President Barack Obama’s unilateral decision to remove our forces from Iraq prior to year-end hands a major victory to Iran. Expect Tehran to take advantage of that victory to extend its influence across the Middle East.
Last Friday, President Obama declared in celebratory remarks, “The tide of war is receding,” the Iraq war is ended. But he failed to tell the American people that after tremendous cost in blood—4,485 killed, 33,169 wounded—and treasure—$800+ billion spent—he gave Iraq to Iran because he lacked political will and diplomatic skills.
Unfortunately Iraq is not ready to be weaned or to deal with hegemonic Iran. It has made great progress with its security forces, but it lacks vital military assets in intelligence, logistics and naval and air power. Even the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, requested that 15,000 to 18,000 troops stay past year-end, especially trainers. Gen. Babakir Zebari, Iraq’s army chief of staff, agreed his country still needs American military trainers.
Besides training, American forces are needed in Iraq to provide stability against sectarian strife and a wobbly political transition, and to act as a trip-wire against outside forces such as Iran and even ally Turkey, which currently has troops in northern Iraq pursuing terrorists.
Last week, Obama promised to discuss “how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces,” but there is no substitute for a long-term presence like what America has had in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. Our long-term security presence is especially important in the Middle East, a region known for its volatility, lack of democracy, and strategic importance to the world’s economy because of oil. But Iraq’s future will be different than ally South Korea’s, and to our collective detriment.
That is because Obama lacked the political will and apparently the diplomatic skills to persuade the skeptical Iraqis to extend our stay. Of course, the President blames our pending exit on the Iraqis, who refused to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution beyond Dec. 31, a Pentagon requirement if troops remained.
But much of the blame is due to Obama’s waiting until the last minute to try and salvage a deteriorating situation. He knew the risks associated with leaving Iraq years ago, but he delayed starting the tough diplomatic process until this year. And it is hard to fathom, even given Obama’s last-minute efforts, that some diplomatic compromise couldn’t be worked given Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s and other leading Iraqi politicians’ support to keep some American troops.
Unfortunately it appears a common joke about the U.S. war in Iraq is coming true on Obama’s watch. The U.S. spent great treasure and blood to defeat Iraq only to hand it over to the Iranians on a golden platter. “That’s how it will be read in the region,” a senior Arab official told the Wall Street Journal. Worse, the official said, it will be seen as “a sign that the U.S. is less committed to the region.”
Now Iran is poised to take advantage of its new leverage in Iraq to better create a Shia crescent across the Middle East. Parenthetically, Obama’s fumbling aside, Tehran already enjoys an influential relationship with Baghdad leaders such as Prime Minister al-Maliki, who once lived in Iran and now cooperates with the Persians on most regional issues.
Using Iraq to expand regional influence begins with Iran building militias on the Hezbollah model to make Iraq a Shiite vassal state, much like Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini formed Hezbollah (Party of Allah) in 1982. The horsepower for such a transformation is already inside Iraq in the form of Iran’s Quds Force.
The Quds Force or Corps (translated, The Jerusalem Army) is an autonomous part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It answers directly to Iran’s grand ayatollah and is the cleric’s primary mechanism for spreading the Islamic revolution.
The Quds in Iraq is led by Gen. Hussein Mussavi, who is directly responsible for both policy and operations, according to Amir Taheri writing for the New York Post. Mussavi controls Iraqi armed groups, including the Mahdi Army, the Ramadan Corps and the Brigades of the Right, with the aim to drive the Americans out of Iraq.
It is noteworthy the Quds recently adopted a new slogan, “On our way to Jerusalem, via Baghdad,” according to Taheri. That means it has a vision to begin using Iraq as it already uses Syria. Specifically, it will use Iraq as a new base to train fighters, and to forward money and arms to proxy groups across the Arab world. The goal is to take Jerusalem—that is, destroying Israel—and for that matter the entire region.
U.S. officials indicate the Quds has already increased arms shipments to Iraqi Shiite militias in anticipation of America’s withdrawal, according to the Wall Street Journal. And using its new base in Iraq, the Qods will be in the catbird seat to further feed unrest across the Middle East to Tehran’s advantage.
The Quds already has training centers at home and in at least five other countries including Iraq. Operationally it is helping Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad crush internal dissent, arm and train Palestinian Hamas, and recently it was accused by President Obama of backing the foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington.
It is operationally active throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, accused Iran of meddling—“conspiring to destabilize the gulf states by smuggling guns and saboteurs,” according to the New York Post.
The Saudis accuse Tehran of supporting the Bahraini Shia uprising, the Shiite al-Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, and three weeks ago there was a shooting incident in the Iranian-supported Shia region of Saudi Arabia that wounded nine Saudi soldiers, according to Stratfor, a Texas-based intelligence service.
The loss of Iraq to Iran’s sphere of influence also drains America’s credibility in the region. Allies such as Saudi Arabia will now distance themselves from the U.S. and either seek accommodation with the hegemonic Iran or use Iraq as a proxy battleground to contest Iran’s new influence. Other regional partners will follow Riyadh’s lead out of fear of Iran, and as a result, America will find its influence drained.
America’s lost credibility and Iran’s new foothold in Iraq will embolden Tehran to make our efforts in Afghanistan more difficult by assisting our enemy the Taliban. It will also accelerate Tehran’s march to nuclear weapons status, which might compel Israel to take unilateral action against the threatening atomic-missile seeking regime.
What should the U.S. do at this point?
There is always the possibility the Iraqis will change their mind to allow U.S. troops to remain past year-end. But if not, then future talks should lead to an ongoing military relationship that serves our mutual interests. We also need to quickly reassure our regional allies by cooperating closely with them to blunt Tehran’s expansion, which will not be easy or cheap.
President Obama’s lack of political will and poor diplomatic skills robbed the Middle East of a democratic victory and drained our credibility. Now Tehran will fill the vacuum we left in Iraq to solidify its power and use that country as a platform to grow the Shia crescent. The result will be a more unstable and highly volatile region that will jeopardize our ally Israel and make a major Middle East war far more likely.