Iraq War Reshaped Middle East Strategic Landscape, Creating New Challenges for the United States

For Release

March 18, 2010

The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ensuing conflict in that country fostered the rise of Iranian power in the region, but with more limitations than is commonly acknowledged. It also diminished local confidence in U.S. credibility and created opportunities for China and Russia, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study finds that the seven-year conflict in Iraq has entrenched and strengthened neighboring Arab governments while diminishing the momentum for political reform in those countries. Researchers also find the Iraq war undermined al-Qa'ida's standing in the region and forced the network to adapt new tactics and strategies.

"No matter how the internal situation in Iraq evolves, the war's effect on the broader region will be felt for decades," said Frederic Wehrey, the report's co-leader and an adjunct senior policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "These emerging trends present a number of challenges for the United States, but also opportunities."

Prior to the Iraq invasion, the regional balance of power in the Middle East involved both Arab powers and Iran. Today that balance has shifted to Iran. As a result, the post-Saddam view in Arab capitals is of Iran's inexorable rise—but little consensus exists between Arab states about how to deal with this new challenge. Instead of a purely confrontational stance toward Iran, Arab diplomacy has incorporated elements of containment, accommodation, engagement and hedging.

The post-invasion diplomatic disarray also created new openings for Russia and China. Both nations are positioning themselves to supplement the traditional U.S.-led regional security, with some Arab leaders welcoming this development as a check against unrestrained U.S. hegemony.

Domestic liberalization in the region has also suffered a blow since 2003 as Arab regimes perceive that the United State's distraction in Iraq and its focus on containing Iran have given them a reprieve from the post-9/11 agenda for political reform.

The RAND study cites numerous discussions with activists and reformers in the region who point to 2003 as a turning point in reform, with authoritarian rulers sensing reduced American interest in the domestic affairs of Arab states and a return to Cold War-style balancing politics against Iran.

While the Iraq war served as an initial boon to al-Qa'ida, offering a compelling opportunity to conduct defensive jihad against an occupying force, the abhorrent tactics by al-Qa'ida in Iraq—spearheaded by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi—caused many supporters to turn against the movement.

To better position itself in the Middle East, the study recommends that United States accept that its allies in the region prefer to hedge and accommodate Iran, rather than pursue efforts to balance Iran's power.

"An anti-Iranian alliance is not only unrealistic, but may backfire by bolstering Iranian hardliners at a time of unprecedented factionalism and escalating regional tensions," said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior political scientist at RAND and the study's co-leader. "The United States should provide security support for key regional allies, but it should be bilateral and low-key to avoid the impression that Washington is creating a Cold War-style security organization arrayed against Iran."

The study offers several other key recommendations, including:

  • Explore multilateral security and confidence-building measures among Iran and its neighbors. Such efforts can focus on counterterrorism, narcotics trafficking, maritime security and other areas of common interest.
  • Harness China and Russia niche interests to promote regional economic growth and stability.
  • Encourage Arab regimes to adopt incremental, but meaningful, political reform as part of a long-term push to counter radicalization and ensure the viability of key U.S. partners in the region.
  • Strengthen U.S. relations with Turkey and leverage its unique role as a geopolitical bridge to mediate between Syria, Iran, and the Arab world.

The study, "The Iraq Effect: The Middle East After the Iraq War," can be found at Other authors of the study are Jessica Watkins, Jeffrey Martini and Robert A. Guffey.

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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