After nine years, the war in Iraq became officially over on December 15, 2011. Now many analysts and policy-makers are busy debating the impact of the US move on the regional balance of power. In these debates Iran's regional clout and its future interaction with the US, predominates the political/military discourse.

American military withdrawal from Iraq marks a turning point in many aspects, most importantly from geopolitical perspective. That event took place at a time that there are fundamental changes occurring in the Arab world in shape of uprisings and revolutions. It is also at a time of world economic upheavals, Euro zone crisis, and amid emerging strategic differences between the US and Russia on some major strategic issues namely the missile defense shield in Europe and the crisis in Syria.

The US military pullout of Iraq has induced much anxiety among policy makers and some elites in the military strategic establishments in the US. There is a broad consensus among analysts that although the initial policy to remove Saddam from power in Iraq may have had some justifications but ensuing policy for the occupation of Iraq were disastrous. This is best explained by Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister of Iraq: “They [the Americans] succeeded in freeing the Iraqi people from the tyranny of that regime… [but there were] many, many failures and mistakes. The occupation was a curse, it didn't work.”

The human toll during Iraq's occupation has indeed been very high. More than 100,000 people in Iraq have been killed and millions have been wounded or forced to abandon their homes. As the result of the war much of Iraq's infrastructure has been devastated too. The cost of occupation was also dreadful for Americans. From nearly 1.5 million US troops that served in Iraq during the period of 2003 to 20011; 4,487 US Soldiers were killed and 32,226 US Soldiers were seriously wounded. The war cost according to the Pentagon was $800bn, but it is estimated that the total costs may eventually reach $3 trillion. To end the occupation, the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States (SOFA) stipulated that U.S. combat forces would withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and all U.S. forces would be completely out of Iraq by December 31, 2011.

However, as the deadline for withdrawal of US military forces was soon approaching, signs of hesitation on the US side became apparent. The US officials were openly pressing Iraqi government to accept establishment of permanent military bases and to maintain as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of 2011. But despite lengthy talks they failed to convince Iraqi government. Later, Prime Minister Maliki hailed the outcome of that process saying that “This withdrawal... indicates success"for Iraq. Some analysts suggested that the Iraqi decision was a perk for Iran which had been battling against the establishment of permanent American bases in Iraq and in other countries in its regional neighborhood.

Meanwhile, in a ceremony marking the end of US military presence in Iraq, President Obama, distanced his administration from the decisions taken by his predecessor for the invasion and occupation of Iraq by saying that "I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq." He then went on to explain what corrective measures he has taken about the policy of occupation, "When I took office, nearly 150,000 American troops were deployed in Iraq, and I pledged to end this war, responsibly." President Obama also took that opportunity to make some pointed remarks about Iran. He expressed hope that PM Maliki would "be willing to make very tough decisions in the interest of Iraqi nationalism even if they cause problems with his neighbor [Iran]." On the question of the crisis in Syria, Obama while downplaying the differences that exists between the US and Iraq over Syria, said that "Even if there are tactical disagreements between Iraq and the United States at this point in how to deal with Syria, I have absolutely no doubt that these decisions are being made based on what Prime Minister Maliki believes is best for Iraq, not based on considerations of what Iran would like to see." That statement clearly reflects the concerns in the US administration that "The U.S. military's departure from Iraq opens the door to expanded Iranian influence in the Greater Middle East." According to that narrative, Iran would take advantage of the power vacuum caused by the US withdrawal from Iraq to complete a geopolitical design for the so-called Shiite Crescent that stretches from the Persian Gulf, Iran , Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah of Lebanon. Thus, Iran emerges as a regional power with a sphere of influence that extends from eastern Afghanistan to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. According to the same view point the main concern about Iran is not much about its nuclear program –although that could be used as leverage for political pressure-but rather about its quest for regional primacy.

In what seems to be a general perception among regional countries namely Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners, a pro- Iranian Iraq as the second most populous country in the Persian Gulf region, with some of the world's largest proven oil reserves would be a game changer in the balance of power in the region. During Saddam's rule in Iraq, the US and its regional allies pinned hope to Iraq as a regional balancer against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In that strategy the Baathist regime of Iraq was boosted by the US and its allies in its 8 year war against Iran through military, intelligence and financial assistance. But later when the intransigency of Saddam became intolerable the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq removed him from power. In the course of that process, an alliance was established between the Americans and religiously based Shiite parties who formed the new government in Iraq. Interestingly, they are tied simultaneously to both Washington and Tehran and have the potential to mediate in the troubled relations between Iran and the US in future.

With the planned US military withdrawal from Iraq been accomplished, fears have grown among US allies that Baghdad would eventually fall in Tehran's orbit. And here came the idea of finding a new balancer against Iran. For some time, Turkey has been considered to be a right candidate for this purpose. This idea became more attractive after the "Arab Spring" and when "Turkey model" was advocated for the newly established regimes in the Arab world. At the same time, in reaction to an Iranian strategic victory in Iraq a plan for regime change in Syria became attractive to the GCC and the Arab League by imposing sanctions against Syria over the killing of protesters.

Hence, parties who were directly affected by the emerging geopolitics of the region started taking sides. Turkey and the Arab League took the lead in supporting the Syrian opposition. The regional and international adversaries of the regime of Al- Assad have declared that they are supporting the freedom and democracy of the Syrian people, but it seems that they are more concerned about Iran's rising power; especially, from a perspective that Iran might take control of the region after the retreat of the US forces. On the other side, Iran, Hezbollah of Lebanon and Iraq while supporting non violent changes and reforms in Syria are against NATO or outside military intervention in Syria a la Libya. They contend that any violent moves to topple the Syrian regime could trigger a civil war that would further endanger the fragile regional stability. President Ahmadinejad of Iran has proposed that Syrians should “implement the necessary reforms by themselves.” And, Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq maintains that “Syria will be able to overcome its crisis through reforms.” Interestingly, Iraq has already taken a diplomatic initiative for defusing the crisis in Syria.

After all, one thing is certain; Iraq has entered a new era after nine years of military occupation. Indeed people of Iraq have paid a heavy price for their liberty and freedom and they have every right and deserve to have an independent democratic country after that ordeal. But their success very much depends on the level of support they get from the international community and especially from two of its main allies namely Iran and the US; who incidentally are at loggerhead. But Iran and the US's mutual interests for establishment of peace and stability in Iraq - and in the wider region, might induce them to work closer with each other for helping Iraq; and through that process giving a chance for easing the current tension that exists in their troubled relations.

* The author, a former Iranian diplomat is a research scholar and writer in the fields of Iranian Foreign Policy, International Security, and Nuclear Disarmament. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it