Iraq in the Middle of Middle East’s Cold War

Polarization between America’s allies in the Middle East and Iran puts Iraq in a tough spot.

Iraqi National Guard troops move armored personnel carriers into position in Baghdad, August 16, 2004
Iraqi National Guard troops move armored personnel carriers into position in Baghdad, August 16, 2004 (USAF/Jacob N. Bailey)

Last week, news of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad broke in The Washington Post. Two days later, the Khaleej Times, an English news outlet in Dubai, reported on a New York Times story that al-Maliki was instead urging Assad to end Syria’s one-party rule. The day prior, Al Arabiya, also from Dubai, ran an opinion piece saying that al-Maliki denied making statements urging Assad to step down. Are you confused yet?

Middle East experts are left trying to analyze this breakdown in communication and the possible reasons for al-Maliki’s allegiance to Assad. Some have cited the prime minister’s former home in Syria while he was exiled from Iraq for fifteen years. Others have used his Shia ties and fears of Sunni insurgents. Most, however, are using Syria’s close relationship with Iran as the key in this fiasco, arguing that Iranian influence is pulling Iraq to the “dark side” — and don’t think that’s not how even the most liberal American newspaper is putting it.

The easiest way to view this situation is from a basic security dilemma theory. After the United States pull out of Iraq, the country will no longer have the same military strength and would not be able to fend off Iranian advances, which could manifest in diplomatic and economic pressures, increased militant attacks by Shiite insurgents or just plain military intimidation.

With Iran being right next door, Iraq will be feeling a bit insecure without the presence of the American military. The history of this insecurity is violent, last coming to a head in 1980 with the Iran-Iraq war. This has always been a tenuous relationship and now that Iraq is on the weaker side of the fence, Iran is in control.

This is only a small part of the bigger picture starting to come into focus in the Middle East — the increasing polarization between Iran and the United States. With Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain pulling their ambassadors from Syria in August to the delight of the Obama Administration, and now with Iraq flipflopping in the media, we’re seeing some lines drawn in the sand. For years, the “poles” in the Middle East were Israel and everyone else. Now, these lines are dividing the Arab states.

To make matters worse, Iran is capitalizing on these divisions. Increased American intervention in the region — such as the diplomatic pressure to pull ambassadors out of Syria — is what the Iranian government relishes.

Further, instability in the Middle East allows Iran to appear strong and stable in a world of chaos. But appearances can be deceiving. Iran is not as together as they present themselves, made clear during the 2009 protests. Essentially, they’re baiting the United States to get what they want. And it’s working.

Looking at this from a rational perspective — what do the United States actually have to worry about when it comes to Iran? Their main concerns are that the Iranian government is openly anti-American, it’s an Islamic oligarchy that may or may not be in the primary stages of developing nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the United States have a much larger economy, the best military technology and more nuclear warheads than any country in the world. If Iran successfully developed a powerful nuclear weapon and used it, their own destruction is more than assured. So why is this a rivalry? And more importantly, what good will it do the United States to get bogged down in this ideological warfare?

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