Friday, June 20, 2014

The foreigner’s gift - Why Iran would gain from US military intervention in Iraq

What does one make of the apparent rapprochement between the United States and Iran over Iraq? It’s difficult to say, principally because both countries have very different agendas in the country, even if their shared aim is to contain the offensive of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

For Iran, fragmentation in Iraq is not only acceptable, but also – if controlled – desirable in helping the Islamic Republic impose its hegemony over the country. Tehran has backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki through thick and thin, doing nothing to restrain his divisive Shiite-centric policies that have so alienated the Sunni community. It has also persuaded other Shiite leaders, most prominently Muqtada al-Sadr, to go along with Maliki, even when they had no desire to do so.

In parallel, the Iranians have retained influence over Iraq’s Kurds. That’s understandable, given the border shared by Kurdistan and Iran, and the fact that the Kurds are sandwiched between Turkey and Iran while being caught up in a tense relationship with the rest of Iraq. In this context the Kurds simply cannot afford to alienate their powerful neighbors. Illustrating the ties, even when he was president, Jalal Talabani was said to meet regularly with General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

For Iran, enhancing fragmentation is a necessary strategy to assert its power. The Islamic Republic, which is in the midst of expanding its regional influence, would find it much more difficult to control unified Arab countries. With chaos, on the other hand, Iran can make gains amidst division and exploit the political openings provided by perpetual conflict.

That is precisely the plan Iran has followed in Syria. Tehran has bolstered the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but only in a strategically important area that includes Damascus, the border with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communications lines in between. Outside those areas Iran, both for reasons of necessity and choice, has not helped Assad’s army re-conquer territory, effectively helping to harden de facto partition lines in Syria.

What disturbs the Iranians today in Iraq is not that the state appears to be falling apart. It is that the Sunni uprising risks undermining vital Iranian interests, while simultaneously obstructing the geographic continuity between Iran and Syria and Lebanon. This is particularly important in the event Iran must rearm or supply Hezbollah or the Assad regime. 

Unlike Iran, the United States is not after fragmentation in Iraq: it is after integration. Its message to Maliki has been that he better integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi state if he seeks American assistance. Washington has reportedly also asked the Kurds to help the Maliki government regain territory from ISIS, a request the Kurds have reportedly resisted. Iran has asked the same. But where the Americans did so in order to rally Iraq’s different communities, seeing the ISIS threat as a potential national unifying factor, Iran seems far more concerned with reversing the broader Sunni challenge, even if that means mobilizing Shiites in a campaign bound to heighten sectarian animosities.

What would this mean for collaboration between Iran and the United States? The Obama administration has just announced that it would send 300 advisers to Iraq, a relatively minimal response to the situation there. It doesn’t want to be used by Maliki and Iran as a weapon against the Sunni community, and even less so does it want to reinforce their position in a way that may damage American interests and those of its regional allies.

But President Barack Obama must still decide what his priority is in Iraq. If it is simply to fight terrorism and its consequences, then he has to answer a simple question posed by a former Obama administration official, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in a New York Times opinion piece this week: “Why is the threat of ISIS in Iraq a sufficiently vital interest, but not the rise of ISIS in Syria – and a hideous civil war that has dismembered Syria itself and destabilized Lebanon, Jordan and now Iraq?”

If it is to bolster the Maliki regime, then Obama must address the argument of another former official, Steven Simon, also writing in the Times. Simon believes that Iran will win in Iraq, and that the Sunni revolt will only isolate the community further. The result is that the “rump Iraq” controlled by Maliki “will be ever more in thrall to Iran, and committed to domestic policies that make the reconstitution of the country via a political process ever more unlikely.”

In both cases there are no good choices for America, at a moment when the Obama administration remains deeply reluctant to involve the country in Middle Eastern conflicts.

Simon is correct in seeing Iran as the ultimate beneficiary of American missteps. No doubt the Iranians view collaboration with the Americans as possible leverage in the nuclear file, something that enhances goodwill and can be reflected in a satisfactory outcome to the nuclear talks.

But there would not be much in it for the United States. Maliki is unlikely to open up to the Sunnis, and Iran has no intention of making him do so. American-Iranian cooperation in Iraq would essentially benefit the Islamic Republic. If Obama is unwilling to go all the way and resolve the ISIS headache both in Syria and Iraq, then it’s better he do as little as possible. America’s short attention span tends only to favor its adversaries.

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