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Iran's Influence on Iraq Growing

In an ironic twist of fate, the future of Iraq may be dependent on the goodwill of Iran. A Shiite-led government commission in Iraq is currently examining which Sunni politicians are eligible to participate in upcoming elections. This is disconcerting because the last time Sunnis were restricted (by a de-Baathification policy), the Sunnis launched an insurgency drive for political influence. A potential Shia-Sunni split represents an opportunity for Iran to assist its Shiite brothers with political intelligence and military assets, including, of course, the prospect of nuclear weapons.

For Iran, history appears to be moving in its direction. The desire to influence, indeed to dominate, Iraqi politics has long been a strategic goal going back to the Iran-Iraq war several decades ago. One might even contend that the nuclear weapons program is linked to its ambitions in Iraq.

In the days leading to Iraqi elections, Iran’s influence in this neighboring nation is palpable. The Iranian seizure of the al-Fakkah oil well in southern Iraq was a poignant example of encroaching dominance, an event that received almost no attention in the United States and one from which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki averted his gaze. In fact, to demonstrate that Iraq’s government and Iran were dancing to the same tune, a government spokesman said any U.S. attempts to save a place at the government table for the Sunnis would “not achieve anything.” Our State Department may not read the signals and the Obama administration seems mired in domestic concerns, but the message being delivered loud and clear is that Tehran, not Washington, has the upper hand in Iraq.

Based on its influence in Iraq, Iran is using this development as a bargaining chip with the U.S. in nuclear negotiations. Since the Obama administration has made it clear it wants to disengage from Iraq, Iran holds the key to regional stability and must be considered a negotiating partner in any future arrangement. A potential Sunni insurgency could upset U.S. withdrawal plans. Hence Iran has the ability to assist or thwart U.S. goals, a position that complicates negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and puts the U.S. in the position of seeking assistance on the one hand and chastisement on the other.

This leverage gives Iran an enormous negotiating edge. If the U.S. wants to avoid an eruption in Iraq that is tantamount to a civil war, then according to Iranian leaders, Washington will have to meet Tehran’s terms on the nuclear weapons issue and forestall any military option by the U.S. or Israel. As Iran sees it at the moment, it is holding all the cards. Arguably, the ace in the deck is the apparent cooperation between Prime Minister Maliki and the Iranian mullahs. Since Maliki understands he cannot rely on U.S. forces to maintain stability — with withdrawal the overarching goal — he has thrown in his lot with the Iranians.

It is apparent the Obama administration has not considered the law of unintended consequences. The announced plan for withdrawal has set in motion actions American military commitments were designed to prevent. It is ironic that the United States is dependent on Iran to bail it out of a dicey situation at the same time that it claims to oppose Iranian nuclear ambitions.

As I see it, the die is cast. The United States’ government will allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary. Furthermore, it will seek to obtain Iranian influence as a regional stabilizer even if it means the mullahs will insinuate themselves into Iraqi politics.

Clearly the spin doctors in Washington will attempt to put the best possible gloss on this situation, but as I see it, this is a loss-loss for American diplomacy and a significant blow to U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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