The victory of Iyad Allawi shows that one of the primary concerns of Iraqis is preventing their country from being dominated by Iran, whose regime is often blamed for the sectarian strife they are all fed up with. Yet there was no reassurance on this issue given in President Obama’s speech. Indeed, Iran was not even mentioned. Neither was Syria, whose officials Iraq sought to prosecute in a UN tribunal until it became clear the Obama administration wouldn’t support it.
The recent statement by Vice President Biden that Iranian influence in Iraq is “minimal,” followed by Ambassador Jeffrey’s remarks to the same effect (while at the same time estimating that one-fourth of U.S. casualties have been due to Iranian-backed groups) will only further convince Iraqis that the U.S. either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. The Obama administration is trying to pre-empt critics who will say their policies are throwing Iraq to the wolves but in so doing will convince Iraqis that that’s exactly what’s happening.
Allawi and Prime Minister al-Maliki have unfortunately been unable to come to a compromise for a unity government as both want to be prime minister. Allawi now says that the U.S. is not supporting him because the Obama administration wants a government that is acceptable to Iran. Despite public reassurances to the contrary, this is an admission that Iran has significant say over Iraq’s future and a sign that the Obama administration naively believes our interests coincide and some sort of understanding can be reached.
The president believes taking a softer tone towards Iran will build support for the U.S. and improve our image, but Iraq is one place where it won’t work. It is fortunate that Iraqi public opinion has turned around in our favor, but if we are seen as leaving hastily and submitting to Iran, it will quickly reverse back to where it was. It was wise of President Obama to reiterate his commitment to the future of Iraq, but Iraqis will not believe him if they see Iran being catered to or an Iraqi government come to power that is hamstrung by Iran’s proxies. They will again see the U.S. as the party responsible for their desires being dashed; as being too uncaring, naïve, and/or weak to protect them from an Iran that is responsible for spilling both American and Iraqi blood. And they’ll be right.