Monday, March 21, 2005

The U.S. may pay for its success in Iraq

The Daily Star

Monday, March 21, 2005
The U.S. may pay for its success in Iraq
By Trita Parsi

Analysts have long argued that the interests of Iran and America largely coincide and that their poor relations have political rather than strategic roots. Many expected the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to bring these common interests to the forefront and end the U.S.-Iran estrangement. Instead, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan deepened American penetration of Iran's security sphere and crystallized a rivalry between the two for pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf, with roots dating to the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The shah aptly recognized that Iran's rise as a regional power necessitated greater control over its expanding security sphere. The presence of British troops in the Persian Gulf hindered the Iranian monarch's ambitions. When the British withdrew in 1971, the shah intensified his efforts to convince Washington that the security of the region should be left to regional powers who shared an interest in upholding stability. This approach, the shah argued, would leave the regional powers more content with U.S. global leadership while creating a more sustainable foundation for regional security.

With the U.S. preoccupied in Vietnam, Washington had no choice but to accept the shah's offer. Once the Persian Gulf was under his domination, the shah's primary objective was to sustain Pax Iranica by preventing the great powers from finding a pretext to re-enter the waters.

The reinvention of Iran as an Islamic state did not change Iranian interests in the Gulf. Tehran viewed the first Persian Gulf war as a means for the U.S. to re-establish itself in the region. Throughout the 1990s, Iran repeatedly called for a U.S. withdrawal, repeating the argument put forward by the shah, that the security of the region should be guaranteed by regional powers and not by foreign troops.

Through the 2003 Iraq invasion, Washington invited itself further into the heart of the region with the aim of setting up permanent military bases in Iraq. In Germany, Japan and South Korea, U.S. bases served to balance a threat or a potential challenge to America's hegemony - from the Soviet Union, China and North Korea respectively. In the Middle East, 'the bases will serve to balance the local challenger to American dominion - Iran - and to ensure [America's] domination of key strategic resources' in the Persian Gulf, in the words of Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute. The Iraq invasion would, as members of the Project for the New American Century wrote in the late 1990s, "project sufficient power to enforce Pax Americana." Tehran's ambitions to revive Pax Iranica had to be deferred to the future.

The invasion was seen as necessary since instability in the Arab sheikhdoms had made the continuation of American military bases there uncertain and insufficient; the 27,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf were dwarfed by those in Germany (100,000), South Korea (37,000) and Japan (47,000). Due to political tensions with Riyadh, bases in Saudi Arabia were abandoned in 2003. Furthermore, military bases in Kuwait and Qatar could not substitute for the kind of strategic depth and flexibility offered by bases identified by the Pentagon in Iraq. These included the Baghdad international airport; the Talil airbase near Nasiriyya; a base in the desert near Syria; and Bashur airfield in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Washington and Tehran's inability to come to terms with each other made the U.S. feel that its only option was to assume domination over the "key strategic resources" of the Persian Gulf itself, an imperative that became increasingly important as America sought to temper the unipolar world's inevitable transition toward multipolarity. Since the American challenge of the 21st century is to prevent China from assuming the role of a global power, Washington's domination over the strategic resources of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea is critical in pacing China's growth and restricting Beijing's power to regional dimensions.

However, this is where America's failure may lie in its own success. There is little evidence that a democratic Iraq would agree with the Pentagon's plans. Roughly 80 percent of Iraqis oppose a permanent U.S. military presence in their country, according to polls conducted by the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004. Moreover, unlike Japan, South Korea and Germany, a democratic Iraq may not feel the need for U.S. military protection since threats to Iraq's security that could justify a permanent American military presence are not prominent. Just as Iraq's neighbors fear Iraq's disintegration more than they fear Iraq itself, few regional states can threaten Iraq to the extent that Baghdad would need to turn to Washington for protection.

As the January 2005 elections already have indicated, a democratic Iraq's interests are unlikely to match Washington's goals in the region, leaving no basis for alliance. Rather, U.S. military bases in Iraq may constitute a point of contention between Iraq and its neighbors, particularly Iran, with dangerous consequences for Baghdad.

As a result, failure in Iraq from the American perspective may not lie only in the continuation of the insurgency or Iraq's disintegration, but also in an unexpectedly successful democracy where public rejection of a permanent U.S. military presence is translated into actual policy.

Contrary to the expectations of Bush administration neoconservatives, democracy in Iraq may enable Tehran to outmaneuver Washington without firing a single shot. Though Pax Iranica isn't likely to be resurrected any time soon, and though Pax America has yet to take its last breath, the success of Iraq's democracy may undo America's plan to checkmate its Iranian rival.

Trita Parsi, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University SAIS in Washington, is writing his dissertation on Israeli-Iranian relations.