Even with stern warnings from Washington not to “miscalculate” as American troops begin their pullout from Iraq, Iran will be tempted to foment turmoil in the region, mainly as a diversion to its own internal problems, analysts say.
American troops leave behind a volatile Iraq vulnerable to Iranian influence. Iraq’s Kurdish minority have already carved out a semi-autonomous region in the oil-rich north and Tehran may encourage the south, where the population shares Iran’s Shiite Islam. That would leave the Sunnis in control of a truncated state in the middle.
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Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki recently bemoaned the modern day consequences of the colonial division of the Middle East during the First World War by British and French diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot.
“The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided us into states, and the premeditated Arab Spring, which is backed by foreign forces, is intended to divide these states into mini-states, so that the only effective large country in the region would be Israel…. Today everybody is saying that regime change – especially in Syria – does not serve anyone’s interest,” Al-Maliki told Hizbullah-run Al-Manar television.
US President Barack Obama announced on Friday that nearly all American troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year, ending a war begun in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Ahead of the pullout, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave numerous interviews over the weekend that, far from signaling a reduced American presence in the region, implied US forces would now be freer operationally to act.
“No one should miscalculate America's resolve and commitment to helping
support the Iraqi democracy. We have paid too high a price to give the
Iraqis this chance. And I hope that Iran and no one else miscalculates
that,” Clinton told CNN’s State of the Union.
The Arab Spring and the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq ostensibly
sidelines the anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments traditionally
used to garner popular support in the Arab street as a diversion to
domestic unrest. But facing waning regional influence, exacerbated by
its inability to save its Shiite ally Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad
from a bloody Sunni-led revolution, Tehran still hopes to use its
resistance narrative to prevail.
“Iran is facing challenges internally, in Syria and in the Gulf, and it
aims to export its problems to the outside. The best way to solidify its
regime and unite its forces is by an external threat. There’s no
greater external threat than the US presence,” Sami al-Faraj, president
of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line.
Al-Faraj said Teheran believes correctly that the Arab Spring protests
are contagious and that the only way to keep them from reaching Iran is
to export the problem to the outside by stirring up fights, like in
Bahrain, Iraq and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, where there are
Shiite majorities have traditionally been subservient to Sunnis.
“The Iranians want to create a crisis and they are desperate to set the
stage for something really fantastic. They are looking for something
really big,” Al-Faraj said.
Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami, recently warned the
government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the threats against Iran are real
and that the stage is being set for an attack against Iran. He said the
US accusations that Iran was behind a plot to assassinate the Saudi
Arabian ambassador to Washington has heightened the possibility of a US
“Our political officials should be careful not to give the US any
pretext to target our security and territorial integrity,” Khatami told
the opposition website Rahesabz.
“I don’t think the US forces would be withdrawn to a level that would
make it very weakened. They will position materiel all over the area.
They will probably have a larger force over the horizon and will
substitute large number numbers of troops with strategic capabilities
such as naval forces. I assume that the US will maintain its
capabilities outside of Iraqi soil,” said Zaki Shalom, a senior
researcher on contemporary history at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.
“Iran is instigating Shiite militias in Iraq to continue attacks against
Americans and they are plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian
ambassador to Washington. In the US there is an image of Iran as an
offensive power in the region,” Shalom told The Media Line.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on Sunday that some
40,000 troops would remain in the region “along with a large number of
troops in other countries as well, along with the fact that we have
100,000 troops in Afghanistan. We will always have a force that will be
present and that will deal with any threats from Iran.”
Nevertheless, Shalom said, Iran is engaging in a policy of brinkmanship
and had a keen sense of never crossing red lines that would draw bold US
“Their assessment was that the Americans will not take action against
Iran because they are concerned about the reaction against US troops in
Iraq. But I don’t think [withdrawal] will give the Obama administration
bigger maneuvering power to take measures against Iran, and the Iranians
know this very well,” Shalom said.
He said the US was caught up in presidential elections and the Europeans
were bogged down in economic distress, further restricting Western
action against the ayatollahs’ regime.
“The Iranians are correct in assessing that they can go on with their
offensive and provocative actions knowing the US will not take military
action against them at least until the US elections are over,” he said.
“The Obama administration would very much hesitate to take military
action against Iran because it would likely cause chaos.”