The current conflict in Iraq may have already inflicted irreversible damage on the country, leading either to partition or to an Iran-backed dictatorship.
That's according to Mike Morell, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in an in-depth interview with Charlie Rose on Tuesday. A militant group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has made substantial advances in Iraq in the past several weeks, and is within striking distance of Baghdad.
Morell said this conflict represents "the most serious set of circumstances in the Middle East" since the Arab-Israeli war in 1973.
The former deputy director envisioned three possible scenarios for Iraq's immediate future. The first possibility is partition. This would be the bloodiest scenario and would stir up sectarian violence, according to Morell, and will likely come true in the absence of any outside intervention. In this scenario, Morell said, "there will be an awful lot of blood. There will be humanitarian crises."
This would also mean that the militants could use the territory they've taken over "as a safe haven from which to attack Western Europe and from which to attack the homeland." And the conflict could also "spill over into the rest of the region."
In another scenario, Iraq could remain intact, but significant Iranian intervention would turn it into a "Shi'a dictatorship" and a de facto puppet state. This would leave the country in just as bad a situation as it was before the American invasion in 2003. "In essence, what happens is, you have an Iraq as you did under Saddam [Hussein], but the leader is a Shi'a," he said.
There is third possibility, however. The ideal outcome would be if Iraq comes together in a new democracy under a new governing coalition. This would require the involvement of the U.S., Iran, and moderate Sunni states, and the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Morell was not optimistic about the chances of reaching a democratic solution. He ranked the three scenarios above in descending order of likelihood: a partitioned Iraq, an Iranian puppet state, then a unified democracy. Specifically, he said that the ideal, democratic outcome is unlikely because of the twin challenges of getting Maliki to step down and of finding someone to succeed him who will be supported by both Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'a Iran.
As ISIS advances on Baghdad, Iraq's fate remains unclear. Any of these three scenarios is possible, but the only one that is remotely attractive to the U.S. — and the one that is most promising for Iraqi citizens — is the least likely.