Iran and the Iraq Crisis
Jun 27, 2014
June 27, 2014
Number 06/14 #05
The subject of this Update is the Iranian role in the crisis in Iraq – and the suggestions being made that the US and its allies share a common interest with Iran in protecting the Baghdad government from the attacks of the Sunni Islamist groups ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), which has succeeded in overrunning so much of the country.
First up is a direct counter-argument from American analysts Max Boot and Michael Doran to those who assert that, given supposed shared interests, the solution to the Iraq crisis is US cooperation with Iran. They argue the supposed common interests are illusory – and indeed, not only does the rise of ISIS provide Teheran with some benefits, including increasing control over the Iraqi government, there is evidence of Iran aiding ISIS in the past. They further argue that allying with Iran would mean cooperation with equally ugly Shi’ite elements involved in ethnically cleansing parts of Iraq of Sunnis as well as the murderous Assad regime in Syria. For the rest of their argument, including some suggestions about alternative US policies for Iraq, CLICK HERE. Additional analyses of the problem of relying on Iran as an ally in Iraq come from Michael Singh of the Washington Institute, former Israeli diplomat Zalman Shoval, American analyst Lee Smith, and former US official Elliot Abrams. Plus, fomer Obama Adminstation foreign policy advisor Steven Simon warns that the most likely outcome in Iraq is that ISIS will burn itself out and leave Iran the winner in that country.
Next, scholar of Iran policy Reuel Marc Gerecht offers a more detailed and historical attempt to refute the notion that in Iraq, Iran, the enemy of my enemy ISIS, is my friend. Gerecht discusses eruditely and at some length the differences and similarities between the type of Sunni holy warriors represented by ISIS and the more sophisticated Shi’ite holy warriors who dominate Iran’s leadership. He then knowledgeably pours cold water on the idea that Iran’s setbacks in Iraq in its struggle with the Saudi-led Sunni bloc will lead to any diminution in the regime’s anti-American obsessions. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Another nuanced and knowledgeable analysis of the Iranian role in Iraq comes from Israeli academic Ephraim Kam.
Finally, on a different but related issue, we offer an analysis from Israeli arms control expert Emily Landau of where the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1, led by the US, currently are, as the six-month interim nuclear deal signed earlier this year is set to come to an end on July 20. Landau warns that a good result in the talks looks highly unlikely and moreover, that Iran has been preparing the ground to try to blame the US in global opinion for any failure. She argues that the US, by contrast, has tried to quit the “blame game”, but the time has come to now publicly make clear the reality of Iranian intransigence so as to disarm Iran of its apparent ability to walk away from the talks while successfully blaming the US for the breakdown. For the rest of her argument, CLICK HERE. A report on Israeli worries about the state of the nuclear talks with Iran – and reported increasing US willingness to concede considerable enrichment capabilities to Iran – is here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A good analysis of the West’s overall relations with Iran from Israeli strategic analyst Michael Herzog.
- Peter Berger offers an intelligent assessment of the extent to which the Sunni-Shi’ite religious divide is really behind the fighting in Iraq.
- With the capture of the major Iraqi frontier post with Jordan by ISIS, some reports on Jordan’s efforts to meet the ISIS threat here, here and here.
- Two important pieces on the disruption to the world petroleum market caused by recent events in Iraq – here and here. Plus, some analysis of the reported fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is now exporting oil to Israel via Turkey.
- Noted Israel columnist and recent visitor to Australia Ari Shavit on the new “Eastern front” threat that Israel now faces from Syria and Iran.
- Isi Leibler writes about the increasingly dire situation for European Jews. Earlier, he had a piece on the “barbarism” which he argues is common to both Shi’te and Sunni Jihadists, as well as to the Hamas terrorists allegedly responsible for kidnapping three Israeli teens.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Both AIJAC National Chairman Mark Leibler and Policy Analyst Or Avi-Guy published op/eds commenting on the recent Australian debate about whether the Federal Government should refer to east Jerusalem as “occupied.”
- Ahron Shapiro looks at what people in the Middle East and US really think about Australia’s rhetorical debate about using the word “occupied.” Plus, he points out some new authoritative material on the myth and reality of West Bank settlement growth.
- Allon Lee examines some lessons about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that can be drawn from the new memoirs of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
- Gabrielle Debinski on the reality of what is actually happening on the ground under the new Fatah-Hamas “unity” deal.
- In addition, last weekend saw the passing away, at 68 years of age, of one of the greatest scholars of the contemporary Middle East, Prof. Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University and later Stanford University. AIJAC joins others who follow the Middle East in mourning this profound loss to the academic study of the region. There has been an outpouring of tributes and remembrances from colleagues and former students of Ajami. Some we particularly recommend come from: Prof. Martin Kramer, Michael Young, Samuel Tadros, Bret Stephens, Michael Mandelbaum, and Seth Lipsky.
The growing disaster in Iraq has triggered anguished debate over two fundamental questions: What went wrong? And what do we do about it?
Surprisingly, many people who disagree vehemently about the former question (in particular, whether President George W. Bush or President Obama is more to blame) agree on the latter. Thus Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has consistently attacked the Obama administration for its foreign policy, suggests that the United States should work with Iran to counter the rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That idea was also advanced by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who said Monday that the administration is “open to discussions” with Tehran and would “not rule out” cooperation in Iraq.
It’s sometimes true that very different countries can cooperate against a common enemy, as the United States and Soviet Union did during World War II. But the suggestion of a united U.S.-Iran front is more reminiscent of the wishful thinking among conservatives who argued in the 1930s that Britain and the United States shared a common interest with Nazi Germany in countering communism. The idea that the United States, a nation bent on defending democracy and safeguarding stability, shares a common interest with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a revolutionary theocracy that is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world, is as fanciful as the notion that Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler could work together for the good of Europe.
While it’s true that Iran is run by Shiite fundamentalists and ISIS is a Sunni organization, the rise of ISIS provides Tehran with multiple benefits. For one thing, it makes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Shiites of Iraq ever more dependent on Iranian protection. For another, ISIS’s frightening rise makes the United States more likely to compromise with Iran.
We have grown accustomed to Pakistan playing both arsonist and fireman at the same time — sheltering Osama bin Laden and supporting jihadist groups while winning aid from Washington by portraying itself as a partner in the war against terrorism. Iran is adept at playing a similar game, only instead of aid it is likely hoping for a further relaxation of Western sanctions and a sweeter deal on its nuclear program.
Indeed, the non-jihadist Syrian opposition insists that ISIS is a creation of Iran. In typical Middle East fashion, the Syrians overstate the case, but there is much evidence that Iran and its Syrian allies have cooperated with ISIS. Don’t forget that ISIS (then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq) was launched by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who, U.S. intelligence believes, received aid, shelter and financial support from Iran after he was chased out of Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2001. Zarqawi received even more support from Iran’s close ally, Syria, which allowed its territory to be used to supply al-Qaeda in Iraq with a steady stream of foreign fighters.
As recently as 2012, the Treasury Department identified Iran as supportive of ISIS, which has reportedly grown fat in no small part due to deals with the Assad regime for oil from wells under its control. That’s right. According to Western intelligence sources, Assad, Iran’s top client in the region, has a business partnership with ISIS even though ISIS has been fighting his regime. (Assad’s motives are varied, but among them is thought to be a desire to boost jihadist fighters so as to discredit the opposition in Western eyes.)
But even if we were to assume that Iran is truly ISIS’s implacable enemy, that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea for the United States to cooperate with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps — an organization that has been responsible for attacks against U.S. targets stretching back more than 30 years. We have seen in Syria how Iranian-backed forces go about putting down a Sunni-led insurgency. More than 150,000 people have already been killed in the Syrian civil war and millions more uprooted from their homes. The Assad regime has become notorious for dropping “barrel bombs” on civilians and even using chemical weapons.
Iranian-backed groups used equally brutal methods in Iraq during the height of the fighting after al-Qaeda’s bombing of the Samarra mosque in 2006. Shiite extremists became notorious for kidnapping and torturing Sunnis. Those same groups stand on the front lines today of Shiite resistance to ISIS.
The United States would be making a historic error if it were to assist such an Iranian-orchestrated ethnic-cleansing campaign with air power or even with diplomatic support. Not only would this be morally reprehensible, it would be strategically stupid because it would convince the region’s Sunni Muslims that the United States is siding against them with Iran and its regional allies. This could lead Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to support extremists such as ISIS, further feeding the growing sectarian conflict across the region.
Instead, the United States should develop a coalition of our traditional allies dedicated to building up an alternative to al-Qaeda in the vast battlefield now stretching from Baghdad to Damascus. Such a policy will require training and equipping non-jihadist fighters of the Free Syrian Army while working to pull the Iraqi government out of Iran’s orbit. The latter goal will probably require a strenuous effort to scuttle Maliki’s bid for a third term in favor of a more inclusive leader. The United States should also work covertly, as it did during the 2007-2008 surge, to destroy Iranian networks in Iraq.
Michael Doran is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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When Ottoman armies marched into Europe in the mid-14th century, Europeans started looking hopefully eastward for enemies of the Turks. Spanish and French kings sent ambassadors to Tamerlane when the last great Muslim Mongol conqueror started marching west. Europeans and Byzantines rejoiced when the Central Asian obliterated the hitherto invincible legions of the Ottoman sultan, Beyazid the Lightning Bolt, at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. When the Persian Safavid shah Abbas I started gaining strength in the late 16th century, Europeans took note, seeing a potential powerful ally against their dreaded Muslim foe.
Change dates and Muslims: Some Westerners are again hoping that Iranians can be helpful against Sunni holy warriors in the Middle East. This thought has crossed the minds of senior administration officials and even a dogged skeptic of Iranian intentions like the Republican senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham. He wants Tehran to help save Baghdad from the onrushing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a ferocious offshoot of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s savage Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“We need to coordinate with the Iranians,” the senator urged, “and the Turks need to get in the game and get the Sunni Arabs back into the game, [and] form a new government without [Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-] Maliki.” Through talks, Graham believes, the United States can persuade the clerical regime not to seek dominion over the Shiite regions of Iraq.
None of this makes sense. Sunni radical Islamists are more primitive than their Iranian counterparts: In the Islamic Republic there has been a vivid debate, and a seesawing of government policy, about whether the public stoning of adulteresses, now banned, is a civilized practice; lapidation is de rigueur among staunch Sunni fundamentalists. The onetime major-domo of the politicized clergy and President Hassan Rouhani’s most consequential patron, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has a real appreciation for history and literature, which may partly explain his enthusiasm for nuclear weapons and the assassination, now and then, of troublesome dissidents. Iranian emissaries often have no trouble shaking the hands of (male) Westerners. With only the rarest exceptions, Sunni hardcore Islamists who spring from the Saudi Wahhabi tradition are cultural reductionists. They zealously strip their own history of its color and complexity. They are incurious about foreign lands. They loathe the touch of infidels.
Sunni jihadists are certainly scarier now than their Shiite counterparts: Public decapitation with swords and knives is, at least in modern times, more Saudi than Persian, and suicide bombing, which Sunni radicals now relish, has passed into desuetude among Shiites. Even the radical Shiite clergy—Sunnis don’t really have a clerisy to whom they give their obeisance—was never particularly enamored of this type of terrorism, even though Arab Shiites in Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon were its trailblazers. It’s questionable whether the leaders of the Sunni jihad raging across Syria and Iraq really want to blow themselves up, but certainly the rank-and-file radicals appear more wild than even the shock troops of the Lebanese Hezbollah, who’ve slaughtered Sunni civilians in Syria. Hezbollah’s fighters are more professional and camera-shy when they butcher their enemies.
Compared with Shiite holy warriors, Sunni jihadists, especially in Arab lands, are morally more distant from their fathers’ and grand-fathers’ socially conservative traditions, which despite their severity allowed for furtive sin and hypocrisy. In this sense, modern Sunni jihadists aren’t just stateless; they’re village-less. Their pristine, zealously egalitarian faith has become fluid, ready to be poured into any projectile that radical Sunni leaders have the skill to aim. That is just less true of militant Shiites. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has certainly tried to turn Islam into an ideology, a never-ending charge against the United States and Westernization. But the vanguard of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, who have brutally battered the older mores of the faith and the restraining politesse of Persian culture, kill and torture selectively, more carefully now than they had to 30 years ago. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the praetorians of the revolution, who’ve used terrorism at home and abroad as an essential tool of statecraft, still have to, however reluctantly, give deference to clerics.
This isn’t an intentional system of checks and balances; it’s just what happens when an Islamic revolution is made by well-educated Iranian mullahs who can’t quite figure out how the Persian-Islamic marriage works in a modern theocratic state with a global revolutionary mission. Iranians can shift from zealous, arrogant, extroverted believers to introverted, polite, and pious worshippers to rampaging cynics in fairly short order. They’re not schizophrenic; they’re just giving due deference to all of the component parts of their heavy yet evolving cultural inheritance.
By contrast, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, defers to no one, and certainly not to Ayman al Zawahiri, the far less powerful titular head of al Qaeda central, who probably fears that his group, hiding on the subcontinent, may no longer be that competitive among Arabs. Most Arab Sunni jihadists have grown up in societies without any real moral compass. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Arab military dictatorships more or less obliterated the old order, with its deference to family, class, education, and religious institutions. The only thing that gave comfort and security in this vacuum was the faith, but the faith was in free fall.
Shiites have an advantage over Sunnis in times of trouble because their historic evolution, even after Iran became a powerful Shiite empire in the 16th century, has been at a distance from “those who hold the reins.” In the Islamic Republic, the state and the clergy are not interchangeable. There is a tension—a constant negotiation—among clerics about who are the proper arbiters of right and wrong. Sunnis have always been much more closely married to the state; they are more likely to collapse into crises of faith when government gives way or comes to be seen as illegitimate. Both are happening throughout the Arab Middle East.
Mutatis mutandis, something similar has happened with radicalized young Sunni Arab men who’ve grown up in Europe. Westernization has stripped them of their past, their conservative hierarchies and customs, while offering them a difficult integration into unfriendly societies whose national identities are still ethnic (think German) or impossibly vague (think Belgian) and still more than a little bit Christian. Liberal individualism, the elixir of Western strength, can be a lonely, cold creed for immigrants, and the children of immigrants, in an identity crisis. And alienation in Europe now pairs up with desecration in the Middle East. Islam, the oldest of such people’s available identities, naturally rises and becomes supercharged. Jihadism can then quickly emerge—especially if the right hot war is nearby.
We don’t know how many European and American Sunnis have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq. But it appears that something has finally snapped in the West’s young Arab Sunni males, at least in Europe. If true, that crackup mirrors, or imitates, the cultural Gotterdämmerung in the motherlands. It’s interesting: Even though millions of Iranians and Arab Shiites now live in the West, we’ve not seen them in significant numbers answer a call to jihad against Sunnis or Westerners. Although Westernization once produced a remarkable number of Iranian Islamist revolutionaries, that is no longer the case. Westernization among Shiites now appears to severely dampen their enthusiasm for Muslim fraternity or more violent callings.
In his loathing of the United States, al-Baghdadi is probably indistinguishable from Khamenei or Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the expeditionary and preeminent terrorist unit within the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who, with considerable foresight and planning, killed probably hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. The difference between these men, at least vis-à-vis the West, is not really of ideas or ideals or even means. In Iraq, Khamenei and Suleimani, like al-Baghdadi, have doggedly encouraged sectarian politics and violence to increase Tehran’s leverage over the Iraqi Shiites, who tend to take their distance from Iran as they become more self-confident. The triumph of Sunni militants in the north of Iraq doesn’t weaken Tehran’s position in that country; it fortifies it. It’s doubtful that Suleimani is all that worried about Baghdad falling—the capital is now Shiite turf, and Suleimani has an excellent, eyewitness grasp of the Battle of Baghdad between 2005 and 2007, which the Iranian-backed Shiite militias decisively won. Sunni numbers and weaponry are still woefully insufficient for urban combat in hostile territory. Al-Baghdadi’s forces could easily get destroyed in a protracted conflict in the capital. The loss of Samarra, one of Shiism’s shrine cities, to Sunni radicals is embarrassing to all Shiites. And the certain increase of Sunni terrorism in Baghdad and elsewhere will anger Iranians. But such terrorism will inevitably tighten the ties between the Quds Force and Iraqi security and intelligence services, which is an enormous, long-term plus for Khamenei’s regime.
Iran has never been averse to Sunni radicals who lived to harm the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, Rafsanjani, with Rouhani always at his side, institutionalized an ecumenical approach towards militant Sunni fundamentalists: The Islamic Republic would esteem and aid them—even if they had unkind thoughts about Shiites—so long as they expressed enmity towards the United States and Israel.
What’s different now is that Sunni radicals have succeeded spectacularly in Syria and Iraq, threatening Tehran’s most important Arab Shiite ally in the Levant, Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime. Sectarian conflict on this scale makes it difficult to find Sunni Muslims willing to bless the Islamic Republic’s overarching mission against the United States. However, this loss isn’t going to moderate the clerical regime’s anti-American calling—the hope of those who now see an Iranian opportunity for America in Iraq. Just read the supreme leader’s speeches since the Sunni uprising in Syria started threatening the Islamic Republic’s alliances. Anti-Americanism is as strong as ever if not worse —even though President Obama has shown that he has no intention of militarily threatening Assad’s rule.
What is going to happen? The Iranians will probably double down on their militant Sunni outreach, even as they fan the flames of sectarian war in both Syria and Iraq. They will reflexively try to find common ground with jihadists in anti-American rhetoric. They will try to rally all Muslims to their side in the nuclear test of wills with Washington and Europe. The Iranians know that they are in a major religious battle with Saudi Arabia, comparable to the tug of war when the Iranian revolution led to the expansion of militant missionary activity on both sides. The Saudis decisively won that round; one of its deleterious byproducts was the Wahhabization of so many Sunni schools and mosques in the Islamic world and Europe.
It is possible that the present Sunni-Shiite conflict could, if the Iranian body count rises and too much national treasure is spent, produce shock waves that fundamentally weaken the clerical regime. Iran has millions of Sunnis living within its borders—many more than the regime likes to admit. Things could get violent inside the Islamic Republic. Further down the road, it’s even conceivable that if the Sunni-Shiite slaughter were sufficiently intense, both sides might exhaust themselves and grow more tolerant.
But whenever Islam is superheated, infidels fare poorly. While both sides of this old and bitter divide kill each other, Sunni and Shiite radicals will surely try to outbid each other over who is the staunchest enemy of the United States. In this ugly contest, the Iranians will be the more fascinating to watch: They are highbrow Islamic revolutionaries, which means, among other things, that they can esteem risqué Persian verse as much as they do nuclear physics. Qassem Suleimani, my Shiite Iraqi friends swear, can even be an entertaining dinner guest.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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A month ahead of the deadline for the current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over a comprehensive nuclear deal, the stated positions of the two sides could not be further apart. It is hard to see how they will bridge the gulf between them, especially as this negotiation is fundamentally not about achieving some middle ground on the nuclear issues. Rather, the onus is on Iran to adhere to international demands after it violated its NPT commitments, cheated and deceived, and lost the trust of the international community. In return for backing away from its military aspirations, sanctions would be lifted.
But for the past seven months, all we have heard from Iran is that it has done no wrong in the nuclear realm, and it therefore refuses to curb in a significant manner any of its nuclear activities: no dismantlement of centrifuges (indeed, Iran wants to add another 30,000!), no end to enrichment, no closing of facilities at Arak and Fordow, no discussion of its ballistic missiles (delivery system), and no discussion of Iran’s strongly suspected weaponization activities.
So, save the unlikely scenario of Iran backing away from all of its current positions, we are looking either to a bad deal, where the P5+1 – averse to the prospect of negotiations breakdown and thus eager to close a deal – agree to back away from their legitimate demands; a prolonging of the negotiations for up to another six months; or some kind of (temporary) breakdown or impasse.
And this is where the blame game comes into play, as a potentially decisive factor in the dynamic. Iran has long been preparing itself for the possibility of a breakdown, a scenario it will manipulate and present as the result of US intransigence and failure to act in good faith. Such preparation finds expression in the stark disconnect between Iran’s uncompromising positions on the nuclear issues, and its parallel statements that castigate the US while professing its readiness to cooperate and move forward in a positive mode if only the P5+1 would adopt reasonable positions. This is a well-known Iranian tactic, used also during the Ahmadinejad years. The message has always been that if only the other side would be more ‘reasonable’ (namely, accept all of Iran’s arguments and positions) a deal could be achieved in short order.
How has the US played the game? Since Obama came into office, the US has been trying to be cooperative. It has offered Iran opportunities to demonstrate that it has no military intentions, with the secondary aim of highlighting that if Iran does not respond positively to these opportunities, it will clearly emerge as the intransigent party. This was the thinking behind the fuel deal offered to Iran in 2009 for example. It took some time for this strategy to produce results, but with a little help from Ahmadinejad, by 2012 the US had convinced the world that it was making a real effort, and that it was indeed Iran’s lack of cooperation, coupled with continued aggressiveness and nuclear advances, that necessitated harsh economic and financial sanctions.
But since the election of Rohani in 2013, the US abandoned this strategy — it basically quit the blame game, even though it feared that Iran was still playing. Thus, we found the Obama administration bending over backwards since October 2013 so as not to upset Iran, with the aim of preempting any Iranian attempt to blame it of acting in bad faith, which could risk upsetting the fragile negotiation. The US has either been silent on, or downplayed, both Iran’s intransigent nuclear positions, as well as the continued hateful rhetoric coming from the supreme leader. It is not even clear whether the administration will press hard to confront Iran with the weaponization aspects of its nuclear program, for fear of humiliating Iran, even though confronting Iran with this evidence would help cement the claim that the problem lies with Iran, not the US.
And despite the US administration’s best efforts, Iran is poised to blame it anyway. Iran most likely perceives US instances of holding back as an expression of its weakness, which is not far from the truth when we take into account that by working so hard to keep the talks alive, the US is projecting its dependence on the negotiations framework. And ‘dependence’ equals ‘weakness’ in any bargaining situation.
For Iran, beyond a P5+1-Iran deal which enables it to maintain the critical components of its nuclear program while still gaining sanctions relief, an impasse in the talks would be the next best outcome. Iran would emphatically claim to have negotiated in good faith, and been blocked by an uncompromising US. It would hope to convince other states to return to economic cooperation, while impressing upon them that it did everything it could to negotiate a deal.
This Iranian ‘frame game’ cannot go unanswered. It’s high time to push back while openly clarifying that when one cuts through all the smiles of the past seven months, on the substantive issues, Iran’s overwhelming refrain has been a resounding and intransigent ‘no’.
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv.