Thursday, 14 August 2014

As Islamic State moves, keep an eye on Iran

After spending extraordinary amounts of blood and treasure the United States has returned its concentration on Iraq once more. US President Barack Obama is now the fourth president in a row to militarily intervene in Iraq. This time no US forces will invade - aside from hundreds of ‘advisers’ and limited airstrikes. The current US campaign could last for months and perhaps longer.

Commander of Iran's Quds Force 
Qassem Suleimani
Mr Obama is assisting the Iraqi government by providing airstrikes and intelligence against the rampaging Islamic State (IS) militants in the country’s north. These jihadists are an unholy merger of al-Qaeda, the Khmer Rouge and Nazi ideology and threaten the integrity of Iraq and other Middle East countries. The US feels some responsibility for what goes on in Iraq, considering the country is essentially the product of a decade-long nation-building project.

But the problems in Iraq are not the sole result of American foreign policy. Former Secretary of State – and potential 2016 Presidential candidate – Hillary Clinton said in a recent interview that the IS problem is a result of Mr Obama’s inaction in Syria’s internecine conflict. That’s not entirely accurate.

Plenty of other states in the region and beyond have legitimate reasons to care about Iraq and its future. And plenty of other events over the years aside from the US-led invasion have incubated the emergence of IS.

Take Iran for instance. The Persian country is dominated by Shiite Muslims and sits in the highlands of Mesopotamia on the borders of Central Asia. Its geography dictates that the lands of Iraq must be at least politically neutral to Iran for the Persian country to feel secure. Iran has worked tirelessly over the centuries to ensure that the lowlands to their west are influenced by whatever Tehran wishes. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 in Iraq, the Iranians pushed this strategic imperative by emplacing a Shiite-friendly regime in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took the role and was widely criticised for having almost no prior political experience. This was dangerous in Washington’s eyes but didn’t matter in Tehran’s view because Mr al-Maliki was their guy.

Mr al-Maliki proceeded to rule Iraq on behalf of the Shiite Muslims while marginalising Sunni Muslims and Kurds. He also purged the Iraqi military of competent officers, replacing them with loyal but inexperienced lackeys. All of this was overseen by Iran. Earlier this year, when IS operating from Syria overran northern Iraqi cities the Iraq military collapsed and fell back to Baghdad leaving the northern reaches of the country completely undefended.

Lost in the journalistic maelstrom was that a couple thousand IS fighters was never the full explanation for their quick military gains. The Sunni majority in Northern Iraq, frustrated with political rejection, sided with IS militants to confront Iraqi troops telling them to leave. Again, Iran watched all this and curiously did nothing to clean up the mess they had created while the world instead pleaded with America to begin an open-ended bombing campaign against IS militants.

The hesitation of the Iranian theocracy to intervene on behalf of the Baghdad government is perplexing. Perhaps Tehran is happy with IS fighting the Kurds for the time being, but if the unstable regime in Baghdad falls, then IS would surely take advantage of the political vacuum. It would make more sense for Iran to confront IS before it becomes too powerful. Crushing IS with conventional Iranian ground troops would also help establish Iran as the dominant political force in Iraq.

Perhaps Iran learned the American’s experience enough to avoid a ground campaign in Iraq for fear of getting bogged down, or maybe they’re worried IS could defeat them on the battlefield. But they need to be in control, and right now they aren’t. And yet the Iranians wait. Mr Obama knows that intervening anywhere in Iraq will always benefit one sect or tribe over another. His airstrikes are not completely clean, they will hurt IS, sure, but they will boost Baghdad – and by extension Iran.

Ultimately Iran has more at stake in Iraq than the United States and their intelligence services are crawling all over the country. The decisive blow against IS must come from Iran if they are to maintain influence over the region. The reality is that Iraq no longer resembles the lines on our maps. It is three separate pseudo-states of Kurdistan, Sunnistan and Shiastan. Iran knows how to play the long game so it almost definitely has a plan which must outweigh the short term dangers of letting IS consolidate. But Iran may be running out of time.

Meanwhile, an IS advance threatens Israel, Jordan and Egypt as its ideology grips the region like a virus. Iran will be the key in Iraq. Keep an eye on them rather than US airstrikes. 

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