Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have implied that they see in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) an opportunity for partnership with Iran. At the very least, they do not appear to oppose growing Iranian assertiveness inside Iraq both to fight the Islamic State directly or to build up Shi‘ite militias who can act as proxies for Tehran.
Make no mistake—with Samarra and its holy al-Askari shrine—increasingly at peril due to recent Islamic State advances and with Iranian Qods Force general Qassem Soleimani highlighting Iran’s role in shoring up Iraqi defenses, most Iraqi Shi‘ites support Iranian efforts, even if they will quietly express distrust about Tehran’s intentions.
Everyone will admit, however, that they never expected the United States to allow Iran to become so powerful and influential in the first place. The issue isn’t simply that the George W. Bush administration abandoned the “dual containment” of the Clinton years by choosing to oust Saddam. Bush administration officials understood Iranian ambitions, although within the State Department and National Security Council officials argued that diplomacy with Iran would lead Tehran to check its ambitions.
Iraqi Shi‘ites aren’t naturally political clones of their Iranian counterparts, but the precipitous U.S. withdrawal in 2011 both left a vacuum for Iran to exploit and pulled the rug out from beneath Baghdad, which traditionally had carved independent space for itself by playing Iran and the United States off each other. It is no coincidence, for example, that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was an adversary of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until the United States drew down its forces, and then became a link in Assad’s lifeline. Haider al-Abbadi may genuinely want to reassert Iraq’s independence and probably personally resents the pressure put upon him by Iran, but with U.S. commitment to the region weak and with Obama’s redlines evaporating, Abbadi and others in the region have no choice but to defer to Iranian interests.
Well, now the price Iran seeks is starting to become clear. According to this report in the Fars News Agency, Iraqi Oil Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi will visit Tehran on Monday to “discuss joint Iran-Iraq oil fields, export of Iran’s gas to Iraq and trade of oil products.” The article continues to say that Iran and Iraq have “agreed to develop their joint oilfields through setting up joint companies under a single management.”
While many analysts recognized the danger of the vacuum which the United States withdrawal in Iraq created, the intelligence community failed to recognize the gravity of the Islamic State threat, nor predict their seizure of Mosul and Tikrit. While President Obama has ordered symbolic actions in the wake of the beheading of American journalists, the Obama administration seems once again to be content to lead from behind. Obama and Kerry should have no illusions, however: Iran’s goal isn’t simply to defeat the Islamic State; it is to intertwine itself in Iraqi affairs in a manner similar to how Syria dominated Lebanon for decades.
In effect, Obama is sacrificing Iraqis and Syrians in the same way that President Roosevelt betrayed the freedom of Poles and other eastern Europeans in the Yalta Conference.