As the Bush administration wrestles with how to respond to Iran’s latest challenge, it would do well to reflect on the lessons of its military invasion in Iraq. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was supposed to lead to a democratic Iraq that would ignite the fires of democracy throughout the Greater Middle East. Instead, regime change in Iraq has sparked regional turmoil and set off a chain reaction of unintended consequences.
Rather than being a beacon of democracy, Iraq today is wracked by deep-seated sectarian divisions and it is on the brink of civil war. There is a serious risk that the country could fragment, creating a power vacuum that could lead outside powers — and terrorist groups — to deepen their involvement in Iraq. Meanwhile, the United States finds its armed forces stretched thin and poorly prepared to deal with other possible contingencies.
The big winner from the invasion of Iraq has been Iran. Before the invasion, Iraq served as a Sunni-dominated counterweight to the expansion of Iranian power. The invasion destroyed that counterweight, opening the way to an expansion of Iranian power into Iraq and throughout the Persian Gulf. Today, Iran’s intelligence services are actively supporting various Shiite factions in Iraq, and Iran’s influence there has increased.
The prospect of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, closely allied with a Shiite Iran, is viewed with alarm by Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan. At the same time, Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose new proliferation challenges. Faced with the prospect of a nuclear Iran, other countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, could be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons. Pakistan and Israel could also feel compelled to accelerate their nuclear programs.
The real loser has been Turkey. The invasion of Iraq has led to a weakening of Turkey’s ties to the West, especially the United States, and sparked a reorientation of Turkish policy in the Middle East. Confronted with the prospect of the emergence of an independent Kurdish state on its southern boarder, which could ignite new separatist pressures among Turkey’s own Kurdish population, Ankara has begun to recast its Middle Eastern policy.
Increasingly, Turkey’s Islamic government headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to portray itself as a bridge between the West and the Middle East, a role many Turkish secularists fear will weaken Turkey’s Western identity. At the same time, largely as a result of differences over Iraq, U.S.-Turkish relations have plummeted to their lowest ebb in decades. According to a recent poll, more than 70 percent of the Turkish population thinks the United States is a bigger threat to security than Iran.
The recent emphasis on the promotion of democracy has led to a strengthening of Islamic forces throughout the Middle East. The major benefactors of the policy have been radical Islamic forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, while moderate, liberal forces have fared poorly in elections.
In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the United States now faces a much more troubled and challenging environment in the Middle East. In light of these new geo-strategic realities, Washington needs to develop a new set of policies toward the region.
Three steps in particular should be high on the U.S. policy agenda.
First, Washington needs to begin to rebuild its relations with Turkey. As the security environment in the Middle East becomes more volatile, keeping a democratic, secular Turkey firmly anchored to the West should be a top U.S. priority. This is all the more important because Turkey’s relations with the European Union are strained and could further deteriorate if accession negotiations with the EU bog down.
Second, instead of calls for regime change and threatening military intervention, the United States needs to begin a direct security dialogue with Iran that addresses Iran’s real security concerns. The recent agreement with Iran to begin discussions about Iraq is a step in the right direction and could serve as a building block for a broader dialogue on other issues, including but not limited to the nuclear issue. Such an offer could strengthen the hand of the more sober-minded members of the Iranian regime who lately have begun to speak out more forcefully against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extremist policies.
Third, after decades of dithering, the United States should embark upon a major effort to reduce its dependence on oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf region. This effort should be considered a critical national security priority and should integrate both foreign and domestic policy.
F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security and Peter A. Wilson is a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on May 2, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.