Perhaps no other country faces a greater exposure to competition between Iran and the United States than Iraq. So far, inside Iraq, the Trump administration has sensibly prioritized counterterrorism partnership against ISIL over its broader policy of competition with Iran. But a pair of recent developments may test that approach.
Between these bad options — confronting Iran inside Iraq and walking away — lies a third: the long game. It requires accepting that Iraq will continue to uncomfortably straddle America and Iran. Since the 2003 invasion, American policy has whiplashed between surging troops in and pulling troops out. It is time to construct a more durable bilateral relationship that sees Iraq as a partner, rather than a client. That demands constructive engagement in support of Iraq’s fragile but stabilizing sovereignty. It entails support for compromise and pragmatism during Iraq’s difficult government formation process and promotion of Iraq’s continued regional integration. It means defining a sustainable, more restrained security cooperation paradigm in the wake of the defeat of ISIL. Such an approach is more carrot than stick. But it will also require articulation of viable redlines, for example if U.S.-supplied advanced weaponry leaks to militias or sectarianism once again goes off the rails. A more confident, more stable Iraq will be more resilient against both home-grown Sunni extremism and Iranian interference, and could yet play a productive role in a region riven with conflict.