The latest issue of the The Economist features an interesting article about the rising influence of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in the Iraqi political process. The article cites sources who claim that a meeting took place between top American diplomatic and military officials and the head of Iran’s Quds Force in Iraq, General Qasem Suleimani. Analysts interpret this meeting as a sign that the United States is both coming to terms with the massive influence that Iran holds amongst Iraqi Shias and tacitly acknowledging the sheer dominance of the Iranian position relative to that of other regional players. (Although it is yet to be seen just how accommodating the United States will be towards Iranian aspirations for great influence in the region. There are many in the U.S. government who believe the United States must do everything in its power to counter Iranian influence, even if that means using Iraq as a battleground.) The article notes that Iraq has also become an important area of influence for Turkey and Saudi Arabia as demonstrated by the fact that both governments have established links with Iraqi political actors.
"Iraq’s three beefiest neighbors-Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey- have seen their influence in Baghdad wax as the Americans’ wanes. All three fear lest the vacuum left behind be filled by a regional rival…Simply put, the Iranians back the Shias and the Saudis back the Sunnis." (The Economist)
As Killian mentioned in his post, there is another conflict in which the broader Shia-Sunni rift is visible: the battle between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. The changing nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen point to an important trend: the emergence of regional proxy wars between the Middle East’s dominant powers in countries with a weak or emasculated central government. In the Middle East, the prime battlegrounds for regional hegemony are countries in which there is a significant power vacuum (Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon). In Iraq, Iran has employed a clever hedging strategy by supporting both the militias and the Shia-led parties based in Baghdad while the Saudis have advocated on behalf of Sunni interests. What is remarkable here is not Saudi Arabia and Iran’s willingness to use proxies to nakedly pursue their own interests, it is rather America’s inability to effectively project its power in these conflict zones. The economic power in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and the new regional player, Iran by virtue of their geography and historical ties to constituencies within Iraq, have much more influence over the trajectory of the Iraqi politics than the Americans could wish for. Therefore, America, it seems, will be forced to exercise its remaining influence through its allies in the region, a highly problematic strategy given the authoritarian nature of these regimes and their demonstrated willingness pursue their own regional ambitions through the strategic use of violence. As a number of Iran analysts have noted, the situation in Iraq also exposes the weakness of the American position vis-à-vis Iran: since America has not dealt extensively with Iran in the past thirty years, it maintains little to no soft influence with the Iranian leadership. That is precisely the dismal political reality that General Odierno and Ambassador Hill may have been attempting to rectify through their clandestine meeting with Suleimani, an effort which bears more similarity to the tactics of the C.I.A. than to the methods of a traditional diplomatic corps.