How to Deal With Iran’s Influence in Iraq

On 17 July 2011, The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl published an op-ed provocatively titled, “If we retreat from Iraq, will Iran take over?” In it, he questioned whether a 2011 US withdrawal would “force” Iraq to become an “Iranian satellite,” noting that without US military support Iraq would be incapable of defending itself against Iran's conventional military forces.

Diehl quoted Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who stated unequivocally, “If Maliki allows the United States to leave Iraq, he is effectively declaring his intent … to subordinate Iraq's foreign policy to the Persians and possibly, to consolidate his own power as a sort of modern Persian satrap in Baghdad.”

Antony Blinken, senior aide to Vice President Biden, noted in contrast that Maliki has demonstrated his nationalist credentials and asserts that the Iraqi public ultimately will not tolerate Iranian interference.

Earlier in the month, The New York Times cited unnamed American officials as stating that Iran is claiming credit for pressuring US military forces from Iraq through the Iraqi Shi'a militias it is backing, thereby exposing a lack of national resolve on the part of the United States.

Iran's cheap shooting and propaganda, however, are no basis for maintaining tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Neither is the highly unlikely probability of an Iranian conventional military invasion.

It would be reckless of Iran to attempt to accomplish through overt military force what it has the potential to achieve through political and economic influence. The US should, therefore, be primarily focused on how to limit or neutralize this influence through its own political and economic measures in Iraq.

One practical measure is to use intelligence assets to monitor and expose Iranian efforts to manipulate Iraqi elections, bribe or blackmail public officials, co-opt military and intelligence officers, or arm and train militias. These assets would essentially be tasked with keeping Iran playing by the rules of the game and imposing political costs on it for engaging in covert political maneuvering. Through this approach, Iranian officials are likely to learn that the loss of trust among the Iraqi public will cost more than whatever potential benefits are derived from subversive tactics.

Second, the State Department and USAID should sustain economic aid to Iraq, including development grants and low-interest loans designed to stimulate self-sustaining job creation and neutralize radical political currents that Iran will seek to co-opt.

Third, the US government should take a hands-off approach to economic liberalization of Iraq's oil industry. Any diplomatic pressure that would appear to substantiate Iraqi distrust of US intentions could strengthen Iran's political influence in Iraq.

Given widespread Iraqi opposition to a continued US military presence, a Status of Forces Agreement extension, however well-intentioned, could inadvertently undermine the very political stability it is intended to bolster.

A post-2011 US military presence would also give the Iranian government greater cause for suspicion and negatively impact US-Iran nuclear negotiations already heavily influenced by Iran's threat perception of the United States in Iraq. If the presence of 100,000 troops in Iraq was not enough to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, a continued presence of 10,000 certainly will not.

A 2011 withdrawal from Iraq would, on the contrary, demonstrate to the Iraqi public that the United States honors its commitments, respects the sovereignty of the Iraqi government and is withdrawing according to schedule after accomplishing its mission. The continued US military presence in the Persian Gulf will serve as enough of a deterrent to any potential Iranian military ambitions in Iraq. The US should pursue a policy of de-escalation in the Gulf in order to create space for political moderates in Iran to re-establish their influence.