When elephants fight, it is only the grass that suffers

The geopolitics of the Middle East has changed drastically over the past ten years, and remains unsettled. Soon after the occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the complete destruction of its military capability, the strategic power balance in the region roughly manifested itself in two competing alignments: the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia on one front, and Iran and Syria on the other. Several processes are now reshaping this balance of power.

The first process is the continuing evolution of the political and security situation in Iraq and the reduction of US forces, with their presence likely to end by the close of this year. The second process is Turkey’s rapid rise; it has successfully positioned itself as a third competitor in the region. And the third process is the so-called "Arab spring": the uprisings in the Arab states that have created both challenges and opportunities for all sides and, more importantly, have demonstrated the Arab street’s relevance and its capacity to play a decisive role in the region’s future

The US-Israeli-Saudi alliance maintains sufficient military and economic power, yet for various reasons its influence in the region is declining. Iran and Turkey are taking advantage of this situation and stepping in to fill the vacuum, using their soft power.

In Iraq–a key locus of the strategic competition between the United States, Iran, and Turkey–the picture is even sharper.

Saudi Arabia with its narrow sectarian and political structure cannot cope with a Shiite-led government in Iraq, and has thus practically resigned from the competition. The Saudis may be the strongest ally of the US, but other Arab allies have also avoided actively engaging Iraq for similar reasons. Iran and Turkey, on the other hand, have actively engaged, filling the gaps that the US cannot–and its allies are not willing–to fill.

The Saudis still do not have an embassy in Baghdad, while since the fall of Saddam the Iranian and Turkish ambassadors have been very active in reaching out to Iraqi political and social figures and facilitating mutual visits for politicians, businessmen, and common people. It takes one month (and probably a bribe) for an Iraqi to get a visa to Syria or Jordan, while he can get his visa to Iran in a couple of days, and to Turkey in 15 minutes at Istanbul airport. Turkish trade with Iraq is approaching ten billion dollars, while Iranian trade is growing to five billion dollars, thereby exceeding by far the amount of Iraqi trade with all Arab states.

In addition to trade and economic investment, Tehran’s political investment is paying off in Iraq: Iran already had very good relations with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Dawa (now major Shiite political parties) when they operated in exile during Saddam Hussein’s time. Iran has also succeeded in establishing strong relationships with the Sadrists, who are known for their anti-occupation stance and their Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. In fact, many leaders of JAM who are wanted for violent crimes now reside in Iran.

Iran also has many friends within Iraq’s Kurdish political parties, and is working hard to establish friendships with Sunni political figures. Thus, Iran’s political influence in Iraq is sound. But Iran does not suffice with economic and political influence alone. It patronizes Shiite militant groups (Assaib Ahl Alhak, Kataib Hizbullah, and Promised Day Brigade) whose declared objective is to expel the Americans by force. Iran uses these groups to make life difficult for the Americans, to pressure the US in retaliation for its anti-Iran policies elsewhere in the region, and to send a message to Iraqis that Iran can disrupt their security if it chooses to.

The US, for its part, has exploited its status as an occupying power and as Iraq’s main source of aid to shape Iraq’s political structure, governance, economy, and security. That’s why Washington is trying to reach a deal to maintain a meaningful military presence in Iraq. While Iraq does benefit from this presence to complete the development of its own armed forces, the political cost could be high.

It is said that when elephants fight, it is only the grass that suffers. Iraq does not want its land to be a battleground between the US and Iran. Nor does Iraq want to be at war with its big neighbor to the east on behalf of others. Iraq also realizes that a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia will inevitably manifest itself as Shiite-Sunni tension, with a divisive effect on Iraqi politics and society.

Many Iraqis believe that the best foreign policy for Iraq is to have no enemies, resolve its problems with its neighbors peacefully, and maintain strategic relations with both the US and Iran. This is not easy when those two countries are in a state of confrontation. It would be best for Iraq’s interests that the US and Iran realign their relations. Of course, this would require a strategic shift on the part of both countries–a serious challenge given the history of their relations and the anticipated pushback by Israel, the Saudis, and American and Iranian hardliners. But a stalemate, the ongoing rise of Turkey, and changes brought by the Arab spring could cause decisionmakers in both countries to reconsider.