As international diplomacy gears up to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, Iraqi leaders continue to negotiate over building a new coalition government and selecting a prime minister. At this crucial stage, the Obama administration should make clear to Iraqi leaders that it expects Iraq’s support for the international effort to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The United States should condition its future military, diplomatic, and economic assistance to Iraq on an explicit Iraqi endorsement of efforts to bring Iran’s nuclear program back under full international supervision.
Iraqis are taking back control of their country. The fact that more than 6,000 candidates ran for 325 seats in Iraq’s parliament in the March parliamentary elections demonstrates that Iraqi factions now favor the ballot box over bullets to settle their disputes. After years of tragic mistakes that created a security vacuum inside of Iraq, violence has declined considerably, though with notable and disturbing flare-ups in recent months. But the situation looks better compared to the dark days of Iraq’s 2005-07 civil war, and overall Iraq has regained a semblance of stability after Iraq’s government started taking the fight to various Sunni and Shia militias and after the United States targeted terrorist groups inside and outside of Iraq with a range of new tactics.
Serious worries exist that the current negotiations over a new government might exclude key groups, including Sunni leaders. Internal political tensions certainly remain. Witness the protracted negotiations to form a new government. But these tensions are for now largely contained in Iraq’s nascent political system.
Iraq seems to be on the path to reemerging as a regional power that could serve as a bridge between Iran and the Arab Middle East. The bloodshed of a brutal war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s is still a living memory, and Iraq has a strong security interest in making sure Iran doesn’t emerge as the dominant force in the region. That means making sure it doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons. Yet in the seven years since Saddam Hussein’s ouster from power, most Iraqi leaders have been muted about Iran’s nuclear program—even as international concerns have increased in recent months about a weapons program.
Today, it is hard to find an Iraqi leader who has spoken on the record with the same alarm and vigor as American leaders do about Iran’s nuclear program. Current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has raised concerns about Iraq becoming a battle ground for a proxy war between Iran and the United States, and he has spoken out against any notion of Iraqi territory being used for military action against Iran. But he has said remarkably little about Iran’s nuclear effort.
Iraq’s current president Jalal Talabani said last year that he does not believe Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon because of inherent Islamic values. And Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshyar Zabari has repeatedly reaffirmed Iran’s right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. These statements avoid taking a position on what is an increasingly urgent matter—the possible military purpose behind Iran’s nuclear program.
As Iraq’s leaders negotiate over its new coalition, the Obama administration should use America’s leverage—in the form of future military and economic assistance as well as diplomatic support to lift Iraq from under United Nations Chapter 7 status that requires Iraq to pay war reparations for the 1991 Gulf war—to persuade Iraq’s leaders to support international efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.
After seven years, many Americans are asking whether the costs of the Iraq war were worth the more than $700 billion spent, nearly 4,400 killed, and more than 30,000 wounded. By invading Iraq without a postwar plan, the Bush administration overturned decades of efforts to contain Iran’s regional power and influence. Remember that the Reagan administration supported Iraq during its war with Iran, and the Clinton administration maintained a dual containment policy of both Iraq and Iran.
Even though Iran established a significant degree of influence on the Bush administration’s watch, the Obama administration’s attempt to stay “above the fray” when it comes to forming a new Iraqi government risks undermining broader U.S. policy efforts in the region, particularly in the face of new efforts by the Tehran regime to shape political outcomes in Iraq. A meeting involving most of Iraq’s top leaders in Tehran in late March raised more concerns that the United States was ceding the field to Iran.
The time has come for the Obama administration to take a clearer stand on getting Iraq’s help in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration should ask that the leaders of Iraq’s next government take the lead in issuing a regional statement with its Arab and Turkish neighbors opposing any nuclear program with a military component while reaffirming Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program under international regulations.
It will probably take several more weeks if not months for a new Iraqi government to form. When a new set of Iraqi leaders comes into office the Obama administration will want to make certain it has done everything it can to make sure America has a partner in Baghdad working with the international effort to deal with Iran’s troubling nuclear program.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow and Rudy deLeon is Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s national security policy proposals and analysis please see the National Security page of our website.