Tuesday, April 26, 2011

U.S. policy in oil-rich states a strategy of "neglect"

By George Friedman
The United States told the Iraqi government last week that if it
wants U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond the deadline of Dec.
31, 2011, as stipulated by the current Status of Forces Agreement
between Washington and Baghdad, it would have to inform the
United States quickly. Unless a new agreement is reached soon,
the United States will be unable to remain. The implication in
the U.S. position is that a complex planning process must be
initiated to leave troops there and delays will not allow that
process to take place.

What is actually going on is that the United States is urging the
Iraqi government to change its mind on U.S. withdrawal, and it
would like Iraq to change its mind right now in order to
influence some of the events taking place in the Persian Gulf.
The Shiite uprising in Bahrain and the Saudi intervention, along
with events in Yemen, have created an extremely unstable
situation in the region, and the United States is afraid that
completing the withdrawal would increase the instability.

The Iranian Rise

The American concern, of course, has to do with Iran. The United
States has been unable to block Iranian influence in Iraq’s post-
Baathist government. Indeed, the degree to which the Iraqi
government is a coherent entity is questionable, and its military
and security forces have limited logistical and planning ability
and are not capable of territorial defense. The issue is not the
intent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who himself is
enigmatic. The problem is that the coalition that governs Iraq is
fragmented and still not yet finalized, dominated by Iranian
proxies such Muqtada al-Sadr - and it only intermittently
controls the operations of the ministries under it, or the
military and security forces.

As such, Iraq is vulnerable to the influence of any substantial
power, and the most important substantial power following the
withdrawal of the United States will be Iran. There has been much
discussion of the historic tension between Iraqi Shia and Iranian
Shia, all of which is true. But Iran has been systematically
building its influence in Iraq among all factions using money,
blackmail and ideology delivered by a sophisticated intelligence
service. More important, as the United States withdraws, Iraqis,
regardless of their feelings toward Iran (those Iraqis who
haven’t always felt this way), are clearly sensing that resisting
Iran is dangerous and accommodation with Iran is the only
solution. They see Iran as the rising power in the region, and
that perception is neither unreasonable nor something to which
the United States or Saudi Arabia has an easy counter.

The Iraqi government’s response to the American offer has been
predictable. While some quietly want the United States to remain,
the general response has ranged from dismissal to threats if the
United States did not leave. Given that the United States has
reportedly offered to leave as many as 20,000 troops in a country
that 170,000 American troops could not impose order on, the Iraqi
perception is that this is merely a symbolic presence and that
endorsing it would get Iraq into trouble with Iran, which has far
more than 20,000 troops and ever-present intelligence services.
It is not clear that the Iraqis were ever prepared to allow U.S.
troops to remain, but 20,000 is enough to enrage Iran and not
enough to deal with the consequences.

The American assumption in deciding to leave Iraq - and this goes
back to George W. Bush as well as Barack Obama - was that over
the course of four years, the United States would be able to
leave because it would have created a coherent government and
military. The United States underestimated the degree to which
fragmentation in Iraq would prevent that outcome and the degree
to which Iranian influence would undermine the effort. The United
States made a pledge to the American public and a treaty with the
Iraqi government to withdraw forces, but the conditions that were
expected to develop simply did not.

Not coincidentally, the withdrawal of American forces has
coincided with tremendous instability in the region, particularly
on the Arabian Peninsula. All around the periphery of Saudi
Arabia an arc of instability has emerged. It is not that the
Iranians engineered it, but they have certainly taken advantage
of it. As a result, Saudi Arabia is in a position where it has
had to commit forces in Bahrain, is standing by in Yemen, and is
even concerned about internal instability given the rise of both
reform-minded and Shiite elements at a time of unprecedented
transition given the geriatric state of the country’s top four
leaders. Iran has certainly done whatever it could to exacerbate
this instability, which fits neatly into the Iraqi situation.
As the United States leaves Iraq, Iran expects to increase its
influence there. Iran normally acts cautiously even while engaged
in extreme rhetoric. Therefore, it is unlikely to send
conventional forces into Iraq. Indeed, it might not be necessary
to do so in order to gain a dominant political position. Nor is
it inconceivable that the Iranians could decide to act more
aggressively. With the United States gone, the risks decline.

Saudi Arabia’s Problem

The country that could possibly counter Iran in Iraq is Saudi
Arabia, which has been known to funnel money to Sunni groups
there. Its military is no match for Iran’s in a battle for Iraq,
and its influence there has been less than Iran’s among most
groups. More important, as the Saudis face the crisis on their
periphery they are diverted and preoccupied by events to the east
and south. The unrest in the region, therefore, increases the
sense of isolation of some Iraqis and increases their
vulnerability to Iran. Thus, given that Iraq is Iran’s primary
national security concern, the events in the Persian Gulf work to
Iran’s advantage.

The United States previously had an Iraq question. That question
is being answered, and not to the American advantage. Instead,
what is emerging is a Saudi Arabian question. Saudi Arabia
currently is clearly able to handle unrest within its borders. It
has also been able to suppress the Shia in Bahrain - for now, at
least. However, its ability to manage its southern periphery with
Yemen is being tested, given that the regime in Sanaa was already
weakened by multiple insurgencies and is now being forced from
office after more than 30 years in power. If the combined
pressure of internal unrest, turmoil throughout the region and
Iranian manipulation continues, the stress on the Saudis could
become substantial.

The basic problem the Saudis face is that they don’t know the
limits of their ability (which is not much beyond their financial
muscle) to manage the situation. If they miscalculate and
overextend, they could find themselves in an untenable position.
Therefore, the Saudis must be conservative. They cannot afford
miscalculation. From the Saudi point of view, the critical
element is a clear sign of long-term American commitment to the
regime. American support for the Saudis in Bahrain has been
limited, and the United States has not been aggressively trying
to manage the situation in Yemen, given its limited ability to
shape an outcome there. Coupled with the American position on
Iraq, which is that it will remain only if asked - and then only
with limited forces - the Saudis are clearly not getting the
signals they want from the United States. In fact, what further
worsens the Saudi position is that they cannot overtly align with
the United States for their security needs. Nevertheless, they
also have no other option. Exploiting this Saudi dilemma is a key
part of the Iranian strategy.

The smaller countries of the Arabian Peninsula, grouped with
Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Cooperation Council, have played the
role of mediator in Yemen, but ultimately they lack the force
needed by a credible mediator - a potential military option to
concentrate the minds of the negotiating parties. For that, they
need the United States.

It is in this context that the crown prince of the United Arab
Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, will be
visiting Washington on April 26. The UAE is one of the few
countries on the Arabian Peninsula that has not experienced
significant unrest. As such, it has emerged as one of the
politically powerful entities in the region. We obviously cannot
know what the UAE is going to ask the United States for, but we
would be surprised if it wasn’t for a definitive sign that the
United States was prepared to challenge the Iranian rise in the

The Saudis will be watching the American response very carefully.
Their national strategy has been to uncomfortably rely on the
United States. If the United States is seen as unreliable, the
Saudis have only two options. One is to hold their position and
hope for the best. The other is to reach out and see if some
accommodation can be made with Iran. The tensions between Iran
and Saudi Arabia - religious, cultural, economic and political -
are profound. But in the end, the Iranians want to be the
dominant power in the Persian Gulf, defining economic, political
and military patterns.

On April 18, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s
adviser for military affairs, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi,
warned Saudi Arabia that it, too, could be invaded on the same
pretext that the kingdom sent forces into Bahrain to suppress a
largely Shiite rising there. Then, on April 23, the commander of
Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen.
Mohammad Ali Jaafari, remarked that Iran’s military might was
stronger than that of Saudi Arabia and reminded the United States
that its forces in the region were within range of Tehran’s
weapons. Again, the Iranians are not about to make any aggressive
moves, and such statements are intended to shape perception and
force the Saudis to capitulate on the negotiating table.

The Saudis want regime survival above all else. Deciding between
facing Iran alone or reaching an unpleasant accommodation, the
Saudis have little choice. We would guess that one of the reasons
the UAE is reaching out to Obama is to try to convince him of the
dire consequences of inaction and to move the United States into
a more active role.

A Strategy of Neglect

The Obama administration appears to have adopted an increasingly
obvious foreign policy. Rather than simply attempt to control
events around the world, the administration appears to have
selected a policy of careful neglect. This is not, in itself, a
bad strategy. Neglect means that allies and regional powers
directly affected by the problem will take responsibility for the
problem. Most problems resolve themselves without the need of
American intervention. If they don’t, the United States can
consider its posture later. Given that the world has become
accustomed to the United States as first responder, other
countries have simply waited for the American response. We have
seen this in Libya, where the United States has tried to play a
marginal role. Conceptually, this is not unsound.

The problem is that this will work only when regional powers have
the weight to deal with the problem and where the outcome is not
crucial to American interests. Again, Libya is an almost perfect
example of this. However, the Persian Gulf is an area of enormous
interest to the United States because of oil. Absent the United
States, the regional forces will not be able to contain Iran.
Therefore, applying this strategy to the Persian Gulf creates a
situation of extreme risk for the United States.

Re-engagement in Iraq on a level that would deter Iran is not a
likely option, not only because of the Iraqi position but also
because the United States lacks the force needed to create a
substantial deterrence that would not be attacked and worn down
by guerrillas. Intruding in the Arabian Peninsula itself is
dangerous for a number reasons, ranging from the military
challenge to the hostility an American presence could generate. A
pure naval and air solution lacks the ability to threaten Iran’s
center of gravity, its large ground force.

Therefore, the United States is in a difficult position. It
cannot simply decline engagement nor does it have the ability to
engage at this moment - and it is this moment that matters. Nor
does it have allies outside the region with the resources and
appetite for involvement. That leaves the United States with the
Saudi option - negotiate with Iran, a subject I’ve written on
before. This is not an easy course, nor a recommended one, but
when all other options are gone, you go with what you have.
The pressure from Iran is becoming palpable. All of the Arab
countries feel it, and whatever their feelings about the
Persians, the realities of power are what they are. The UAE has
been sent to ask the United States for a solution. It is not
clear the United States has one. When we ask why the price of oil
is surging, the idea of geopolitical risk does come to mind. It
is not a foolish speculation.

Read more: Iraq, Iran and the Next Move STRATFOR

Iraq, Iran and the Next Move is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

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