As a child, I heard the story of “Two Cats and a Monkey”. The story goes like this: two cats, who were neighbours, fought over a piece of cake; they divided it into two halves to resolve the issue but the fight shifted over to the size of the halves; then, a monkey came to mediate, and took away the cake! Moral of the story: when two neighbours fight, both end up losing, and a third party tries to gain. Is this true in modern day geo-politics too? Of course, the neighbours here are Iran and Iraq, and the third party is the only superpower of the world: the United States of America. The question to which I am seeking the answer is what exactly has the US gained.
Iran and Iraq, two formidable countries of the Middle East, derive their power from rich oil reserves. Besides a long border, they share a deep cultural heritage. Their relationship has seen many ups and downs. But the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the subsequent invasion by Iraq led by military dictator Saddam Hussein to control oil rich territories of Iran resulted in a long-drawn battle between the two nations. It lasted for eight years. Besides costing about one trillion dollars and the loss of half a million lives, it set the stage for military intervention by the US later on.
Iraq - US Ties
The emerging oil industry in Iraq attracted the attention of US companies in the 1920’s. The relationship grew from strength-to-strength till in 1958, after the fall of the Hashemite monarchy, the political leaders found support in the Soviet Union. Later, the disposable income in the Gulf increased due to the oil boom of the 1970’s and US multinationals did not want to miss the bus. Iraq provided a market for all kinds of goods, including military equipment, even chemical weapons. During the decade long Iran-Iraq war, the US extended military and diplomatic support to the military dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. But Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 to gain control of its oil fields. The US realised the importance of containing the former before it turned into a Frankenstein Monster of sorts, and America led an international coalition to oust Iraq out of Kuwait.
After the Gulf and Iraq Wars, a new phase of their relationship began in June 2014. The Iraqi government invited America to lead a military intervention to counter the offensives conducted by the Islamic State. Since then, the American-led coalition has provided support not only in military operations but also through training personnel and providing intelligence input. The American Embassy in Baghdad is the largest US embassy in any country of the world. However, the hardliners in Iraq continuously opposed and still are against the presence of foreign soldiers on their soil.
Iran – US Relationship
Initially, Iran and the US were close allies but the Iranian Revolution changed this. The Iran hostage crisis, increased oil revenues and human rights excesses, and America’s ambition for regional hegemony may be seen as the root causes for dramatic reversal of their relationship. The US- Iran conflict has been termed by the historian David Crist as a “twilight war”.
In 2015, the United States and Iran reached a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities that, ironically, was built in the late 1950’s and 1960’s under American tutelage. The Iran Deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was agreed upon between Iran and six countries: the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, Germany and the European Union. Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions that were hurting its economy. However, in May 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 and announced fresh sanctions against Iran.
The Iraqi government led by Shi’ite Muslims that came to power in Iraq after Saddam’s government was toppled. The relationship between the neighbours improved after this. Crushed by sanctions, Iran sees Iraq as a saviour in times of economic recession. It provides the former a useful land link with the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran remains the most influential external actor in Iraq, besides the US.
In May 2019, the US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran and targeted its oil exports also. Shooting down of military drones and air strikes on each other followed. But the biggest of all acts was the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force chief in Iraq. He had met Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iraqi Shia organisation - Popular Mobilisation Forces on Iraqi soil. A US Reaper drone fired a missile that killed the two along with other members of the cavalcade. To retaliate, Iran attacked US air bases in Iraq with ballistic missiles. Iran, admittedly, shot down a Boeing 737 belonging to Ukraine International Airlines by mistake killing all 176 passengers on board. The US and Iran have quickly realised that any more retaliatory strikes would be suicidal for both and have announced to stop these. The Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution seeking to expel American troops immediately.
Soleimani’s killing has changed the flavour of the face off between the US and Iran. A three-cornered crisis involving the US, Iran and Iraq is likely to emerge. Many Iraqis are seeing it as an attack on their sovereignty. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has minced no words in criticising the US, and his intention to seek revenge is clear. Though Donald Trump has threatened Iraq with sanctions if US troops are expelled from Iraq, it seems likely to happen any time during this year. International leaders including the Pope have advised him to exercise restraint.
But the possibility of a US invasion looks remote. At the domestic front, a President facing impeachment and also elections in the next few months will have to bow before public opinion. Even after losing the lives of 5,000 soldiers and spending about $1 trillion of taxpayers money in the last seventeen years, the grip of the US over Iraq is hardly strong. American Iraq policy seems to have only one objective: the containment of Iran. Evidently, Iran seems to still be the dominant power in the region. A deep feeling of patriotism has replaced unrest due to economic hardships among the Iranian population. Millions thronged the streets to attend the last rites of the General. Various political factions in Iran stand united today. This unity along with the strong possibility of withdrawal of US troops has been termed so aptly as “a posthumous victory” of Qassaem Suleimani by Tom Warrick, a former US official and current fellow at the Atlantic Council. The relationship between the two neighbours and their bond with Syria and Lebanon is likely to grow stronger. If this happens, the geopolitics of this region will change forever, and the US will wonder what has it gained after interfering in the Iran-Iraq situation for decades. In other words, the monkey should act with wisdom in fight between the cats and should do nothing to make the cats understand that they share a common ground. Otherwise, he stands to lose money and more importantly, the support of his clan.
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