The United States has long relied on its influence in Baghdad to defuse sectarianism in Iraq, fight Sunni extremism, and curb Iran’s regional influence. But the Iraqi national government has proven to be an unreliable partner in each of these efforts, and America now faces a losing battle against Iran for influence over Iraq’s Shi’a-led central government.
Recognizing this reality may appear tantamount to admitting America’s defeat in Iraq and accepting Iran’s rise to regional hegemony. But this admission is neither a sign of American weakness nor endorsement of Iran’s dominance.
Rather, it is a demonstration of the wisdom required to admit that America’s current ends in Baghdad exceed its means for achieving them. As such, the United States should no longer pursue its aims in Iraq by working primarily through the Iraqi national government. Working through local allies in Iraq’s provinces — especially the Kurdish Regional Government and key Sunni Arab tribes — offers a far more promising path for achieving U.S. goals in this troubled country.
The challenge in Baghdad
Sectarianism in Iraq is resurgent today. Shi’a, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish factions are vying for authority and legitimacy at the national and provincial level. The groups increasingly self-identify along sectarian rather than national lines, and they are unlikely to trust one another enough to sustain an inclusive governing arrangement. These dynamics are driving the Iraqi state towards greater division, whether it occurs through more decentralized federalism or partition(soft or otherwise).
Iran’s leaders are as concerned as their American counterparts by the possibility of Iraqi state failure, as this outcome would be antithetical to Iran’s goals for its western neighbor. Iran wants an Iraq that is weak but stable, led by a Shi’a-dominated government that can secure its territory but looks to Tehran for guidance. This Iraq would be a key client in Iran’s competition against the Gulf States, as well as a lucrative trade partner.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has stated that Iran views Iraq’s security as its own. Thus, whether the recent nuclear deal leads to increased Iranian expansionism as many fear, or more Iranian moderation as others hope, Iran’s goals for Iraq will almost certainly remain the same, and it will certainly continue to deploy all the tools at its disposal to achieve its aims. This bodes poorly for U.S. interests in Iraq because Iran enjoys stronger and more sustainable leverage with Iraq’s Shi’a leadership and majority Shi’a population than the United States — leverage which will ultimately bring Baghdad more firmly into Tehran’s orbit.
Iran is the Iraqi central government’s most reliable protector and its most pernicious threat. When ISIL seized Mosul in June 2014, Iran rushed much-needed training, advising, and arms to Baghdad. Iran-backed militias have also stood up against ISIL where the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) failed. Yet, Iran’s paramilitary assets are a double-edged sword. Although they have been used recently to preserve the Iraqi regime’s integrity, the loyalty of key militias like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah to Iran means that they can also be used to sow discord if Baghdad crosses Tehran.
The relationship between Iran and Iraq’s Shi’a population is similarly multidimensional. On one hand, many Iraqi Shi’as — including the influential Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — do not accept Iran’s religious jurisprudential leadership, or velayat-e faghih. Indeed, even many of the Iraqi Shi’a militants trained by Iran find Iranian religious training “uninspiring.”
On the other hand, other Iraqi Shi’as do accept Iran’s velayat-e faghih, and those who do not often benefit nonetheless from the security and social services provided by Iran’s proxies. By the same token, many of Iraq’s Shi’a reject Iranian interventionism in their country on the basis of Iraqi nationalism. But they too benefit from Iran’s proactive stance against ISIL and other threats, including ones manufactured by Tehran. This gives Iran lasting leverage.
To roll back Iranian influence in Iraq, a common recommendation is that America must “outperform the Iranians as a military partner.” But even though the United States dwarfs Iran in military power, there are at least three reasons why America is ill-equipped to prove that it is more committed than Iran to Iraq’s long-term security and thereby win Baghdad’s trust.
The first is a commitment asymmetry. Last August, Tehran demonstrated its willingness to lay Iranian lives down for the sake of Iraq’s security by sending tanks across the border to engage ISIL in northern Iraq. In contrast, several U.S. leaders have endorsed sending U.S. troops back to Iraq. But they tend towards ambiguity when it comes to defining how many troops, what the U.S. mission would be, and how America would coordinate the operation with its allies. This hedging bespeaks a deep-seated hesitance on the part of even America’s most hawkish leaders to reengage militarily in Iraq.
The second problem is geostrategic. The fact is that Iran will be Iraq’s neighbor long after America has been drawn away from the region by strategic developments elsewhere in the world, like in Europe or Asia. The Iraqi leadership’s calculus in the face of this geographic reality is that overinvesting in a partnership with the United States — a global power with global commitments and increasingly stretched resources — in the short-term is likely to earn the ire and retribution of Iran — a rising regional power with regional commitments and soon-to-dramatically-increase resources — over the long-term.
Finally, the enemy always gets a vote. Iranian leaders are already suspicious that America is using ISIL as top cover for reoccupying Iraq. Therefore, if the United States tries to win over Baghdad by sending more troops, then Iran, through its proxies, is likely to try to spoil U.S. efforts by attacking U.S. personnel and interests. And it will not be alone since plenty of Iraqis also share this concern. American troops could ironically find themselves under attack from the same forces they had previously tacitly partnered with to fight ISIL.
The upshot is that defeating Iran in the contest for influence with Iraq’s Shi’a-led central government requires leverage and commitment that America does not have. To draw on Walter Lippmann’s notion of foreign policy “solvency,” so long as America’s political objectives in Baghdad continue to exceed its means for achieving them, the United States’ foreign policy in Iraq will remain insolvent. Maintaining this course will sap American resources at a moment when strategic flexibility is required more than ever, not just to manage Iran’s new regional role after the nuclear deal, but also to contend with new threats emerging in other theaters, including Europe and Asia.
Aligning America’s foreign policy ends and means
U.S. leaders must lay the groundwork today to compete in a future in which Baghdad has shifted more firmly into Tehran’s orbit. This does not mean disengaging from Iraq, which would be costly for the United States. Instead, it means recalibrating America’s relationships with key actors in Iraq.
First, the United States should make aid to the Iraqi national government strictly conditional, as it has done with other frustrating partners. This requires ensuring that U.S. support to the Iraqi state is commensurate with the degree to which Baghdad’s actions actually further American interests. It simultaneously necessitates that U.S. leaders analyze current engagement with Baghdad in the context of Tehran’s growing influence there, and be prepared to cut support if it is more likely to benefit Iran than the United States.
The fight against ISIL is a perfect example of a situation where aid might benefit Iran more than the United States. As it stands, the United States is spending billions of dollars to support the ISF, despite Iran’s overriding influence in Baghdad. This sets the stage for a “catastrophic success,” wherein America subsidizes a significant portion of the Iraqi state’s fight against ISIL only to see the spoils of the war go to Iran.
If ISIL is an imminent threat to the United States, then U.S. leaders must do whatever it takes to defeat the threat. That includes courting catastrophic success by supporting an Iraqi regime whose long-term interests may diverge from America’s. But, if ISIL is not — as General Joseph F. Dunford recently testified — an imminent threat, then U.S. leaders should make continued support for Baghdad contingent upon the Iraqi regime taking meaningful steps to avert such a catastrophic success. Such initiatives would include demonstrable progress towards inclusive governance. For instance, if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s anti-corruption initiative proves successful in the coming months, American leaders should extend U.S. aid so long as the results hold and the Iraqi regime’s relationship with Iran leaves room for effective cooperation with the United States.
As the United States moves away from working exclusively through the government in Baghdad, it should hedge against the possibility that Baghdad will further align itself with Tehran. To that end, America should begin laying the foundation for lasting relationships with the Kurdish Regional Government and key Sunni tribes. With more American military assistance delivered directly to them, the Kurds and Sunnis can roll back ISIL’s advances in their own territory. Even more importantly from a foreign policy solvency perspective, if the United States can sustain its relationships with these groups, the Kurdish Regional Government and powerful Iraqi Sunni tribes could eventually become valuable partners for monitoring, and as necessary, challenging Iran’s ambitions throughout the so-called “Shi’a Crescent.”
To be fair, this outcome is not assured. The groups have ample reason to distrust American intentions, from the United States’ refusal to bypass Baghdad and send military support directly to the Kurds to its toothless criticism of an Iraqi national government that has oppressed Iraqi Sunnis for many years.
But both the Kurds and Sunnis are likely to be open to building these relationships with the United States because, first and foremost, they are in dire need of greater military assistance if they are to save their communities from ISIL. In addition, Kurds and Sunnis alike are interested in hardening their positions in Iraq so that their destinies are no longer tied to the whims of the Shi’a-led national government. The U.S. government can assist the Kurdish Regional Government and key Sunni tribes in achieving both of these goals, and through action and clear declaration of how it sees the United States’ long-term interests aligning with theirs, help craft these relationships into long-term partnerships.
Even if the Kurds and Sunnis do buy in to an enhanced relationship, some opponents may fear that increased U.S. partnership with Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis could accelerate the state’s disintegration. But U.S. support for the Kurds and Sunnis could actually help to stabilize the country. Empowering the Kurdish Regional Government and powerful Sunni tribes could help to balance power between these minorities and the national government, thereby creating room for more productive negotiations. And, if that fails, U.S. partnership with these groups would help all the parties involved to weather and perhaps shape what would likely be a bloody partition or disintegration process.
Other opponents to direct U.S. assistance to Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis may argue that the Iraqi regime will eventually heed American requests and demands so long as U.S. assistance continues to flow directly through Baghdad. But this approach has yielded little, if any, progress towards a sustainable and inclusive Iraqi governing arrangement that aligns with the United States’ long-term interests in the country. Barring a dramatic change in the strategic environment, so long as U.S. aid to Iraq’s Shi’a-led central government is effectively unconditional, the regime cannot reasonably be expected to change its course.
Finally, there is a real danger that America’s regional allies — especially Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates — could see a U.S. move away from working solely through the government in Baghdad as part of a broader rapprochement with Iran. To avert this misperception, U.S. policymakers must double down on efforts to reassure these allies of America’s steadfast commitment to their security.
U.S. leaders must lead with their heads, not their hearts
If this policy change in Iraq is to succeed, U.S. policymakers will need to address the issue of political feasibility on the home front. After a quarter century of involvement, over 4,000 lives lost, and trillions of dollars spent in Iraq, it is painful to acknowledge that Iraq’s national government is an increasingly unviable partner for the United States. But U.S. leaders must lead with their heads, not their hearts, and they must persuade their constituents to accept reality for what it is, not what they wish it were.
In Baghdad, the reality is that America’s foreign policy ends exceed its means. It cannot supplant Iran’s influence on its own. Nor can it make Iraqi actors behave in ways that are favorable to American interests but inimical to their own. The Iraqi central government, for reasons both endogenous and external to its leaders, will not be the lasting friend the United States wants.
U.S. leaders may fear that moving away from Baghdad would signify tacit acceptance of Iran’s leading role in Iraq. But recognizing that Iran is very likely to assume a leading role in Baghdad — and that the United States has limited leverage to change that reality — is not the same as accepting its dominance in Iraq. The United States does have options for contesting Iranian influence in Iraq. But the nation’s leaders must first acknowledge that America’s ends in Baghdad exceed its means, and adjust course so that its foreign policy objectives in Iraq are as achievable as they are ambitious.