that he, like Jim Molan, was surprised that I see Iran as a key factor shaping US strategy in Iraq. So perhaps I should explain, because on my reading, Iran is central to American policy, and because the key to understanding any strategic question is to make sure we understand the political purposes that military operations are intended to serve.

My starting point is the simple observation that American policy in the Gulf has deep roots that go back long before 9/11. I would trace them to the end of the Second World War, when the collapse of the European protectorates and the rise of US investment in and dependence on Gulf oil supplies combined to give Washington big interests in the Gulf for the first time. 

It protected those interests through cultivation of a pro-US Iran. As the natural regional major power, Iran was well-placed to play this role – until the Shah fell. Since then, the primary aim of US policy in the Gulf has been to protect its interest there from the threat it perceives from Iranian regional hegemony.

Iraq was always been central to this goal, because it was the only Gulf power with the strategic weight to contain Iran. That meant that after Iraq was destroyed as a functioning state in 2003, the US had two reasons to stay and look after the mess. One was a more or less humanitarian concern with the fate of the Iraqi people, mixed with a less noble but still understandable concern for the prestige of the US and the Bush Administration in particular. The other was to ensure that Iran could not take advantage of Iraq’s weakness to enhance its influence there and more broadly in the Gulf.

This has important implications for US policy. It means a stable and peaceful Iraq is only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for substantial US withdrawal. For that, the US will have to be sure that the regime that emerges in Baghdad has the strength and inclination to contain Iranian influence, just as Saddam used to do. To put it mildly, this is not an outcome to take for granted in Iraq's present political circumstances. Hence my working hypothesis that the US will find itself enmeshed in Iraq for a long time to come. Would Barak Obama want to face American voters as the man who handed Iraq and the Gulf to Iran?

Of course there is a way round this: America could cease to regard Iran as an enemy and try to deal with it again, like Nixon did with China. But that is another story: as I argued here this time last year, Obama does not look like Richard Nixon to me.

One last point. I agree with Jim that it is beyond belief that the US would attack Iran from Iraq (though it is not beyond belief that some Americans might think it was a good idea). But a US containment strategy need not involve invasion; just staying there in Iraq would do the trick. 

And yes, I share Jim’s bewilderment at why the US would find itself in this position, but that goes back to 2002. In about March of that year I was foolish enough to write that the US would not invade Iraq because that would just make the Gulf safe for Iran. One way the US got Iraq wrong was to forget that the main game for them in the Gulf is Iran. I was wrong to believe that the US would not forget that. 

Photo by Flickr user US Army Korea - IMCOM, used under a Creative Commons license.