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February 24, 2010

Iraq and its Region
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

I had a piece at World Politics Review yesterday that looked at where things stand on Iraq’s reintegration back into the region. The regional context is often cited in pro forma fashion, and I think this issue is often overlooked when thinking about Iraq’s long-term future and also how Iraq fits into the United States’ broader regional strategy following the upcoming withdrawal (and yes, I think the withdrawal as outlined in the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement is a good thing and a binding obligation- more on that later).

Normalized and productive ties with its neighbors and near-neighbors will go a long way to boosting Iraq’s feeble economy and limiting the prospects for unwanted meddling from outsiders following the impending U.S. withdrawal. Using Turkey’s pragmatic policy of engagement with Iraq as a starting point, I then go on to discuss Iraq’s relations with its region:

In many ways, Turkey's rise as a major diplomatic player on the Iraqi stage serves as a counterpoint to Iran's magnified role, with both pro-actively promoting their interests by attempting to reintegrate Iraq into the region on their own terms. That stands in stark contrast to Iraq's Arab neighbors, who have utterly failed to seriously prepare for the United States' impending withdrawal.

Iran has natural affinities with Iraq’s Shi’a-led government, although overstated at times, but Turkey and Iran have adapted to the changed geopolitical environment based on their understanding of their own national interests. The Arabs — not so much. There are legitimate Arab concerns about the government in Baghdad, but their approach has only intensified Iraqi reliance on Iran and to a lesser extent, Turkey:

Yet despite these formidable hurdles, Turkey's example should be instructive. Ankara shifted toward a pragmatic strategy of engagement to frame its bilateral affairs and magnify its influence. While Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab states have re-established diplomatic relations, their efforts to deepen relations with Iraq have not extended far beyond the bare minimum of diplomatic protocol.

The issue of regional reintegration is obviously important for Iraq but also for the United States, particularly if containment becomes the animating principle behind America’s policy on Iran (and this is where things are likely headed as long as sanity prevails). It is also relevant that those states that have not been forthcoming in their relations with post-war Iraq, Saudi Arabia chief among them, are key U.S. allies:

For the United States, the reintegration of Iraq into the Arab world should be a key plank of any post-withdrawal regional strategy seeking to establish the basis for long-term stability and limit the extent of Iran's influence in the region. Certainly, Turkey will be a significant player in this process and may serve as an important and discreet channel for mediation as the United States' role in Iraq shifts to a less obtrusive and more diplomatic one.

But regional reintegration will be lopsided without active Arab participation. While U.S. influence within Iraq has decreased, its ability to prod its Arab allies and its willingness to prioritize Arab outreach to Iraq within its bilateral relations with these countries remains an important tool to secure Iraqi goodwill and shape regional security dynamics. With the impending drawdown of U.S. troops, the Arab states' worst fears regarding an expanding Iranian sphere of influence will only be exacerbated by their own lethargy. Without a perceptible shift in approach, the Arab world will be party to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With an obvious transition point on the horizon, the United States needs to begin sketching out how Iraq fits into our strategy for the region, cognizant of the mutually-reinforcing (or defeating) linkages that exist between our policies throughout the Middle East.

Go read the whole thing here.

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