To Stop a U.S.-Iran War, Finlandize Iraq

By treating Iraqi territory as a neutral zone, Washington and Tehran can avoid conflict.

U.S. soldiers stand guard at the K1 Air Base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq on March 29, during its handover ceremony. The K1 base is the third site U.S.-led coalition troops have left in March.
U.S. soldiers stand guard at the K1 Air Base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq on March 29, during its handover ceremony. The K1 base is the third site U.S.-led coalition troops have left in March. Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

As the coronavirus pandemic rages around the world and Americans remain divided on reopening the economy, lawmakers in the United States seem united on one issue: an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives agrees that the conventional arms embargo on Iran, due to expire in October, should be renewed.

While it is indisputable that Iran supports terrorism and should have its access to conventional weapons curtailed, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration’s so-called maximum-pressure campaign carries a bigger danger: The United States could get caught in another war of choice in the Middle East.

By exerting pressure, supporting regime change, and working to cut off the regime’s access to resources without providing positive inducements or signals that compliance would be rewarded by the United States, there is a greater chance of Iran lashing out by directly attacking U.S. forces (such as the retaliation that came in the months after the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani) or of inadvertent escalation (such as in April, when Iranian speedboats came within a few yards of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, and Trump tweeted the U.S. Navy should “shoot down and destroy” any Iranian ships harassing U.S. vessels).

The United States and Iran could agree to treat Iraq as a “sphere of restraint” or neutral zone, much like the U.S. and the Soviet governments agreed to treat states such as Finland and Austria during the Cold War.

The United States and Iran could avoid such confrontations, which could easily spiral into war, by agreeing to “Finlandize” Iraq. Iraq would become a neutral state, like Finland during the Cold War—a “sphere of restraint” that would not serve as an arena of competition for influence, nor would it attempt to dominate others as it did during former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s reign.

It is likely that the Trump administration fears Iran will distribute new weapons to its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and rearm itself while restarting its atomic weapons program. A conventionally well-armed, nuclear Iran could be unstoppable in its quest to dominate the Middle East. However, Iran’s economy has been weakened by sanctions and low oil prices. Even if the embargo is lifted, Iran cannot afford tons of new weapons. Moreover, not only is Iran far away from having a nuclear weapon, but, as demonstrated by its recent space launch, it does not currently possess the capability to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile, either.

U.S.-Iranian relations have been bad for several years, but tensions began to escalate after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and inaugurated a new policy known as maximum pressure. Tensions worsened after the U.S. assassination of Suleimani in early January 2020. This inaugurated a dramatic escalation between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

The best way to de-escalate tensions now is to Finlandize Iraq. Shortly after World War II began, the Soviet Union demanded that Finland cede a large amount of its territory in order to protect Leningrad. However, the Finns refused and preferred to fight rather than capitulate. The Soviets invaded Finland in what became known as the Winter War.

The conflict lasted a little more than three months, and the Soviets incurred large numbers of casualties. They also significantly lowered their demands at the peace table in 1940.  “Finlandization,” described as “active and principled neutrality,” was later inaugurated in  1948.  The Finns and the Soviets agreed that Finland would not join any alliance with a power hostile to Moscow, in exchange for the Soviets respecting Finland’s autonomy and democracy. Under this arrangement, Finland avoided becoming a puppet state and the Soviets avoided having a hostile neighbor.

Similarly, the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France reached a similar arrangement when they agreed to withdraw from Austria in the Austrian State Treaty in 1955. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev remarked at the time, “Is there any stronger proof necessary to show that the Soviet Union does not want to seize Europe to carry on any sort of war? … Who would evacuate troops if he wanted to attack?” Shortly after the last Allied troops left Austria in October 1955, the Austrian Parliament passed a measure declaring the country’s neutrality.

In other words, the United States and Iran could agree to treat Iraq as a “sphere of restraint” or neutral zone, much like the U.S. and the Soviet governments agreed to treat states such as Finland and Austria during the Cold War. Such arrangements have worked well for those countries, as well as for Switzerland and Sweden. Scholars have proposed implementing similar agreements in places from Taiwan to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

However, it is important to note the differences between some of these situations and present-day Iraq.

Like Finland, Iraq has a more powerful neighbor (Iran) with a vested interest in pulling its domestic political strings. Both states  have  a more powerful patron that is also interested in its domestic political composition. Arguably, Iraq lives in a tougher, more complicated neighborhood than Finland did. In addition to Iran, Iraq faces Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and shares a border with a failed state, Syria. Iraq’s domestic sovereignty, unlike Finland’s in the 1940s, is still in development.

Iran supports proxy militias in Iraq, such as groups within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), while the United States stations troops there. Iran has had an interest in Iraq since at least the 16th century, when the Persian Empire was forced out of Baghdad by the Ottomans. Under the last shah, Iran supported the ambitions of the Kurds and cultivated ties with leading Shiite dignitaries in order to prevent the emergence of a strong competitor on its border. After the overthrow of Saddam, Iran took advantage of the resulting chaos to prevent the emergence of yet another security threat emerging from Iraq’s borders.

Given these dynamics, a Finlandized Iraq would require a number of commitments on both sides.

First, it would require that Iran and the United States commit to the territorial integrity of Iraq. Iraq would be free to decide whether to grant more or less autonomy to various provinces and regions, but neither the United States nor Iran would support or recognize the independence of portions that would attempt to secede, such as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This would have the effect of reassuring Turkey, which operates several bases in the KRG under the guise of fighting the pro-independence Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) because it is afraid that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could lead to a set of falling ethnic dominoes that would result in another uprising by its own Kurdish population. (Iran also fears that its own Kurdish population could be encouraged to secede if the KRG gained independence.)

If both Iran and the United States refuse to recognize an independent Kurdistan and attach strict conditions to aid to Iraq and the KRG specifically, it should mollify Turkey’s fears. After all, Turkey does not need to maintain bases that violate Iraq’s sovereignty; it is capable of putting down a Kurdish attempt at secession from its own borders, given the size of its armed forces.

Second, as was the case in the Austrian State Treaty, the U.S. and Iranian governments would agree to withdraw their forces. This would include soldiers operating under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as U.S. troops and contractors. Iraq could not host any foreign bases hostile to either the United States or Iran. All foreign bases currently in operation would need to be handed over to Baghdad or dismantled. Channeling Khrushchev and the Austrian State Treaty, this would serve as a costly signal to both sides that neither is interested in territorial aggression.

Third, the United States and Iran would only provide aid to Iraq that carried the condition that the central government in Baghdad improve its military effectiveness with respect to domestic policing and counterterrorism. Aid would be cut off should Iraq fail to meet a set of benchmarks ironed out between the United States and Iran. Iran would need to apply pressure on the PMU militias so that they integrate with the rest of Iraq’s armed forces. Nominally, the PMU militias are led by the prime minister, but in fact they are largely independent, with Iran as their primary influencer. Any aid provided to the KRG would have similar strings attached: closer coordination with the rest of Iraq’s armed forces and a greater focus on counterterrorism.

These conditions would reverse the situation that compelled Iran and the United States to escalate their presences in Iraq: that Iraqi forces could not combat the Islamic State on their own. They would prevent a return to Saddam-era aggression by denying Iraq the ability to conquer its neighbors while ensuring that the Iraqi state can combat terrorists on its own. Finally, the U.S. refusal to attach conditionality to Iraqi aid made it impossible to prevent former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from establishing sectarian governments.

In addition, the United States and Iran would seek to deconflict by separating the paths of their navies and coordinating the paths of their land forces, as well as establishing a hotline in the Gulf in order to prevent accidental firefights.

The paradox of the maximum-pressure campaign is that measures designed to keep arms out of the hands of Iran increase the probability the United States will wind up in another war. A simpler approach would begin by turning Iraq into a neutral zone and respecting each side’s security interests.

Albert B. Wolf is an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan  and a non-resident fellow at the BESA Center.

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