The U.S. “long war” in Afghanistan may be ending, although it is far from clear what will happen when U.S. forces fully withdraw, and there is no way to predict what kind of new government will emerge and what level of U.S. aid and assistance – if any – will continue. The story in Iraq, however, is very different. The “long war” in Iraq against ISIS and extremist movements has broken up the ISIS “caliphate” – although elements of ISIS remain all too active – but Iraq remains a major strategic interest, faces a serious threat of being at least partially dominated by Iran, and is a country where the U.S. needs to forge some form of a new strategic partnership if this proves possible .
Iraq’s strategic importance is all too clear. Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves at 145 billion barrels, representing 17% of proven reserves in the Middle East and 8% of global reserves. It not only is strategically important in itself, but its position between a hostile Iran and a Syria tied to Russia will have a major impact on the stability of the Gulf and the Levant – so will Iraq’s Kurdish population that has long created tension with Turkey.
Iraq shares a border with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and an Iraq that came under major Iranian (and Syrian) control or influence – or some hostile Shi’ite faction – would not only threaten two key American strategic partners, but it would greatly increase the potential regional threat to Israel – as would any major security and economic ties between Iraq and Russia and/or China.
The U.S. still has a major economic interest in the broader stability and security of the Gulf region. Iraq and the other Gulf states are the source of some 20% of the world’s petroleum exports, and the flow of these exports is critical to China and key U.S. trading partners like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. China’s dependence on Gulf exports has already led it to negotiate a massive potential trade agreement with Iran and to establish a naval base in Djibouti – and the Gulf will remain a key potential target for Chinese efforts to increase its economic and military influence as well as future Chinese arms sales.
For all of the talk of U.S. energy independence, the U.S. economy remains as dependent on the stable flow of their manufactured goods as it once was on direct imports of Gulf petroleum. Furthermore, U.S. strategic partnerships with Egypt, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf states are both a critical way of minimizing the risk of any major new Arab-Israeli conflict and of giving the U.S. strategic leverage over China.
In short, there is no one lynch pin to the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East, but Iraq is a critical part of any future security structure in the Middle East.
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