The Balancer

Iraq could be a military powerhouse and counter Iran—if it gets its act together.

Henry Kissinger is right: Iraq gets short shrift these days, especially from American policy makers. The main interest of most Americans is the projected withdrawal of all American forces during the coming year. But it is wise to think through what Iraq might look like if, despite all the challenges it faces, it manages to get its act together and becomes once more a major player in the Middle East.

The daily bombings in Iraq demonstrate that it is still a dangerous place, even though it is much more secure than it was a year and a half ago. Aside from security, there are four dominant items on the Iraq agenda this year. The upcoming March 7 elections will determine whether Prime Minister Malaki continues in office. The elections may be more open than anticipated since the 500 Sunni candidates, originally rejected on the grounds that they were Baathists, have now been reinstated. The withdrawal of American forces, planned to be completed by August 31, 2010 will be a critical moment for Iraq's stability. The long anticipated legislation concerning Iraq's oil production and development may finally be passed, and this will improve Baghdad's chances of rebuilding its energy sector. And, fourth, the dispute over Kirkuk and the possible conflict between the Arabs, the Kurds and the Turkmens over control of this vital city needs to be resolved.

But leaving aside many pessimistic scenarios, it is worth noting that Iraq's oil and gas deposits may be far larger than anyone anticipated. Iraq could be second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of fossil-fuel reserves. It could bring its oil production from 2 million barrels a day to 4 million or even 6 or 8 million over the coming decade. If the country stays together, this would result in a vast inflow of money, much of which will have to be spent on rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure of the country.

However, there will be enough revenues to permit Iraq to rearm the major components of its military forces. Since its defeat and the occupation, Iraq's primary efforts have been to reestablish its police and local forces to deal with the internal insurgency and criminal violence. If and when these threats are brought under control, Iraq will want to speed up the re-equipment of its ground forces, particularly armor, and will want to purchase a new air force, primarily from the United States. In both 2008 and 2009, there were reports that Iraq was prepared to spend up to $16.6 billion for arms purchases that would include refurbishing old Soviet T-72 tanks and buying American Abrams tanks, F-16 fighters and helicopters. Iraq also needs large numbers of transport aircraft since its internal logistical capabilities remain weak. If one assumes that Iraq will be able to buy what it wants on the international market, we could be talking about the reemergence of Iraq as a major military player.

This will be a double-edged sword. One the one hand, if Iraq remains friendly to the West and does not fall under the clutches of the mullahs in Iran (which is the concern of Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt), Iraq can resume its historic role as a balancer of Iran. This would be welcomed by the Arab countries, particularly the small countries of the GCC. On the other hand, the GCC, particularly Kuwait, have all too clear memories of what happens when a regime in Baghdad decides that it wants to teach a lesson to its smaller neighbors. The small states worry that a strong Iraq with nationalist ambitions could once more become a threat to them as well as to the Iranians. It is in this context that Iraq's residual military relations with the United States will have a great influence how Iraq develops its armed forces. America will not be able to stop an assertive Iraq from buying advanced arms, but Iraq remembers that U.S. sponsored embargoes on arms sales can be effective-they decisively weakened the Iranian armed forces during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and later resulted in disabling many of Saddam Hussein's forces after he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

In the long run, Iraq has all the ingredients to be a strong and powerful player in the Middle East. What is unknown is what directions its policies will take. At the moment this is a matter of speculation; in the future it could become a matter of great strategic importance.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.