Post-War Iraq as Mideast Mediator
ISLAM AND THE WEST
By Daniel Brumberg
Iraqi officials...are courteously telling...visiting Arab officials...that Iraq has "special relations with Iran," but that these ties should not compromise Iraq's commitment to being a crucial Arab player...For purposes of confrontation and for those of dialogue, Iraq will remain the key scene of Arab --and possibly America --encounters with Iran.
--Dina Ezzat, "Standing by Iraq." Al-Ahram Weekly.
One of the Obama administration's manifold Middle East challenges is how Iraq will reintegrate into the Middle East. It was not so long ago that Washington envisioned a post-Saddam Iraq as a happy ally--a stalwart backer of the Arab-Israeli peace process whose support for U.S. geo-strategic goals would tip the balance against radical forces.
What a dream! Only five short years later, Iraq is led by a fractious group of Shi'ite political parties, some of whose members are closely affiliated to Iran. And in the Arab world, fears of a Shi'ite/Iranian axis grow day by day.
But, if neo-conservatives reveries turned into a nightmare, the fitful reemergence of Iraq as sovereign state could eventually benefit the wider Middle East. For this to happen the U.S. must learn to tolerate an Iraq that is, in effect, a neutral state in a region where neutrality is not easily asserted, sustained or tolerated. Towards this end, Washington must confront several complex realities. Here is my "Top Four List":
1) The regional reincorporation of Iraq requires a long-term U.S. commitment to the reincorporation of Sunnis into Iraq's political system. But, herein lies a puzzle. While the planned drawdown of U.S. forces has prompted Shi'ite and Sunni leaders to begin shouldering the burden of reconciliation, many of these leaders believe that only the presence of U.S. forces can stop spoilers from wrecking domestic peace building.
To navigate between these contending motivations, Washington must take a flexible approach to drawing down U.S. troops. Moreover, it must enhance the capacity of organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and the United States Institute of Peace to advance grassroots political and educational programs that widen the circle of political participation in Iraq. U.S. political engagement in advancing reasonably democratic power sharing must remain a top strategic priority.
2) U.S.-Iraqi relations should not be linked to the readiness of Iraq to implicitly or explicitly align with American strategic plans or objectives. Instead, Washington should demonstrate that it respects the sovereignty of Iraqi leaders and recognizes their desire to chart an independent foreign policy.
3) Iraqi Shi'ites are not a fifth column for Iranian influence. Their ties to Tehran are based as much (if not more) on calculations of power and security as on religious affinity. As internal reconciliation advances, Iraqi-Arab nationalism will revive, thus creating an impetus for Iraq to balance Tehran with enhanced ties to the Arab world. Washington should let this process unfold without expecting that it should tip the balance in favor of our "moderate" allies.
4)Washington must address, in a sustained fashion, regional and global disputes whose violent exacerbation could put destabilizing pressure on Iraqi leaders. Arab-Israeli peacemaking tops the list, but equally important is peacemaking between Washington and Damascus, and even more so, between Washington and Tehran.
Absent a process of U.S.-Iranian engagement that reassures regional neighbors that Tehran will not have the capacity to build nuclear weapons, Israel is likely to attack Iranian nuclear installations. Iran will respond by activating its "assets" in Iraq and beyond, while pressing its allies in Lebanon and Iraq to denounce Israel and Washington. With public opinion in flames and Iraqi leaders echoing this mounting anger, U.S. efforts to advance "post-conflict" peace building in Iraq will falter.
This is why there is so much at stake when it comes to U.S.-Iranian engagement. Once we start going down this road, the regional price of failure will increase. For this reason Washington must soon confront the tricky task of defining its bottom line in negotiations with Tehran. Moreover, that bottom line must have a realistic hope of eliciting a positive response from Iran.
Can Iraqi leaders advance this dynamic? It can be hoped that one day Iraq will be a bridge between the U.S. and Iran. But if we try to impose diplomatic burdens for which Iraqi leaders are not yet ready, we will undercut domestic peacemaking. For Iraq's sake, the U.S.-Iranian "encounter" must not be bound to the fate of a country whose future lies in keeping a reasonably safe distance from the region's many cold and hot wars.
Daniel Brumberg is acting director of U.S. Institute of Peace's Muslim World Initiative and associate professor at Georgetown University.
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