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Former Ambassador To Iraq Discusses U.S. Strategies In Iran

Nasser Nasser
Associated Press
Iraqi army soldiers are deployed in front of the U.S. embassy, in Baghdad.

Tensions have recently flared between the U.S. and Iran after a series of events, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iranian attacks on U.S. allies and the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

Douglas A. Silliman, former ambassador to Iraq from 2016-2019, sat down with Think’s Krys Boyd to talk about the U.S. strategy in the Middle East. 

A Timeline Since The U.S. Withdrew From The Iran Nuclear Deal

  • Dec. 27: An American defense contractor is killed at the Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, Iraq. 
  • Dec. 29: The U.S. retaliates with airstrikes attacking Iranian military bases in Iraq and Syria. 
  • Dec. 31: Protestors attack the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. President Trump sends in more American troops to protect the embassy.
  • Jan. 3: President Trump orders an airstrike to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at the airport in Baghdad. 
  • Jan. 8: Iran retaliates with airstrikes at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces. 

The Roots Of Current Conflict

Silliman said the U.S. left an opening for historical divisions in Iraq to rise up after it removed Saddam Hussein and disbanded Iraqi armed forces in 2003. 

“Most people think of Sunni Muslim versus Shia Muslim, but there are also majority Arab versus minority Kurds, Christians, Yazidis,” he said. “There are urban versus rural, religious versus secular, and all of these fissures have been woven into Iraqi society over decades and they all came back to the surface.” 

Silliman said following the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani created a plan to impose an Iran-like system of security, governance and economics in Iraq. 

He said the U.S. can not compete with Iran because of the country’s deep ties to Iraq. 

“There is a 850 mile border between the two countries,” Silliman said. “There are thousands of years of history. There are tribal, religious, family relationships that go back and forth across the border.” 

But Silliman said American leadership can focus on supporting Iraq in developing its own sovereignty. He said the U.S., along with partners in Europe and Asia, should support the creation of a stronger Iraqi economy, which would help create more jobs and opportunities.

According to Silliman, the U.S. can most effectively block Iran’s influence in Iraq by strengthening Iraqi institutions. He said the goal should not be for the U.S. to stay in Iraq long-term. 

'I Actually Don’t Know And That’s One Of The Things That Worries Me'

Silliman said he is unclear as to what goals the Trump administration has for its relationship with Iran.

“I actually don’t know and that’s one of the things that worries me,” he said. 

During his time as ambassador to Iraq, Silliman said there were two possible policy routes being discussed in talks with senior Trump administration officials: using U.S. military power to take down the government in Tehran or waiting for economic sanctions on Iran to lead to its own collapse. 

He said “a pretty small minority” wanted to use military power, but the more popular option was to opt for economic sanctions — a plan that Silliman questions.

“I personally don’t think that’s very realistic. It hasn’t worked in North Korea, in Venezuela, in Cuba,” he said. “When you have a repressive dictatorship that puts down protests by killing the protestors, the protestors generally don’t win.”

Silliman said even if the use of economic pressure is successful, the lack of a viable successor to replace the government could lead to a more extreme Shia government that is even less democratic.

However, he said leaders could ease tensions in the region by better communicating their objectives.

“I think overtime popular concern about an American or western military presence will dissipate,” Silliman said. “Especially if the Trump administration and our NATO and coalition partners can reframe, restructure and re-advertise why those forces are there, and what the ultimate goal of having the forces there for Iraq actually is.”

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.