US-Iran rapprochement: Are they there yet?
By Ehsan Ahrari
Iran, an erstwhile member of the invented "axis of evil", and the United States, or "the great Satan", are faced with the difficult proposition of finding ways to snatch the regime of Nuri al-Maliki from the jaws of the murderous ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham).
No one should kid him or herself that a meeting of the minds on that issue - if not a rapprochement - will happen anytime soon. There has been a yawning chasm of bad blood and ill-will in
Tehran and Washington since 1979. The US bitterness toward Iran has oozed out in the past two days in Washington in a public disagreement between two top national security agencies of the United States: the Department of State (DOS) and the Department of Defense (DOD).
While Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now in Iraq, welcomed prospects for the consideration of all options involving Iran to save Iraq, a spokesman of the DOD categorically rejected such a possibility. That does not mean, however, that either the DOS or the DOD has final say over the matter. In the Barack Obama presidency, it is Obama himself who decides the modalities of the twists and turns of America's foreign policy.
What might transform the potential cooperation of US and Iran into a reality is the fact that Iraq cannot be saved without using the option of "boots on the ground," to unravel the territorial gains made by ISIS. And Obama is on the record categorically opposing sending American forces into Iraq. Iran, on the other hand, already has a powerful presence through the Quds force in Iraq - which has an established record in maneuvering to bring about the expulsion of the US occupation forces.
The biggest related question of the hour is whether a potential cooperation over Iraq could become the basis for a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran? Iran will not settle for anything less, since it has already been burned once. It sided with the US in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and played a crucial role after the defeat of the Taliban regime in the Berlin conference, which settled upon having Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan. Soon thereafter, the Bush administration, in return, "rewarded" Iran by labeling it as part of the imaginary axis of evil.
Before one thinks about the modalities of a rapprochement, a crucial question is who will remain as the head of the Iraqi government. Of course, Washington wants to see the ouster of Maliki, while Iran is perfectly happy with him. Iran may only agree to increase pressure on him to be more inclusive of the Sunnis.
The sad reality is that it is too late for that. Yet Iran still may not wish to set Maliki aside, for he has been a good "yes man". So, a sticking point would be for these two countries to settle upon a head of the Iraqi government that will keep the country intact. The Obama administration may turn out to be flexible on this issue. Stakes for both sides are tremendous involving Iraq.
The Arab Middle East of the post-Arab awakening era is proving a highly uncertain place from the strategic perspectives of both the US and Iran.
American power and prestige has definitely dwindled, especially with the ouster of the regime of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the largest of the Arab states (population-wise) and the cultural center of the Arab world. Today's Egypt is being ruled by another tinhorn dictator, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is masquerading as a democratically elected head of state. From the perspective of democracy, the entire power grab Sisi is nothing short of a coup. Thus, according to US law, there should be no economic and military assistance to Egypt.
However, in the "brave new world" of the post-Arab Awakening Middle East, the US is pretending that there was no military coup in Egypt, but showed its unhappiness to Sisi for overthrowing the hapless but democratically-elected government of Mohammad Morsi. Egypt, for its part, is pretending not to need US economic and military assistance. Since another American friend, Saudi Arabia, has billions of petrodollars to burn to promote their new uphill role as a power broker in Egypt and Syria, Sisi is enjoying a period of success in his pretensions of remaining in power while the Obama administration is happy with the fact that Egypt looks stable for now, and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is being honored by the Egyptian dictator. In the contemporary Arab world, all major and minor actors have to remain flexible about adjusting (mainly by lowering) their strategic ambitions to remain in the power game.
Libya is another case in point. Even though the US played a crucial role in ousting Muammar Gaddafi, the resultant chaos proved to be harmful for American interests. It attempted to influence the shape of the government, but the chaotic environment stemming from the civil war to oust the dictator suddenly turned on the United States. It lost four diplomatic personnel, including its ambassador to that country.
Today, terrorist gangs and militias are waging their own murderous mini-battles in the streets of Tripoli, Benghazi, and other towns. There have been reports that the Americans are going to train about 8,000 Libyan security forces at the request of that government. However, knowing what happened to the US-trained Iraqi forces in the wake of ISIS' military sweep, no one can bet that Libya will likely emerge as a stable place anytime soon.
For Iran, the post-Arab Awakening Middle East has also become an uncertain place. Every time a regime falls as a result of mob protests, the aging Ayatollahs get paranoid about the rising aspirations of young Iranians to emulate that example in their own country. Secondly, the current turbulence in Syria, where Iran is desperately trying to shore up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, is the direct outcome of Arab Awaking-related demands for regime change.
A potential ouster of the Assad regime would deal a powerful blow to the presence and influence of Iran in the Levant. Another outcome of such a development would emerge in the form of systematic endeavors on the part of the Sunnis of Lebanon (with fervent support from Saudi Arabia) to significantly lessen the political clout of the Hezbollah party. That party, as the sole creation of Iran in the 1980s, also has served as its potent tool against Israel, especially in bringing about the ouster of the Jewish state from southern Lebanon in 2000.
The durability of Hezbollah after the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 not only enhanced the prestige of that organization in the region, but also in that of Iran, which was one of the chief military suppliers to that entity.
Even while the Assad regime lasts, Iran has to keep thinking and planning about the "post-Assad" Levant, and how to shore up its influence and presence in Lebanon, where the Saudis have palpably escalated their resolve to harm Iran's strategic influence by lessening, if not destroying, the power of Hezbollah. That may be one reason why the Saudis are going to the extremes of silently cooperating with the self-styled jihadist groups in Syria to defeat all Iranian-sponsored militias, especially Hezbollah.
Under these circumstances, both the United States and Iran have no choice but to cooperate to save Iraq from disintegrating into sectarian mini-states, but for different reasons.
For the United States, the disintegration of Iraq would be a horrible development after the loss of life of thousands of its soldiers and 4 trillion dollars for attempting to make it a "new Iraq". It would also invoke the fall of Saigon in 1975. Moreover, a continued presence and control of ISIS in the Sunni section of Iraq will not stop until ISIS succeeds in bringing about the ouster of the Assad regime.
As much as the United States wishes for Assad to have a rendezvous with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi in hell, the last thing it desires is the capture of power by ISIS in Syria. The CIA's future planners remain convinced that ISIS also has "plans" to destabilize Jordan, a place that is already under intense pressure because of the refugee crisis of Syria. Thus, the survival of an undivided Iraq with or without the government of Maliki is a very crucial objective for Washington.
For Iran, the disintegration of Iraq into three sectarian-ethnic-dominated entities will be a calamity. It regarded the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a Shiite-dominated government as a result of the US invasion as an extraordinarily welcome reality, which it will not allow to crumble. Iran knows that the collapse of Iraq into smaller states also means that the Sunni portion will turn against Iran, no matter who is ruling it.
The Kurdish part would immediately want to have the Kurdish chunk of Iran for the creation of a larger Kurdistan, which has the major potential to become another hostile entity for Iran. Finally, a victory by ISIS in Iraq will only make it considerably more audacious and strident. The rabidly anti-Shiite nature of that entity may encourage it even to invade Iran at some point. These unthinkable thoughts are keeping Iran's national security planners very much on edge.
When one compares the stakes that the Obama administration is presently faced with related to the ouster of the Maliki government from Iraq and those that Iran faces under similar conditions, the stakes for Iran are considerably higher. After all, it is not only Iraq's immediate neighbor, but it also has a venerable strong religious affinity and affiliation with that country. A potential takeover by ISIS also means the certain destruction of the Shiite shrines and places of worship, since the Takfiri ideological bent of that terrorist group considers those places as "anti-Islamic".
That is why President Hassan Rouhani has already announced that his country will send troops to defend those shrines in Iraq. That has already become an initial signal of Iranian resolve not to let Iraq fall apart.
Dr Ehsan Ahrari ([email protected]) is CEO of Strategic Paradigms, Defense and Foreign Affairs Consultancy.