On March 19 Iran and Iraq signed a border security agreement during Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), visit to Baghdad. On that occasion, referring to Iranian Kurdish factions which operate in Iraq, in the so-called Kurdistan area, Shamkhani stated that the interests of Tehran and Baghdad “must not be sacrificed for the mischief of America and its terrorist mercenaries.” It is a well known fact that Washington considers the Iraqi Kurdistan a geo-political and strategic ally. This new development is thus yet another blow to the US. Iran has also mediated the Saudi rapprochement with neighboring Syria (after Tehran and Riyadh have restored ties), all of which is a kind of a nightmare to Washington. One should keep in mind that the October 2022 OPEC+ decision to cut oil output might have marked the very end of the historic US-Saudi relationship. How has the US lost so much influence in the Middle East?
20 years ago, the United States was enjoying the triumph of having won the Cold War, and, in Mina Al-Oraibi (The National’s Editor-in-Chief) words, was “at the peak of its influence in the Arab world.” Many Middle Eastern leaders, she writes, considered Washington to be their closest ally and even “took direction” from it. Moreover, the US promoted itself as a human rights champion, a narrative that today has lost much of its credibility - which was already dubious, to say the least, back then.
That influence has clearly declined and the Iraq war certainly had everything to do with the start of such decline. All the bad decisions taken by the American superpower have contributed to mining the political and moral authority it still enjoyed in the region (at least among some local political elites). It is true, one could argue, that many Arab leaders resented the American support for Israel, back then, and missed good the relationship they had with the Soviet Union - but, in 2001, Washington could still count on a great deal of support from the Arab world: for example, the UAE even sent troops to the American-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was also a cause of concern concern to many Middle Eastern political actors: Al-Oraibi writes that Arab leaders as well as non-Arab ones, such as Afghanistan’s Taliban, worried that a new Iraqi government could be dominated by pro-Iranian politicians thus enabling the emergence of a new “Shiite crescent”, stretching from Iran into Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, something which some analysts think has partly happened.
Frank Sobchak, retired Army Special Forces Colonel, and Matthew Zais, retired infantry Colonel (both of them West Point graduates and co-authors of “The U.S. Army in the Iraq War”), for instance, argue that Iran could be considered the main winner of the Iraq war.
According to Al-Oraibi, the fact that the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority decided to disband the Iraqi Army and security forces brought chaos and made it difficult to rebuild the country. Washington had the local army broken up and yet did not show itself capable of ensuring law and order in the territory it was occupying.
Other scandals have further damaged the US image in the region and abroad, such as the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay tortures, as well as the CIA extra-legal renditions of suspects. The February 2003 misleading presentation given by Colin Powell at the UN Security Council (about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) also turned out to be unfounded, thus further undermining US credibility.
Washington, especially during Barack Obama’s presidency, pushed religious and ethnic representation in Iraq in the hopes of thus establishing a kind of democratic rule there. However, according to Al-Oraibi, this backfired because “most Iraqis did not identify along sectarian lines and representation was more tied to geographies and societal affiliations”. Therefore, these policies only further enhanced divisions.
Although the exact demographic figures are still uncertain, in 2015, the CIA World Factbook estimated that 29–34% of the Iraqi population were Sunni Muslims and 64–69% were Shia Muslims. Be it as it may, it is a fact that, during Saddam Hussein’s nationalist and secular Baath government (which was mostly backed by Christians and Sunnis), the Shia population was largely discriminated against. The Iran-Iraq war in turn intensified these tensions, Iran being a Shia regional power. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the situation seems to have inverted, with Sunni leaders claiming to face discrimination. Iran’s influence clearly matters, but should not be inflated: according to the Director of the London Metropolitan University's Center for the Study of Religion, Conflict and Cooperation Jeffrey Haynes, Iranian transnational religious networks have but a limited capacity to pursue their goals of pushing Iranian religious soft-power. This has been made increasingly clear by the late 2022 Iraq crisis: different Shia groups have their own local loyalties and agendas, with intra-Shia conflict also taking place.
As I have written, Washington’s neocolonial nation-building has been a major failure. While Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan was described by many analysts as the worst US foreign policy failure in decades, the follies of the American invasion of Iraq too still linger on. Al-Oraibi argues that the fact that, in 2022, Washington failed to convince its key Arab allies and partners to “follow its lead” on Ukraine is related to that decline.
To sum it up, the American occupation of Iraq might have come to an end, but Washington, as Al-Oraibi concludes, somehow still pays the political price for that. One can argue in fact that this is part of a larger context, beyond the Middle East: that of the decline of the US world order. The overextended and overburdened superpower has no choice but to exercise restraint and thus can be seen as a declining global hegemon.