The barbaric campaign of beheading kidnapped Western journalists and aid workers by the Sunni radical Islamist group, the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has certainly served the group’s purposes by sparking headlines and increasing its notoriety.
There is no question that ISIS is a serious threat on numerous levels – in terms of the global spread of radical Islamist extremism, in terms of promoting, planning, facilitating and inspiring international terrorism (as Australia has allegedly recently experienced), and especially in terms of the significant threat this uniquely well-funded and armed terrorist entity poses to the stability of many Middle Eastern states. These last include not only Iraq and Syria, but also Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Persian Gulf states.
Yet while ISIS’ ability to gain control of territory protected by weak, ill-trained or hapless defenders is demonstrable and dangerous, most military analysts believe it poses no real threat to organised, trained, and motivated regional armies.
By contrast, elsewhere in the Gulf region there exists a well-organised, well-resourced radical Islamist regime with hegemonic ambitions that commands a formidable army at home, abundant funds and which arms several proxy armies and terror groups abroad. Most disturbingly, it has now reached the advanced stages of developing a nuclear weapon and an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system.
That nation is the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the long-term threat posed by this country to the stability of the region, to global energy supplies, and to global non-proliferation efforts, remains extremely disconcerting.
As Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz recently said, “[ISIS] is a five-year problem… A nuclear Iran is a 50-year problem with far greater impact.”
US efforts against ISIS – and Australia’s contributions to them – seem fully justified by any serious consideration of the national interests of both countries. However, a significant danger from these efforts is that the currently critical efforts to stop an Iranian bomb will be sidelined – or worse still, Iran and its proxies will be empowered as a result.
Talks between the P5+1 and Iran continue to be unproductive ahead of a November 25 deadline – the latest round occurred on Sept. 19. There is reportedly little progress on the two key issues that must be resolved for any nuclear deal to be worth the paper it is printed on – greatly reducing the number of uranium enriching centrifuges Teheran is allowed to have from the current 20,000 it possesses, and stopping the construction of the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor, which will produce easily weaponised plutonium.
Meanwhile, an International Atomic Energy Agency report in early September confirmed that Iran had been failing to comply with a variety of transparency requirements imposed by the interim nuclear agreement signed late last year.
Further, Iran continues to fan the flames of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The longer-range rockets fired from Gaza into Israel during Operation Protective Edge included Iranian Fajr missiles, and Iran has provided Gaza with the know-how to further enhance the building of home-grown rockets. Meanwhile, Teheran also recently promised to send similar weapons to the West Bank.
Yet with ISIS and Gaza dominating the headlines, and the US Administration understandably focused upon building an international coalition to fight ISIS, it would be disastrous if, as a result, they were to neglect the main game. Nothing would be worse for regional or Western interests than allowing Iran to develop a fully-fledged nuclear weapons capability – either through signing off on an inadequate nuclear deal or by allowing Iran to continue its current bomb-building efforts without significant consequences.
Meanwhile, while US President Barack Obama has ostensibly ruled out partnering with Iran to fight ISIS – which would alienate most Arab allies of the US at least as much as Israel – it is clear that some in the Administration see the ISIS challenge as an area of common interest with Iran that could be the basis for a rapprochement. Thus, in mid-September, Iran reportedly rebuffed US feelers to discuss cooperation or coordination against ISIS.
It’s not hard to understand the Obama Administration’s probable rationale for these policies – its main goal to date has been to withdraw US forces from the region and avoid direct conflict whenever possible.
President Obama told the New Yorker in February that, to this end, he was seeking to establish an “equilibrium…between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran, in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
This approach may also partly explain the Administration’s largely passive position on Syria up until now – which effectively amounted to giving Iran and its Hezbollah proxy carte blanche to preserve the Assad regime, a key part of Iran’s regional axis.
Some in the US Administration appear to be still nurturing hopes that, by partnering with Iran in areas of mutual interest – like the fight against ISIS – and taking account of Iran’s regional interests, the US will earn goodwill in Teheran, draw it into a regional security structure and also persuade Iran to agree to an acceptable nuclear deal.
If so, this is a dangerously short-sighted and naïve approach. The idea that the extremist Shi’ite Islamist state of Iran – which has maintained a remarkably consistent policy over the course of decades in terms of its state sponsorship of terror and other rogue behaviour – can be transformed into an ally or partner of the West may be superficially appealing, but amounts to dangerous wishful thinking.
Yes, ISIS is dangerous and must be “degraded and ultimately destroyed” in President Obama’s words. But nothing could be more damaging to long-term regional and wider global stability, and Australian and American interests in the region, than to allow the fight against ISIS to become the distraction which allows Teheran to either develop nuclear weapons capabilities or extend its regional sphere of influence.