Expansionist policies are the poison. What is the cure?
The reasons for US involvement in Afghanistan and, subsequently, Iraq were the same — the horrific terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 that took the lives of 3,000 victims on American soil. Twenty years later, the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan. And so, one might ask, will the US decide to exit Iraq completely as well?
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi recently declared that he would discuss the withdrawal of US combat forces with US officials, saying that there is no need for troops to remain. He also mentioned discussing plans for the remaining soldiers to train Iraqi forces. One might wonder if, in fact, not all US troops are about to leave the country.
With US forces at greater risk in both Iraq and Afghanistan following troop reductions, there is a wish for appeasement as well as a disengagement from the “over-muscled” approach. In both cases, the question is the same: Will it appease the Taliban and not encourage similar regimes to attempt to take over neighboring countries? And in the case of Iraq, will it ease tensions with the Iranians and encourage Tehran to develop positive regional relations?
The US also wants to ensure that stability ensues in Central Asian countries after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The same is true for Russia and China. Important points on how to build this stability have been raised during the Tashkent Conference hosted by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Indeed, a key ingredient is to promote economic integration regionally and cross-regionally by building platforms for trade and investment with a focus on sustainable development goals (SDGs). This will help bring a better life for local populations. Rebuilding trust will take time, but it is not impossible.
In Iraq, the prospect of a US withdrawal raises similar issues. The Iranian regime actively interferes in the domestic affairs of Arab countries with a negative and defiant foreign policy that encourages its proxies to challenge state sovereignty. Tehran’s goal is clear — control of the region. With a US withdrawal, the Iraqi prime minister would have to stand as his own man and not as a US-protected political leader, which would give him strength in the streets. Would he be capable of transforming this into real political gains? Could he subsequently move toward a new relationship with Iran? Disarm all militias? Stop Iranian interference? Again, these goals are difficult to achieve but not impossible.
Countries need to keep their ideologies within their own borders and respect state sovereignty. No country should support armed ideological groups that challenge and rebel against any state.
Khaled Abou Zahr
A successful shift in Iranian-Iraqi relations would strengthen neighborly and positive Iranian-Arab relations. This might never happen, and Iraq might fall into the hands of the Tehran regime. Yet, since the nuclear deal will also remove sanctions on Iran, the Biden presidency is giving Tehran a historical opportunity to turn things around, integrate and contribute to the building of a strong regional platform that will bring a better life for all in the Middle East. There is also the opportunity for Iran to be a key actor in Middle East and Central Asian cross-regional economic relations.
However, before this happens — or maybe to make it happen — Middle East and Gulf countries need to develop a common strategy for defense and security, as well as build a common vision for trade and investment. The defense architecture could be supported consistently by the US, which would allow the region to decide its future for itself with the support of international allies.
This alliance could then engage in clear discussion with Iran and raise any issues on a security and military level that are creating instability. Even if we do not agree and face each other, communication, and even back-channel communication, is important to avoid unnecessary escalation.
On the economic and trade side, there needs to be better access to markets between the regions, allowing entrepreneurs to expand and develop their activities from Almaty to Casablanca. On this level, we need to investigate the EU model — it is not a perfect one, but it has brought an end to centuries of wars and confrontation in Europe. Sovereign wealth funds have their international mandates, but, more importantly, there is a need to allow the private sector to meet and work together, especially as we move toward a tech and digital economy.
We will soon know if the US plans to withdraw from Iraq and, as always, we will immediately ask ourselves who will fill the void. So, it is time to think differently and ask why we allow these voids to exist in the Middle East in the first place. What should be done to make sure it never happens?
Building an economic platform focused on SDGs is part of the solution. Unfortunately, we are still far from my “blue sky thinking” of a regional tech-focused entrepreneurial ecosystem. But one thing is certain, the key to start changing the region is to end interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Expansionist policies are the true poison. Countries need to keep their ideologies within their own borders and respect state sovereignty. No country should support armed ideological groups that challenge and rebel against any state. It is time to build a defense architecture that will create a true deterrent, and allow countries in the region, regardless of ethnicity or religion, to join if they abide by the same principles and values.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.