New York - President Barack Obama has taken his containment policy through partnership to a new level this week by crowning Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki as a strategic player in the Arab-Iranian-Turkish equation. The US president has purposely ignored the reality of Iraq, both domestically and regionally, and decided to wager on Maliki. The reasons behind such a wager -- which could be a dangerous, failed or successful adventure -- are both electoral and doctrinal, and they have striking implications.
Indeed, Barack Obama today is not the advocate of human rights, justice and fighting corruption he had portrayed himself to be when he joined the electoral race 4 years ago. Today, he is a politician who bends with the binds, while his eyes are fixed exclusively on ensuring a second term for himself in the White House. Barack Obama has thus welcomed Nouri Al-Maliki as a strategic partner and a strategic bridge to both friends and foes. The US president has decided to rescue Iraq from the suggestion that the country is under the threat of collapsing as a result of its domestic problems, especially the sectarian conflict. He has also decided to deal with Maliki as if he were completely independent from Iran, while Iran's influence is quite clear at many levels and in many fields in Iraq.
Of course, the US president seemed either to be excessively optimistic or to purposely be ignoring Maliki's tense relations within Iraq, and his smooth relations with the country's Iranian neighbor, which had been his ally from the start. Perhaps Obama sought to position himself on the side of Iraq's Prime Minister, knowing that Iraq is resolved to host the Arab Summit next year. Most likely, Obama has been informed of the history of difficult relations between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation council (GCC) and Maliki, and he certainly knows the geography of Iraq, which lies between Iran and Turkey. The US President then certainly showered the Iraqi Prime Minister with greetings and praise for reasons that go beyond the electoral issue -- as highly important as it may be. Indeed, Maliki has brought along to Washington a boost of trust in him and in his regional role, including with Syria, in spite of their differences of opinion regarding this issue. Yet it is most likely that Maliki also brought with him to Washington clear or implicit messages from Iran. And here it seems that Maliki was carrying the policy of containment on his way there as well as on his way back.
In one respect, Barack Obama's message to Nouri Al-Maliki seems either confused or insincere. Indeed, part of it says: you are on your own; we have borne enough responsibility and have bled enough in your stead. Meanwhile, another part declares and warns: We are committed to supporting you and are warning those who would interfere in your affairs. If the warning is meant for Iran, it would be very difficult to imagine how the US president could back his threats while having withdrawn all US troops from Iraq. And if the United States has washed its hands clean of Iraq, while Iran has deeply infiltrated the country, then it is clear who will be the side that will have the strongest influence in Iraq. Yet it seems, on the other hand, that Barack Obama's thinking or method based on containment views this new partnership as having no need for military bases or troops. As such, Obama has spoken of training and shared consultations as sufficient means, on the military level, to ensure US-Iraqi interests embodied in oil contracts, infrastructure and technology. What this means is that Barack Obama considers it a greater guarantee for US economic interests not to enter into permanent security and military arrangements with Iraq -- especially as such arrangements have aroused anger and raised doubts in Iran.
In other words, Barack Obama's thinking or method is partially based on economic instruments, as being the most powerful instrument for ensuring the partner's reliance on the United States and its need to maintain economic partnership. In Iraq, it is a partnership of interests and a partnership of strategy, especially as Iraq's oil availability is set to be achieved in the year 2015 and as its geography is of the utmost importance. And in Egypt, it takes on the form of crucial economic assistance to the rule of the Islamists, in a wager on their dire need for such assistance as a means of survival, in view of Egypt's tremendous needs. Indeed, the many contracts that have been signed between the United States and Iraq will, within 4 or 5 years, improve Iraq's situation to a great extent, if it does not slip into the country being partitioned or to outright collapse. For the US President has concluded that it was out of the question for Iran to allow Iraq to ratify an agreement over military bases with the United States, and that Nouri Al-Maliki could not sign up to this as long as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, says "no". He certainly also concluded that Iran's grip on Maliki prevented him from taking stern stances towards the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and from joining in with the ultimatums issued by the League of Arab States to Damascus.
Why then did the US president decide to be understanding of Maliki's situation, to assert at a press conference the complete support of the United States for him, and to declare that he trusted him, in the face of internal protests against "his democracy", as well as accusations of playing the sectarian card and of isolating his competitors? The primary answer rests on electoral considerations, on the American people having grown weary of Iraq and on their enthusiasm for opening a new chapter there, even after having invested what amounts to 4 trillion dollars and having lost 5 thousand American soldiers in the "war on terror", as former President George W. Bush characterized it. Moreover, Barack Obama has pledged to leave the hotbeds of strife and tension, and promised Americans that their blood would not be spilled for the sake of others. And he has decided that staying in Iraq would exhaust the United States further. It is therefore better to withdraw the military from Iraq, even if this seems like an Iranian victory.
While Bush's doctrine was based on military intervention and on hunting down terrorism, Obama's doctrine is based on exit strategies and the containment approach. To be accurate, the exit strategy from Iraq was laid down by the Bush Administration and was carried out by Obama, but in his own way. Bush wanted to keep military bases in one way or another. Obama decided that civilian incursions were better than bases and troops. Nevertheless, there could be other answers alongside that of electoral considerations, and the Islamic Republic figures highly within this equation.
In appearance, Tehran's mullahs are relieved to be rid of the nightmare of US troops in Iraq, which had represented a source of fear for them, not just in terms of their influence within Iraq but also in terms of the possibility of military strikes inside Iran. However, in practice, the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq perhaps represents a source of terror for Tehran's mullahs. For one thing, those troops had nearly formed a shield for Iran, especially as they have to a great extent cleansed Iraq of Iran's enemies. Now, the battle in Iraq is Iran's battle. And such a battle, if it were to take place, would have a tremendous impact on the Iranian interior, first because it would exhaust Iran's forces, and second because it would open the door to ethnic issues within Iran. In other words, the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would remove Iran's de facto protection. Indeed, the Islamic Republic would be much more fragile without the American shield that has contributed to its protection. It was the American war that offered Iraq to Iran on a silver platter and invited its large influence there. Now the Iraqi-Iranian relationship has become bilateral. Iraq is therefore in greater need of a better relationship with the United States so as not to always remain the weaker side in its bilateral relations with Iran. Such a relationship gives Iraq the opportunity to play a special role at the regional level, one with an important weight in the bilateral relationship with Iran. This is important for Iraq, and also for Obama's vision of the relationship between the United States and Iraq.
Secondly, Barack Obama's policy towards Iran is based on weakening it through calculated erosion. Sanctions are one aspect of exhausting it, and so is isolation, non-military siege, sabotage operations in weapons factories and the targeted killing of nuclear scientist. Barack Obama is not convinced that the regime in Iran can be changed through military operations against nuclear reactors, nor is he active in supporting the Iranian opposition. What he seems to have in mind, is for the policy of Iranian erosion to have an Iraqi aspect and a Syrian aspect. The Iraqi aspect of his policy seems to be based on drawing Iraq towards the United States as a special partner and ally, which would remove it from under Iran's wing, thus weakening such a wing and leading to its erosion. In its Syrian aspect, Obama's policy seems more determined to paralyze this wing and break it, so as for Tehran to lose one of its main wings. The wager on weakening the wing of Iraq is not devoid of risk, and could in fact be a failed one, if those who believe that Nouri Al-Maliki is only humoring Barack Obama, while his loyalty lies not with the United States but with the Islamic Republic of Iran, turns out to be right. And if Nouri Al-Maliki brought under his wing a hidden message from Tehran to Washington during his visit there this week, then the issue is even more complicated. This is because the skillfulness or experience of Iran's rulers should not be underestimated, as they are of the utmost cunning in the art of politics and trade-offs. They realize -- much more than the men of the Kremlin do - that the regime in Damascus is extremely fragile, and they feel that the pains of siege will afflict them after the fall of regime. The trade-offs they could seek do not fall within the framework of the US spy drone that landed on their soil and which Obama -- naively -- asked them to return, as it is a precious gift that Tehran will use for major trade-offs with Russia and China, who are desperate for such secret US technology.
What Iran's rulers want may well fall under positioning themselves within the new regional order, which will follow the Arab revolutions that have occurred in 2011 and will carry on into the coming year. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the Arab region represents an extension of Turkey's regional influence, and Tehran is seriously concerned about such a partnership. This is why it is surveying the grounds and thinking of repositioning itself. It is not unlikely for it to have sent secret messages to the US president through the Iraqi Prime Minister. Moreover, it is no marginal matter for Iranian officials to have started engaging in talks -- including talks of an intelligence nature -- with Saudi officials. Indeed, the issues are many and of substantial interest.
What the Iraqi delegation told the Americans is the following: We are no annex of Iran's, nor are we pawns in the games of others. They said to them: We are not "yes men" for any of the two axes, Iranian or American, because our interest lies in an independent stance. They said to them: we have an opinion and we have a role to play. The Americans agreed. And the first test of Iraq's special role will be on the Syrian issue, not independently from the Arab initiative, but rather in helping to implement it. This is what they promised. What matters are the deeds, and the devil is in the details.