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reflections

Aug 24, 2010 | 11:07 GMT

5 mins read

U.S., Iranian and Russian Interests in Iraq

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
With a little more than two months until U.S. midterm elections in November, the U.S. administration is setting out on the campaign trail with a difficult mission ahead: making Iraq and Afghanistan look good — or at least presentable — to the average American voter. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivered an upbeat speech on the wars on Monday, asserting that he was "absolutely confident that Iraq will form a national unity government." From Washington's point of view, a functioning government in Baghdad would pair nicely with the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But the U.S. administration has also learned that cobbling together an Iraqi government is no easy task, especially when facing competing Iranian interests at every negotiating turn. At the very least, the United States wants to ensure that a large enough space in the ruling coalition is reserved for the Sunni-concentrated centrist bloc of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who came in first in the March 7 elections. Allawi is the key to guaranteeing a voice for Iraq's Sunnis in the next government — a major political and security criterion for the United States, as well as for Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria. Iran, on the other hand, wants to ensure that its closest Shiite allies, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and the Shiite Islamist Iraqi National Alliance faction, dominate the next Iraqi government. In addition to wanting a greater say in Iraqi affairs overall, Iran is also looking to block any potential renegotiation of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement that would allow U.S. forces to stay beyond the 2011 deadline, keeping Iranian ambitions in Mesopotamia in check. Iran lacks the ability to unilaterally impose its will in the Iraq negotiations, but it has evidently carried enough leverage thus far to block the coalition deal that Washington has been aiming for in Iraq. The U.S. administration has learned that cobbling together an Iraqi government is no easy task, especially when facing competing Iranian interests at every negotiating turn. Russia's interests in this U.S.-Iran tug-of-war are straightforward: the longer it can keep Washington preoccupied with Iraq and Iran, the more time and space Moscow will have to pursue its own interests in Eurasia. To do so, Russia needs to appear both cooperative to the United States, while doing everything it can to complicate U.S. negotiations with Iran. First, Russia decided to play its Bushehr card with the start-up of Iran's civilian nuclear power plant after more than a decade of politically charged delays. While most U.S. media outlets speculated that the Bushehr start-up provided Israel and the United States with a new casus belli against Iran, the U.S. administration reacted rather coolly to the entire event. It stated that the Bushehr plant, while undermining Iran's argument for the need to independently enrich uranium for civilian use, did not pose a proliferation threat. Several STRATFOR sources in the region indicated that Russia and the United States had coordinated on the decision to start up Bushehr, the expectation being that Iran could become more compliant in the Iraq negotiations once it received a political boost from doing so. At the same time, the United States, growing more desperate in the Iraq negotiations, began exhibiting more flexibility in the coalition talks. U.S. officials recently started hinting that Washington could get on board with al-Maliki as prime minister as long as Allawi's political bloc remained a key element within the ruling coalition, sending fears through Allawi's camp that the United States was going soft against Iran in the negotiations. Russia then swooped in again, this time laying out the red carpet for an anxious Allawi to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin's "Grey Cardinal" Alexander Voloshin and the heads of each Russian intelligence agency over the weekend. Russia cares little about who ends up actually leading the next Iraqi government, but was not about to waste the opportunity to confuse the issue and keep the United States, Turkey and, especially, Iran on their toes by creating a massive public display of support for Allawi. Taking advantage of Allawi's vulnerability in the Iraq negotiations, Putin and other Russian officials also took to the U.S. media circuit in recent days to discuss U.S. "negligence" for Iraq and stressed that Iraq will be unable to fend for itself without U.S. forces in country. An extended U.S. preoccupation with Iraq, after all, would suit Russia just fine. Consequently, the United States probably won't be able to rely on Russian aid in the Middle East any time soon. Even a coordinated U.S.-Russian strategy in using Bushehr to compel Iran to negotiate over Iraq fails to realize that Iran will prioritize its demands over Iraq well before it considers a nuclear deal-sweetener. Meanwhile, Russian companies continue to profit off sanctioned trade with Iran, thereby undermining U.S. pressure tactics against Tehran while increasing Iranian dependency on Moscow. The United States is short on time for a deal on Iraq, but Russia and Iran are not about to make this negotiating process any easier.

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