The final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq this week raises the question of Baghdad’s future role along Israel’s eastern front. Historically, it is perhaps forgotten that Iraq was once a confrontation state. With remarkable consistency, Iraq, under various governments, dispatched one third of its ground order-of-battle against Israel by moving its forces across Jordan in 1948 and again in 1967, while joining the battles in the Golan Heights in 1973. In 1991, Saddam Hussein launched 39 missiles against Israel as well. However, Saddam’s defeat in 1991 and his overthrow in 2003, removed the Iraqi factor from Israel’s strategic calculations for twenty years. How does Israel have to take Iraq into account, now that the U.S. has pulled out?
Iraq’s role in the future Middle East will be largely affected by Iran. With the rise of Shiite parties after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has had many opportunities for influencing its political orientation. There are roughly eight Shiite groups in Iraq with ties to Iran, most of which received Iranian funding. This includes the al-Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who left Iraq in 1979, and actually lived in Iran for eight years from 1982 through 1990. The Iranians gave al-Maliki’s al- Dawa Party training. In fact, al- Dawa engaged in terrorist operations on behalf of Iran in Kuwait along with Lebanese Shiites. From 1990 until 2003, al-Maliki lived in Damascus and worked closely with Hezbollah. Since becoming prime minister he has had to carefully balance his ties to Tehran alongside a working relationship with Washington.
Iran was able to really influence events in post-Saddam Iraq. Behind the scenes, it helped form the coalition of Shiite parties that chose al-Maliki as their candidate for prime minister in 2006. The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, gave an interview to The Washington Post in October 2008, in which he disclosed that he had seen intelligence reports indicating that Tehran had bribed Iraqi leaders in order to prevent the completion of a new agreement between the U.S. and Iraq that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq. At that time, Iran pressed its allies in Iraq to make sure that there would be a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by December 2011. In a March 2009 U.S. cable that was made public through WIKILEAKS, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia confessed to President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, that he did not trust al-Maliki, whom he viewed as “an Iranian agent.” This was still an astounding statement for the Saudi monarch to make about the new Iraqi leadership, Saudi antipathy to Shiism notwithstanding.
Iran has other ways of influencing developments in Iraq. After 2003, Iran infiltrated thousands of Revolutionary Guards into Iraq who helped the Shiite militias. By 2007, with the “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq under General David Petraeus, the U.S. directly threatened these Iranian forces, who feared any further escalation that might lead to a war with the U.S. This led to their withdrawal from Iraq. Nevertheless, Tehran continued to fund, train, and supply arms to various Iraqi Shiite forces, who were brought to bases in Iran.
Clearly, without the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, the Iranians will be able to infiltrate Iraq again and influence its internal stability. On December 7, the deputy head of operations for U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt.-Gen. Frank Helmick, admitted that there are still “security gaps” in the new Iraqi Army that Washington is leaving behind. This raises questions about whether Baghdad has the capabilities to face the Iranian challenge without U.S. help.
Iran has also been developing its relationships with Shiite religious institutions in Iraq, where the Shiite holy cities of Najaf, where the tomb of Ali, the first Shiite Imam, was built and Karbala, where the tomb of his son, Hussein, who was the second Imam is located. In Samarra, there is the burial place of the tenth and eleventh imams; it is also where the twelfth imam disappeared, according to Shiite tradition, until he returned as the Mahdi. Tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims come to these holy sites every month. Like with the Iraqi political parties, Iran is making payments to Shiite leaders and institutions, although at present, the highest Iraqi Shiite leader, Ayatollah Sistani, opposed Iranian policy in Iraq in the past.
In short, Iran has strong strategic, economic, and religious interests that it will pursue in Iraq after the US withdrawal. Its main goal is to make sure that Iraq never again becomes a strong power, like in the era of Saddam Hussein, which can threaten Iranian security. To achieve this aim, Tehran will try to reduce Iraq to a satellite state that will support Iran’s regional strategy in the Middle East. Already, Iran is demanding that al-Maliki back the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, rather than the Syrian opposition which Turkey is helping. Al-Maliki is backing the Iranian position.
The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is producing a strategic change in Israel’s situation in the Middle East. From 1980 until 1988, Iranian expansionism was blocked by the Iran-Iraq War, with the exception of Lebanon, which Tehran exploited as a front against Israel and the West. From 1991 until the end of 2011, Iraq served as a strategic barrier to Iran, and since 2003, that barrier was reinforced by U.S. military power. Now it appears that the Iraqi barrier is being removed as it increasingly comes under Iranian influence.
This will result in increasing Iranian pressure on Jordan to prevent it from becoming the front line for halting the spread of Iranian influence, which might, if not opposed, seek to encircle Saudi Arabia from the north and open a front with Israel to its east. Given this new reality, the U.S. and its allies must reinforce Jordan’s ability to contend with the new challenges it will face from the east, as Iraq enters increasingly into the Iranian orbit. A new effort to support Jordan was evident this year when the Gulf states proposed making the Hashemite Kingdom a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Moreover, there are direct implications from the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq for Israel as well. Should Iran lose its special relationship with Syria after the fall of Bashar al-Assad, it will undoubtedly seek to utilize Iraq as a platform for escalating conflict with Israel. The new situation emerging as a result makes the strategic logic of Israel retaining the Jordan Valley as its forward line of defense even more compelling, just as leading voices in the international community are unfortunately pressuring it to fully withdraw from the West Bank and accept the 1967 lines.