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.

Iraqis often remind Americans that the US presence in their country is only temporary, while the country’s neighbors are permanent. This long view is important to remember in the midst of the drama surrounding Defense Secretary Panetta’s recent visit to Baghdad. Mr. Panetta visited last week to express “tremendous concern” regarding increased Iranian arms in Iraq and push forward discussions with the Iraqi government on whether American troops will be asked to stay on after the end of this year.

A small US troop presence would probably provide a psychological confidence boost to Iraq’s messy democracy, but even if requested, will be limited in scope and duration. America also clearly faces sharp constraints in fully resourcing its military and civilian missions in Iraq.

In this era of limited means, reinforcements need to be found to complement investments of American blood and treasure. This requires a revamped regional strategy that starts by asking which of Iraq’s neighbors share US interests in a strong and stable Iraq that can contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East. At present, Turkey stands out as the only neighbor that has the incentive to actively work toward this outcome.

This approach would be different from past appeals to Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to recognize their interest in averting the all out collapse of Iraq. Not wanting to deal with the fall-out from a failed Iraqi state is different from wanting to see Iraq succeed. In the long-term, Iraq obviously needs positive relations with all its neighbors.

The problem is, at this point, Syria is in the throes of a domestic crisis. And it is hard to see how the regional heavyweights to Iraq’s east and west, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have an interest in Iraq reemerging as a confident regional actor. Baghdad's plan to achieve this goal hinges on expanding oil and gas production.

Competing Saudi and Iranian interests in Iraq

From the Iranian perspective, a strong Iraq has since ancient times been a check on its influence in the Gulf and the wider region. More recently, Iraq was a direct conventional military threat that invaded and sought to stifle the newborn Islamic Republic in 1980. As a result, Tehran pursues the goal of a passive, divided Iraq with an explicitly sectarian political system guaranteed to generate friendly Shiite-dominated governments.

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.

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.

US must help cement a Turkey-Iraq partnerhsip

There are also inevitably areas where Turkish and Iraqi interests deviate. It should be important to Washington that two of these key issues not come to set the tone for this critical bilateral relationship. The first relates to Ankara’s highly active diplomacy toward Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

This outreach has on occasion aroused the suspicions of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that Turkey intends to act as a “Sunni power” in Iraq. Turkey has acted to address this perception, such as with the symbolic visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq earlier this year, but it is an issue that remains right below the surface.

The second potentially divisive issue for Turkey and Iraq is the sharing of scarce regional water resources in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Turkey’s construction of upstream dams for domestic hydropower and irrigation has been a source of tension with Iraqi governments for decades. With Iraq facing an unprecedented crisis of water scarcity due to a fierce multi-year drought, Baghdad has set a guarantee of its water share in these two great rivers as a condition for the signing of a comprehensive strategic agreement with Turkey.

In addition to civilian cooperation and responding to Iraqi military assistance requests, the US government should now proactively work to bolster Iraqi-Turkish trade, cooperation, and energy ties as a key part of its post-2011 Iraq strategy. Some first steps would be to provide discreet feedback to Ankara when Iraq’s Shiites are aroused by overly energetic Turkish political engagement with Iraq’s Sunni politicians. The US should also nudge Ankara and Baghdad to make progress on potential wedge issues like regional water sharing.

Such steps would require very little in the way of further direct investment of American resources and could have a substantial return by promoting the mutually beneficial relationship between Iraq and Turkey. And that relationship is in the best interest of the US because it could support stability in Iraq and the development of a regional dynamic that is not based on sectarian identity.

Sean Kane is a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace and a Truman Security Fellow. He is the author of “The Coming Turkish-Iranian Competition in Iraq.” This piece is written in his personal capacity.

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