Statfor has published an analysis of the rivalry between Iran and the United States in Iraq.
One thing Statfor misses is that Iran has no interest in instability in Iraq for its own sake. The US also has no interest in stability for its own sake. A stable Iraq that reflects the sensibilities of the Iraqi people will be reliably pro Iran, from the US point of view. It would be a member of the resistance camp as much as elected Hamas or Hezbollah which won the most popular votes in Lebanon's election.
The problem is that Stratfor makes a slight mistake in formulating US objectives in Iraq and that mistake compounds through the article.
The United States invaded Iraq on the assumption that it could quickly defeat and dismantle the Iraqi government and armed forces and replace them with a cohesive and effective pro-American government and armed forces, thereby restoring the balance of power. When that expectation proved faulty, the United States was forced into two missions. The first was stabilizing Iraq. The second was providing the force for countering Iran.That’s not two missions, that’s three missions: stabilizing, providing force and hardest, getting Iraq’s government to be, in any meaningful sense “pro-American”. There is no guarantee or even valid reason to hope a stable, cohesive Iraq would not join Iran as opponents of the US vision of a Middle East that poses no threat to Israel.
An unchecked Iran, quite apart from its not-yet-extant nuclear capability, represents a profound strategic threat to the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Assuming the nuclear issue was settled tomorrow either diplomatically or through attacks, the strategic problem would remain unchanged, as the central problem is conventional, not nuclear.Friedman is absolutely right that the US dispute with Iran is not primarily over the nuclear issue. I’ve read that Iran’s leaders believe the nuclear issue can only be settled as a side effect of a wider settlement with the United States. If they do hold that belief, they are right.
I’ll point out, though Friedman does not connect this dot, that creating and maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East is relatively easy. A balance of power in which none of the countries can threaten Israel is much much more difficult. The United States is really restrained by the fact that Saudi Arabia has to both be strong enough that it can withstand pressure from Iran but weak enough that it cannot withstand pressure from Israel or even worse, independently pressure Israel itself.
This balance, because of Iran's growth, is basically in danger of breaking relatively quickly, as in this decade – and when it breaks, if Israel is not at peace with the Palestinians, the US will not be able to sustain the regional advantages that allow Israel to continue as Jewish-majority state despite the fact that most people in the region do not consider it legitimate. For the US this is a major concern, that dwarfs the issues, like settlement permits in Jerusalem, that seem to captivate Israel’s current leadership.
But because Stratfor leaves out the US mission that Iraq be pro-American, or not anti-Zionist/anti-Imperialist/anti-American it is left posing the dispute in Iraq between Iran and the US has between a US side that favors stability and an Iranian side that favors chaos. That could not be more inaccurate. Iran has no interest in chaos. Iran will have a reliable ally in any coalition that anywhere near reasonably reflects the choices of Iraq’s voters.
The United States plans to withdraw its combat forces by the summer. Leaving aside how well-protected the remaining 50,000 noncombat troops will be, the question persists on who will hold the country together. The Iranians certainly are not eager to see the Iraqi situation resolved in favor of a government that can block Iran’s ambitions. The Iranians have longstanding relations with any number of Iraqi Shiite groups, and even with some Kurdish and Sunni groups. Iran would have every reason to do what it can to destabilize Iraq above and beyond any indigenous destabilization of Iraq in order to help shape a government it can dominate. In our view, Tehran has the tools to do this effectively.The US mission in total is misrepresented by Stratfor as something that is just barely plausible – that Iraq will end up both coherent and powerful enough that it could repel any form of destabilization Iran might try to attempt - instead of something that simply will not happen – that Iran will end up coherent, powerful-enough and also willing to align with US regional sensibilities, including a Jewish state that is more powerful than any other in its neighborhood. This misrepresentation has important consequences.
It is now April, meaning we are four months from the deadline for the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. In the balance is not only Iraq, but also the Iranian situation. What happens next all comes down to whether the mass of parties in Baghdad share a common foundation on which to build a nation — and whether the police and military would be loyal enough to this government to die for it. If not, then the entire edifice of U.S. policy in the region — going back to the surge — is not merely at risk, but untenable. If it is untenable, then the United States must craft a new strategy in the region, redefining relationships radically — beginning with Iran.So what does it mean that as things are moving now, the US cannot get an acceptable outcome in Iraq? The US is now applying as much pressure as it can muster to get Allawi in Iraq’s government. That won’t work without Iranian agreement and there will be no Iranian agreement if the US commits to increasing hostility. That, more than Chinese hesitation, is why the US has not gotten a UN Security Council resolution against Iran’s nuclear program yet. A UN resolution, once it is in tangible and not theoretical form, will mark the end of any viable US effort in Iraq.
If Iraq cannot be kept out of the anti-Zionist camp that Iran today holds a prominent place in, the regional threat to Israel will increase in many different ways and by amounts that US strategists are hesitant to even fully consider. If Israel does not come on board and reach an agreement with Palestine very soon, as in during this presidential term, the Palestinians, backed by at least Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will be in too strong a position for Israel to bargain with again.
The United States does not want to decide between Iran and Israel. It is putting off such a decision for as long as possible because of domestic concerns. However, this is a decision that cannot be put off forever, and the US is coming, slowly and reluctantly, into understanding the long-term regional situation.