A man stands near a destroyed vehicle after Iraqi border patrol commander Col. Abdul Majeed Mohammed was killed by a bomb placed under his truck near Basra, Iraq, Jan. 20, 2009.
"For Iraq Stability, Look to Iran and Syria"
Op-Ed, PostGlobal, A Conversation on Global Issues with David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria
March 4, 2009
Author: Kayhan Barzegar, Former Associate, Project on Managing the Atom/International Security Program, 2010–2011; Former Research Fellow, Project on Managing the Atom/international Security Program, 2007–2010
The Current Discussion: The Obama administration has finally set a date for withdrawing U.S. troops for Iraq. If ethnic strife returns there, raising again the specter of civil war, should the U.S. send troops back in?
If ethnic strife should return to Iraq in the post-withdrawal era, the United States must encourage cooperation between regional actors, especially Syria and Iran. By returning to Iraq, America will only further complicate the crisis in an already complex region. Instead, addressing the security concerns of regional actors and focusing on common interests that exist between them and America, and subsequently getting these regional actors' cooperation, would be a less costly way to avoid the return of civil war.
Two main sources have the potential to re-activate ethnic-religious divisions in Iraq: al-Qaeda operatives, and the power-sharing conflict that currently exists among Iraqi political factions. These elements can be better controlled with the help of regional actors. To stop the al-Qaeda operatives in post-withdrawal Iraq, the Iraqi government needs the cooperation of neighboring countries in controlling Iraq's long and penetrable borders. It must also prevent regional actors from taking sides with any political faction in Iraq's power-sharing conflict. Finally, the Iraqi government needs other actors to perceive Iraq's political scene not as a battleground for settling their national security or strategic issues, but rather as a place where their common interests converge, thereby bringing peace and stability in the entire region. From the perspective of these regional actors, regional security is interdependent, and the region cannot be secured at the expense of their own security.
The Bush administration's confrontational policy was one of the main reasons that America could not get the cooperation of regional actors like Syria and Iran in settling the crisis. Paradoxically, while threatening Iran and Syria militarily, the administration wanted to settle the crisis in their security backyard. By describing Iran as a spoiler that was taking advantage of its close relations with Shia friends, the Bush administration was hypocritically questioning its own policy of empowering the al-Maliki Shiite government in Iraq. To balance its internal, regional and international relations, it was inevitable that the government would inevitably seek Iran's political support.
Moving away from such past policies, the Obama administration must use the more prudent policy of cooperating with Iraq's regional actors. The scheduled troop withdrawal will relieve these actors' sense of insecurity towards the United States, and relations could eventually warm to a sense of trust. Undoubtedly, Iran and Syria each have strong interests in keeping Iraq unified and bringing stability to the country.
Instead of focusing on the existing discrepancies and defining the U.S. and these regional actors' interests against each other, the Obama administration must focus on existing common interests: a unified Iraq, an independent Shiite government there, and ultimately the formation of a friendly relations with the country. These are the shared interests of all actors, regional or trans-regional.
Unlike the pessimistic views expressed after the recent provincial elections in Iraq, Iran will welcome a unified, independent, nationalist, and friendly Iraq under al-Maliki's Shiite government. Supporting this government can be a good starting point for cooperation.
In recent years, the nature of power and politics has changed greatly in the region, and the sources of insecurity are more related to ethnic strife and internal power-sharing conflicts. These are issues unlikely to be solved by military actions or hard power; instead, they must be resolved through cooperation between the involved regional actors. America does not need to come back to the region in any unfortunate return of civil war in post-withdrawal Iraq. Instead, the United States must change its unilateral policy and encourage cooperation and better relations between Iraq's regional actors.
Kayhan Barzegar is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard university's Kennedy School of Government. He teaches international relations and Iran's foreign policy in Tehran.
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