In the 10 violent years since Saddam Hussein and his Baath party were removed from power, Iraq has returned to its more traditional status as a battleground where its neighbors’ interests collide. None of Iraq’s neighbors has benefited more from this change than Iran.
When the United States took out Saddam’s regime, it removed the largest obstacle preventing Iran from expanding its sphere of influence westward. Now, Iranian influence extends from western Afghanistan through Iraq and Syria all the way to southern Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean. Consequently, the invasion of Iraq triggered one of the largest shifts in the balance of power in the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
The United States’ interests in the Middle East remain much the same as they were a decade ago when the Bush administration invaded Iraq, namely preventing terrorist attacks in the United States or on U.S. interests abroad, blocking any one country — be it Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Iran— from exercising too much influence and power, and making sure that oil from the region is able to flow freely and continue fueling the global economy.
On energy in particular, Iraqi oil production has boomed in recent years, with its output placing it near the top of OPEC producers. Iraq has also overtaken Kuwait as the second-largest supplier of Middle Eastern crude oil to the United States, even as America’s overall dependence on Middle Eastern crude supplies has diminished.
Though the so-called War on Terror no longer dominates Washington’s global strategy, Islamist extremism remains a concern. The American public viewed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011 as long overdue, and justifiably so. But the mere presence of those troops forced other actors in the region to behave more cautiously, and their withdrawal has limited the United States’ agility in responding to jihadist threats or containing Iran’s rise.
Thus, in Syria — where the most significant pushback against Iranian influence is occurring — opposing Tehran would mean backing the Syrian rebels, whose ranks are increasingly made up of jihadists. Because backing jihadists as a way to counter Iran is not at all appealing to the United States, Washington has been reluctant to provide much material support for anyone in the conflict.
Like Iraq, the Syrian conflict’s significance now extends far beyond its own borders. What began as a domestic insurrection has transformed into a battleground for neighboring countries. As in Iraq, the human costs of the conflict are very real, and unfortunately also similar to what happened with Iraq, those humanitarian concerns are secondary for the powers in the region, which are more interested in making sure their interests are protected whatever the outcome for the current Syrian regime. Iran has had a close alliance with Syria for decades and it has been helping the Syrian regime fight the rebels for many months, but Turkey and the Gulf Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also getting involved — all at a time when the United States is trying to refrain from direct military involvement in the Middle East.
The growing number of attacks by suspected Sunni militants along the Syria-Iraq border has many of these countries concerned that spillover violence could threaten their own stability. The Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf are split in their attempts to mitigate this threat, with some such as Saudi Arabia attempting to co-opt extremist groups and still others such as Qatar siding with relatively more moderate groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Both are simultaneously watching Turkey’s rise with apprehension, carefully trying to avoid having an ascendant Iran be replaced by an ascendant Turkey.
For its part, the United States still hopes Turkey will take a larger role in keeping the insurgency in Syria under control and containing broader Iranian ambitions as well, but so far, Ankara has been coy.
Relying on Turkey is part of a new U.S. foreign policy of less direct intervention worldwide, especially in the Middle East. Even the Iranians themselves could play an unwitting role in this strategy by making sure that no one country becomes too powerful a force in the region.
Still, this new approach does not change the fact that Iran remains the United States’ main antagonist in the Middle East. Washington has responded to Iran’s nuclear activities with harsh economic sanctions and an increased naval presence in the Gulf, though admittedly producing few visible changes in Iranian behavior. Even so, Washington’s reluctance to take on Iran has strained U.S. ties with Israel and other traditional regional allies like Saudi Arabia.
In the middle of it all will be Iraq. The United States is hoping regional competition over places like Iraq will keep Middle Eastern powers too preoccupied with one another to threaten U.S. interests.
Michael Nayebi-Oskoui is a Middle East analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm based in Austin that provides individuals, businesses and other organizations analysis on global developments. Find more reports and analysis at Stratfor.com.
More views on Iraq War
These articles are part of an occasional series prompted by the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on March 2003. Find previous articles online at bit.ly/108UbR2, bit.ly/YCFtxa and bit.ly/YxQHY0
Michael Nayebi-Oskoui is a Middle East analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm based in Austin that provides individuals, businesses and other organizations analysis on global developments.