The diagnosis in Iraq is bleak. Iran has infiltrated the weak Iraqi security and intelligence apparatus and are exerting cultural, political and covert influence across the country. It also has an extremely sympathetic government in place in Baghdad. Iraq may not yet be a fully fledged Iranian proxy, but they will certainly be in a position to exert greater influence than the United States.
Iran aims to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Iraq, uniting Iraqi Shiites behind it as a political bloc and reducing national cohesion. To complement these aims, it aspires to shape a weak, fragmented Iraqi government using key figures sympathetic to Iran. The March 2010 national elections further enabled Tehran to unify its political allies in Iraq.
When traditional statecraft fails, Iran can rely on waging terrorist campaigns within Iraq. Iranian soft power and political campaign dovetails with the arming, training and funding a variety of militias within Iraq – primarily Shiite, but occasionally Sunni – with a history of undertaking terrorist attacks. After fuelling the insurgency and exacerbating sectarian tensions, Iran then offers to mediate in disputes which it has helped create.
The removal of US forces was an integral step in achieving Iranian strategic objectives. This objective has now been achieved.
Iraq remains riven by sectarianism, and US troop withdrawal removes an important broker between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
The Shiite dominated government in Baghdad has become increasingly repressive against Sunnis. This can only increase the chances of a dramatic upswing in sectarian violence in Iraq, and will likely work to the advantage of the Iranian government.
A resurgent Iraqi nationalism could reduce sectarian strife – but Iraqi national politics are dominated by a small corrupt elite hardly animated by the domestic demands of the general population.
By withdrawing all troops, the US also risks emboldening al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which remains a larger franchise than al-Qaeda central in Pakistan, carries out over 30 attacks a week (with a large strike every four to six weeks) and is expanding efforts to recruit Iraqi suicide bombers. AQI is still more active than any other al-Qaeda franchise.
At present, AQI continues to foment sectarian violence in Iraq. While it may have the desire to attack the West, it does not appear, thus far, to have the infrastructure to support a sustained campaign abroad.
The current Shiite repression of the Sunnis will likely be exploited by AQI to further its own agenda. AQI only operates in the political space that the Sunni political groups allow it, and the more that Baghdad represses Sunnis, the more scope the Sunnis will allow AQI.
The withdrawal in Iraq also entails the removal of bases of operation for US Special Forces and its drone network. As a consequence, the strategies that have been used so effectively against al-Qaeda in other parts of the world will be diluted in Iraq. With AQI already such an operationally active node, and with American withdrawal giving a freer hand to the group there, AQI could develop into an even greater threat.
Troop withdrawal also reduces American political leverage. The US will cease to be a significant political player in Iraq, and will be factored out of important deliberations.
In theory, Iran should be able to advance its strategic objectives via Iraq; however, this will depend on Iran’s success in uniting Iraq’s numerous Shiite factions into a cohesive whole. In a country riven by factionalism, this is not easy.
With America’s withdrawal, its combat troops cannot be targeted by AQI. It is therefore possible that AQ – given the tacit backing by disenfranchised Sunni tribes angry at Shiite repression – will target the Shiite-dominated, Iran-backed government in Baghdad. Iranian funded militias would fight back, introducing the potential for Iraq to spiral back into critical levels of terrorism and sectarian violence.
Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, where he specialises in al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda inspired terrorism.
He is the co-author of both editions of 'Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections' and several other reports broadly focussed on national security, terrorism and al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated movements across the world. Simcox has written for the likes of the Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Guardian, Weekly Standard, Spectator, Huffington Post and Daily Telegraph and regularly appears across a broad variety of media outlets, including the BBC, Fox News, Sky News, Channel 4 and al-Jazeera. He has spoken on a variety of platforms, including the British Parliament, US Special Operations Command and the European Parliament.
The Henry Jackson Society is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales under company number 07465741 and a charity registered in England and Wales under registered charity number 1140489.