Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has hailed the withdrawal of the remaining 39000 American combat troops from Iraq by the yearend as a “golden victory”. In a profoundly meaningful gesture, Khamenei chose to make his first major statement on the subject in Tehran in the presence of the visiting Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who has been one of the US’s staunchest allies in northern Iraq. It is a breathtaking display of the massive reach of Iran’s political influence inside Iraq, going well beyond the special religious affinities with the Shi’ite groups in the south.
Khamenei hailed the “united resistance of all the peoples and religions of Iraq” to the US efforts to extract a decision from Baghdad to keep at least 20000 combat troops on a long-term basis. He said, “Despite the US’s military and political presence in Iraq and its pressures, the entire Iraq, from Kurds to Arabs and from Shi’ites to Sunnis said ‘No’ to the US and this is a very crucial issue.”
Khamenei outlined Iran’s coming priorities in Iraq. One, Iran emphasises Iraq’s stability. Two, it will cast its net wide and work for inter-ethnic, inter-reliogious harmony so that Iraq’s unity and territorial integrity is preserved. Three, Iran will not be deterred by the US threats in advancing its economic and political ties with Iraq. Finally, Iraq’s progression as an Islamic country - “intimate brothers of Iran” - will remain a strategic objective for Tehran. All in all, Iran can be expected to be a factor of stability for Iraq.
In tactical terms, too, this policy is the wise course to follow. It deprives the US of a security pretext to stage a comeback in Iraq; it frustrates the Saudi attempts to incite the Iraqi Sunnis; it ensures the consolidation of Shi’ite empowerment; it builds on the bilateral ties between Iran and Iraq so as to transform it incrementally as an alliance. Strategically, a friendly Iraq provides a “gateway” for Iran to the Levant, which strengthens its links with Hezbollah; Israel’s isolation becomes more acute; Iran gains another “Arab” partner; overall balance of forces shifts in Iran’s favour (especially with the emergence of Islamist forces in Tunisia and Egypt.)
The US’s Middle East policy is caught in a bind and a last-ditch attempt to break the Iran-Syria alliance is most certainly on the cards. But it is a dangerous game with unforeseen consequences
. The paradox is that no matter the US’s reconciliation with the emergent Islamist forces in the region, the latter are not going to be either “anti-Iran” or be wiling to jettison their hostility toward israel. Iran is, put plainly, the “natural ally” of these emergent forces.
The US is encouraging Turkey to act as the counterweight to Iran, but Turkey is moving cautiously. The fact that Barzani chose to visit Tehran while overlooking a pending urgent invitation to him to visit Ankara underscores the geopolitical ramifications of the Kurdish problem. The Turkish leadership grasps their meaning and cannot overlook that there are trip wires all along the borders of Syria.