Op-Ed: If U.S. Leaves Iraq, Iran Will Take Over There is growing concern about Iraq's ability to defend itself and counter Iranian influence after U.S. troops withdraw. Jackson Diehl argues that too many in the White House mistakenly believe that "a stay-on force" is not a vital U.S. interest and risk alienating an important ally.
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Op-Ed: If U.S. Leaves Iraq, Iran Will Take Over

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Op-Ed: If U.S. Leaves Iraq, Iran Will Take Over

Op-Ed: If U.S. Leaves Iraq, Iran Will Take Over

Op-Ed: If U.S. Leaves Iraq, Iran Will Take Over

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/138476660/138476653" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

There is growing concern about Iraq's ability to defend itself and counter Iranian influence after U.S. troops withdraw. Jackson Diehl argues that too many in the White House mistakenly believe that "a stay-on force" is not a vital U.S. interest and risk alienating an important ally.

NEAL CONAN, host: And now, The Opinion Page. Under an agreement struck at the end of Bush administration, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by the end of this year. As the deadline approaches, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl warns of the risks in a piece titled "Retreat Roulette." If we retreat from Iraq, he writes, will Iran take over? Of course, there are risks to staying on as well. Shiite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr vows to return to armed resistance unless all U.S. forces leave on schedule.

So what are the risks of pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq? What are the risks of keeping them in? 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jackson Diehl joins us from the studio at The Washington Post. Nice to have you back.

JACKSON DIEHL: My pleasure.

CONAN: And under the agreement, the government of Nouri al-Maliki would have to ask Washington to keep U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The number everybody talks about is 10,000 or so. You argue that this is so important that we need to coax Baghdad to make the right decision. What's at stake?

DIEHL: Well, what's at stake really is whether or not Iran, which has been trying to turn Iraq into a satellite state for several years, will finally get its way. And the reason they would is because without U.S. troops there, Iraq would basically have no military ability to resist Iran on any kind of level; not their militias, which they keep in Iraq, not their conventional forces, not their missiles. And so you're going to have an Iraqi government, which is already a little bit inclined toward Iran, under a lot of pressure to go along with whatever Iran wants.

CONAN: That's not everybody in Iraq. There are a lot of people in Iraq who deeply resent Iran.

DIEHL: There are. But the government, the prime minister, Maliki, has always been a little bit pro-Iranian. His coalition is heavily pro-Iranian because he's dependent on a Shiite party that is basically an Iranian client, Muqtada al-Sadr, who you mentioned. And he's supposed to have a coalition with the other side, the part that resists Iran, but that coalition really hasn't worked out. It's basically split up. So the Sunni parties who would resist Iranian influence are currently out of power at the moment.

CONAN: And you also complained in your piece that the United States, well, the Obama administration has made it clear it's willing to keep another 10,000 troops in Iraq - I think there are about 47,000 there now - to leave 10,000 in Iraq for another year if it is asked by Baghdad. But the new secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, was in Baghdad and, you say, too brusque with our allies.

DIEHL: Well, they have a very ambivalent attitude about it. Military commanders, U.S. military commanders, I think, would very much like to see U.S. troops stay precisely because they're worried about this Iranian problem and the larger Iranian problem in the region. Former Secretary of Defense Gates said publically that he would like to see U.S. troops stay precisely because of the Iranian factor. But the civilian leadership and the Obama administration, the White House in particular, is much more ambivalent.

So they've sort of taken the view, well, we'll think about it if you ask us. And Panetta added in public, make a decision, damn it, were his words. So my thought was those are not the kind of coaxing that's going to get the right decision.

CONAN: The Iraqi government is infamous for its inability to make decisions. The prime minister currently serves as his own defense minister and interior minister because he can't get anybody to agree who those ministers ought to be.

DIEHL: Yeah. And that's precisely the problem. Those ministers should be Sunni ministers. He had agreed that people from the Sunni side would take on those roles, but he's been unwilling to deliver on that. And unless he does deliver on that, unless they can make some kind of internal deal, then their request for U.S. troops is unlikely to be forthcoming.

CONAN: And if that happens and the U.S. forces withdraw, you say all the blood and treasure that we've spent over the past years in this misbegotten enterprise would be effectively wasted.

DIEHL: Well, I think that's the great risk. Now, you hear from the other side, you hear from Obama administration officials I have talked to, that I shouldn't be so worried, that the Iranians themselves are having their economic problems, that they're divided internally, that they're worried about their other clients in the region with the Arab Spring going on. And they really don't have the wherewithal to push too hard on Iraq at the moment. And in any case, they feel fairly confident that Maliki will push back, even if he doesn't have U. S. troops behind him. But I think that's a pretty big risk to take.

CONAN: There is also the question, if you do leave U.S. forces there, some of them are going to be involved in incidents, some of them are going to be killed. There are risks on the other side.

DIEHL: There are risks on the other side. Although, you know, ideally, they would - you hope they would evolve to the point of U.S. troops in South Korea or U.S. troops in West Germany during the Cold War that are there basically as deterrent, as a guarantor but actually don't play that active a role and, therefore, don't suffer that many casualties. But you're right. In the last month, U.S. troops - 15 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, which was the highest total in two years, and that's precisely because the Iranians are stepping up their attacks.

CONAN: You're talking about a similar role to with - that which the United States plays in South Korea or Germany. Again, those are not controversial because, as you say, there's not combat involved. But stay in Iraq not just another year but decades?

DIEHL: Who knows how long it would be. I think, you know, you have to - I think the thinking would be that you need to stay there long enough that Iraq can defend itself against its neighbors such as Iran and be a truly independent and sovereign country. They're not there yet. They're a few years away from that.

CONAN: And the other factor is Iraq is an oil-rich country. When it gets production back up, it's going to be able to afford to build up its own forces.

DIEHL: Sure. And, of course, one problem with that is that a lot of countries in the region wouldn't necessarily look that favorably on a very strong Iraqi army again - starting with Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf countries, Kuwait. You know, they've had their problems with a very strong Iraq before. They don't necessarily want to see a really strong Iraqi army again that's completely unmediated by U.S. influence.

CONAN: Unmediated by U.S. - the United States is going to have this enormous embassy in Baghdad. There are going to be - even if all the U.S. troops leave, there's going to be many thousands of U.S. contractors there, trainers to help build up these Iraqi armed forces. There's going to be plenty of U.S. influence.

DIEHL: There'll be a lot of U.S. influence; there won't be a lot of U.S. influence in the military. One thing people point to now is the fact that you have U.S. officers operating in every level of the Iraqi army as advisers. They're talking to the lieutenant colonels. They're talking to the majors. They're having an influence on exactly what happens on the ground in sensitive areas that still exist, such as in northern Iraq. If you pull all of those people out, in just in a very tangible sense, we won't have the same influence.

CONAN: Here's an email from a listener, David. Are we not providing some protection to the Sunnis that came over to our side? He's talking about the tribal leaders who provided the spirit of the Anbar awakening that did a great deal to help turn the tide in Iraq.

DIEHL: Well, we're providing less and less protection. They've been under a lot of attack, those Sunni leaders; there was a number of them killed recently in Ramadi, very near a U.S. military base. And if our troops leave, again, the protection that we are offering simply through our presence there, kind of psychological protection, won't exist anymore.

CONAN: There is - you talked about the politics in Baghdad. There's politics in Washington too. The president, who's campaigned on the promise to get the United States to wind down the war in Iraq, he needs that request from Baghdad if he's going to keep U.S. forces in a country beyond the agreement negotiated by his predecessor.

DIEHL: Yeah, I think you're right. He does need that, and not only for that reason, not only for his reason, but for Iraqi reasons. We can't, as the United States, be seen to be imposing our troops on Iraq. It's really important that they publicly ask us for it. On the other hand, there are ways for the United States to talk quietly to Iraqis and to try and work out some kind of mutual arrangement so that the Iraqis make the request. And it's another thing to go there and publicly say, damn it. Make it a decision, as Panetta did.

CONAN: As Panetta did. There is still the question of Iraq's internal political problems. As you suggests, Muqtada al-Sadr's party is a critical element in the prime minister's coalition. Without them, he does not have the votes. They say if the American forces aren't out, they're not merely leaving the coalition, they're going back on the streets with weapons in their hands.

DIEHL: Yeah, and I think that's a very difficult thing. The way out of that, really, would be for Maliki, first of all, to go back to the Sunni parties with whom he supposed to have a coalition, to appoint the Sunni defense minister that he promised to appoint a year ago, and then simply to call Muqtada al-Sadr's bluff as he has done in the past. And I think it's - I think, in fact, Maliki would like to do those things. He would like to have U.S. troops. Most people believe he wants to make the request but he needs help getting over these couple of hurdles, especially in forging some kind of coalition with the Sunnis.

CONAN: And you foresee that this American presence, semi-permanent is what I'm hearing from you.

DIEHL: Well, I'm - I don't think anybody is thinking about how long it will last. Everybody is thinking about what's going to happen on January 1st and what's going to happen in 2012. But I think if you think forward, it had - you would need it for several years at least, until Iraq can use the oil wealth that you talked about to build up a credible enough army, until Iraqi politics settled to the point where you're not worried about having an implosion if we pull out.

CONAN: An army, difficult enough to build on its own, an air force is something else entirely. These things take time.

DIEHL: Yeah, although the Iraqis have put in a request to buy F-16s from the United States, so they've - and they're talking about, thanks to their new oil wealth, doubling the order to something like 36 planes, which would give them a fairly credible deterrent.

CONAN: We're talking with Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor and columnist for The Washington Post, whose article "Retreat Roulette, Why is the U.S. Gambling with Iraq's Future?" was published today in The Washington Post.

And if you'd like to join the conversation, what are the risks of pulling all U.S. forces out as they are scheduled to leave at the end of this year? What are the risks of keeping them in? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION which is coming to you from NPR News.

And the risks also include the - as you said, this would be a request coming from Iraq. So that would be seen in some quarters as a fig leaf for continued American occupation of Iraq.

DIEHL: Well, it'd certainly be seen that way by the Iranians, and as Secretary Gates said, that would be a good thing, if the Iranians were discomfited by this. But I think many people - other people around the region would be very glad to see this happens, starting with Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states. All around the region, people do not want to see Iranian influence expanded and that's what they're worried about will happen in Iraq.

And they also want to see a stable Iraq. They don't want to see this sort of very fragile, tentative stability that's been established in the last several years come undone again, because it could have the effect of drawing all the countries back into Iraq in to some kind of sectarian war again. So I think it would be difficult to find a government other than Iran around the region that doesn't want to see the United States stay.

CONAN: And possibly Syria. But let's see if we can go next to Richard, and Richard with us from Truro.

RICHARD (Caller): Yeah. I think the risks are in not pulling out. The United States is an incredibly divisive force in that region, has fomented additional divisions within the country of Iraq, has done large - lots to destroy it. It's also spending its own money, which is just - we don't have, killing more people. I think that there's a, you know, an overstated fear of Iran. Instead of dealing with it as a country, this country pretends it's a monster instead of trying to use diplomatic relationships with Iran and dealing with the question, but it doesn't do that.

CONAN: The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran.

RICHARD: Well, it's about time to establish them.

CONAN: All right. Thank you very much. Well, Jackson Diehl, that's another approach.

DIEHL: Yeah. And I think, to be fair, I think the Obama administration made a very big effort to reach out to Iran diplomatically at the beginning of the administration. As you remember, they were talking or at least hoping about some kind of a grand bargain with Iran, they would reach some kind of detente in the region. And it just failed utterly because of complete lack of Iranian interest. And one thing you see is that the Iranians have been, in spite of all their own difficulties internally, implacable about pursuing their own interests across the region and about trying to push the United States out.

What they're doing now in Iraq is really extraordinarily aggressive. They are sending sophisticated munitions, sophisticated rockets, sophisticated roadside bombs to militias they control in Iran to use against, you know, Iraqi force...

CONAN: In Iraq.

DIEHL: I'm sorry - in Iraq - to use against the U.S. and Iraqi forces. They are very aggressively basically waging war against the United States and trying to drive us out of there.

CONAN: Here's an idea submitted David in Fresno by email: Thinking out of the box, he writes: the Kurds are very much friends and admirers of the USA. Establish an independent Kurdistan in the north, place X amount of USA troops in Kurdistan, help Kurdistan become a real example of democracy in the Middle East, sit back and see what happens.

DIEHL: The Kurds would love that. That's been their dream for years.

CONAN: 51st state, yes.

DIEHL: Yes, that the United States would move troops to Kurdistan, support an independent Kurdistan and write off the rest of the country. And, of course, sometimes that looks attractive - a few years ago, before the surge, when Iraq was seen in almost chaos, it looked like an attractive option to some people here in Washington, that at least you could get one part of the country stabilized and friendly to the United States. But I think we're past that point now.

CONAN: Let's go next to Mike and Mike is on the line from Tucson.

MIKE (Caller): Yes. Basically, I think that we should completely get out of there. The reason this whole chaos has been created was because of us occupying that country. And as we moved there, al-Qaida, you know, came right after us into that country, and they have done more damage than what the Americans have done. Literally, this whole in-fighting, this whole killing, which has killed over 100,000, has been because of the al-Qaida following the American troops in there. So I think we should completely get out, leave it to the Iranians to clean it up, since they will do that. You know, if they want to have a strong ally in the Middle East, meaning Iraq, they will help the Iraqi government to clean up the al-Qaida of all its elements and that would be the end of all the in-fighting.

CONAN: End of all the in-fighting is probably an over-optimistic assessment. Jackson Diehl?

DIEHL: Yeah. I think if Iran went in and really aggressively tried to pursue the Sunni minority there, you'd have a return of, kind of, a very, very, very major sectarian blood-letting and internal civil war there. And I think what actually would happen is the Iranian will try to act more subtlety. They'll try and use the current government, the Maliki government, as their proxy and to influence them and to not to have them take dramatic steps against the Sunnis. In fact, they'll probably advise them not to do that, but at the same time to support Iranian interests more broadly across the region where - in places where Iran is trying to establish influence in the Persian Gulf, for example.

You know, the Iraqi government has already rather spoken out on behalf of the Bahraini Shiites who have risen up against their government. Imagine if you have a government in Baghdad that is pretty much an Iranian client, then, for example, you'll see much more aggressive Iraqi action and support of Shiites in the Persian Gulf.

MIKE: I'm sorry. I just want to make an...

CONAN: And you have to make it very quickly. We're running out of time, Mike.

MIKE: Yes, yes. I just want to say that we have gone over there, 5,000 miles away, and we dictate to all the neighboring countries not to interfere with Iraqi affairs. Whereas, the Iranians are their next-door neighbors and, you know, we condemn them for interfering with their affairs.

CONAN: Mike, thanks. I'm going to have to leave it there, but we appreciate the phone call. Jackson Diehl, thanks very much for your time today.

DIEHL: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor and columnist for The Washington Post, where his piece on Iraq ran today. There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org., click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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