US interests in Iraq: Like a good neighbor, Turkey is there
Whether US troops stay in Iraq beyond the end of year or not, the US must foster the relationship between Iraq and Turkey. Ankara is the perfect counter to competing Saudi and Iranian influence.
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Saudi Arabia has its own trepidations about the new Iraq. Before 2003, Sunni-led Iraq loudly proclaimed itself as the guardian of the Arab world’s eastern gate with Persian Iran. The Saudis are dismayed that democracy in Iraq has empowered its Shiite majority, which Riyadh simplistically views as Iranian proxies. As the ultimate enforcers of the now shaky regional status quo and sectarian balance of power in the Gulf, the Saudis are reluctant to fully recognize Iraq’s new government. Riyadh fears Iraq's political leadership could inspire Shiite populations in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.Skip to next paragraph
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Finally, as oil and gas producers themselves, Tehran and Riyadh look askance at Baghdad’s plans for major hydrocarbon production increases as possible competition for their own oil exports.
Turkey has the right influence and incentives
Fortunately, the other major regional power bordering Iraq has different incentives. As a secular democracy, Turkey supports a robust Iraqi political process in which no single group dominates. It certainly seeks a major role for its mostly Sunni political allies in Iraq, but has also developed working relationships with the major Shiite political parties.
From a security standpoint, Ankara is not threatened by a strong Iraq and sees it as contributing to regional stability by limiting Iranian adventurism and Kurdish separatism. In the hydrocarbon realm, Turkey is not an oil producer and welcomes increased Iraqi exports as a way to help meet its own domestic needs. In fact, Ankara is directly investing in the development of Iraqi oil and gas fields to strategically position itself as the energy conduit from the Middle East to Europe.
There is a real convergence of interests between the United States, Turkey, and Iraq itself in supporting Baghdad’s still fragile multi-sectarian democracy and seeing its oil expansion strategy succeed. There is also a common denominator of wanting Iraq to maintain some balance in its complex relationship with Iran after American troops draw down.
Ankara is well on its way to becoming Iraq’s leading trading partner and, in a renewal of the historical rivalry between the Ottoman and Persian empires in Mesopotamia, consciously sees itself in competition with Tehran for influence in Iraq. Given the general lack of engagement by Arab countries to date, Turkey is in fact now the main balancing factor to Iranian political and economic preeminence on the ground in Iraq.