If your Spider Sense told you there was something significant about Friday’s news of Iranian forces taking over an Iraqi oil well – then it’s functioning properly. The U.S. government’s information mechanisms, on the other hand? Not so much. Our officials have given the absurd impression that this is no big deal. Such incidents, we are informed, “occur quite frequently” in the disputed Iran-Iraq border area. (So do a lot of things that we nevertheless bother to warn perpetrators about.) State Department spokesman Robert Wood noted, with an air of giving the correct answer on an oral pop quiz, that the U.S. military was aware of the incident. Then he referred media questions to the Iraqi authorities.
This ineffable performance merits an award for its misleading banality and buck-passing. Given the obviousness of the border incident’s current context, meanwhile – let alone the historical context – real determination is required to ignore it.
The oilfield in question lies in Iraq’s Maysan Province, which has gained fame as the principal geographic corridor between Iran and its insurgent clients in southeastern Iraq. For reasons geographic, commercial, military, and even ethnic, there is nothing random about seizing an oil well in that area. The Iranians wouldn’t be thinking only about oil assets either. In this desolate border territory, an oil well is a major terrain feature: a structure whose control has tactical import.
But, of course, the Iranians are thinking about oil too. Tehran is currently being sidelined from a key event in the region; foreign oil companies were finally awarded contracts last week to develop southern Iraq’s biggest oilfields (map here), and will soon be flooding the country. The huge resulting increase in Iraqi oil traffic and revenues will involve at least some areas Iran claims as its territory. Converging with this development are looming transfers of security responsibility from U.S. forces to the Iraqi army. The transfers alone would make fresh Iranian maneuvers inevitable. In southeastern Iraq in particular, the U.S. 34th Infantry Division, currently charged with the security of Maysan Province, is scheduled to turn over its headquarters base in Basra to the Iraqis in January 2010. That’s only a few weeks from now.
As Iranian probes increase, the Iraqis won’t always lend clarity to events. Their initial difficulty getting their story straight on the oil-well seizure portends frustrating dramas as our forces draw down, with disputed reports, conflicting official statements, and everyone advancing his pet conspiracy theory. It’s way too early in the drawdown to make “Ask the Iraqis” the answer to every question.
None of this is specifically attributable to Barack Obama being in the Oval Office. But a worsening trend will be the fault of American passivity. We don’t have to have an opinion on the outline of the Iran-Iraq border to affirm pointedly that a peaceful resolution of the border dispute is a U.S. national security concern. We should have done that Friday. If nothing else, we still have over 100,000 soldiers in Iraq. It’s basic self-interest to act like we care what happens there.