3

Comments

Facebook

Twitter

Google

send


Michael Young

Eyeless on Tehran

Iran’s aim is Arab fragmentation, but America won’t see it

Iranian demonstrators hold a placard bearing portraits mocking US President Barak Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry alongside anti-Israel slogans during a rally to mark the 36th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran

There has been much partisan discussion in Washington over the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. However, a different concern emerged this week in newspaper articles and commentaries, namely how the actions of pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq were undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS.

 

In a column for the Washington Post, David Ignatius echoed this view, noting that Iraqi Sunnis were wary of cooperating with the government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, because it had allowed Shiite militias to operate in mainly Sunni Anbar Province. 

 

Implicit in these readings was a sense that because the United States and Iran have a shared interest in fighting ISIS, it makes no sense for pro-Iranian militias to behave in ways that damage the aim of rallying anti-ISIS Sunnis against the terrorist group.

 

Reflecting this atmosphere, in December US Secretary of State John Kerry described Iranian attacks against ISIS this way: “[T]he net effect is positive.” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, also observed: “As long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside [Iraq], then I think Iranian influence will be positive.”

 

Dempsey’s caveat about inclusivity notwithstanding, both statements displayed a limited grasp of what Iran’s strategy in the Middle East is all about, or how it only makes more likely the emergence and survival of groups such as ISIS.

 

The reality is that during the last decade Iran has been actively pushing for fragmentation of the Arab world. Early on the Iranians encouraged their Iraqi Shiite allies to advance a divisive sectarian agenda, alienating Sunnis and making impossible the rebuilding of a unified Iraq under a national central government.

 

In Syria, the Iranians have helped preserve Bashar al-Assad’s control over parts of Syrian territory — namely Damascus, the coastal areas and communication lines in between — while allowing large swathes of mainly Sunni territory to fall outside regime control. This effective partition of Syria may have resulted from a realistic reading of Assad’s limitations, but early on the regime and the Iranians also sought to make it permanent. They engaged in sectarian “cleansing,” pushing large numbers of Sunnis out of their areas.

 

On the Palestinian front, too, the regime has played on the divisions in Palestinian ranks, exploiting the differences between Fatah and Hamas. Tehran’s ability to exploit the contradictions in the Arab world, a policy pursued in Lebanon and Yemen as well, has been a recurring feature of Iran’s behavior in the Middle East for some time.

 

What is the rationale? Quite simply that an Arab world deeply divided, shattered into sectarian entities, and weakened represents fertile ground for Iran to impose its hegemony regionally. In such a context one can understand better Iran’s efforts lately to open new fronts against Israel. In the broad Iranian vision, the only serious regional rival it has is a nuclear-armed Israel.

 

Turkey also represents a potential problem, but the efforts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to transform his country into a Middle Eastern powerhouse have failed. Moreover, by permitting a measure of Turkish cooperation with ISIS, Erdogan has undermined Turkey’s international credibility, even as his focus on pushing Assad out has become less of a priority as regional dynamics have rapidly evolved.

 

The Iranians are more than willing to allow the United States and the Arab states to bombard ISIS, as the group represents an irritant in that it straddles vital Iranian supply lines between Iraq and Syria. But ISIS hardly represents a strategic threat to Iran; on the contrary, by drawing Western attention to the terrorist problem, it distracts Western governments from Iran’s larger project in the Middle East.

 

It is ironic that in countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, American interaction with governments or political forces is now filtered by Iran or its local allies. Even the pro-American Kurds in Iraq are careful not to cross Iran when making their decisions. The success of the Iraqi Kurds has been their ability to play Washington off against Tehran, without taking steps that might antagonize any side — for instance, by advancing toward independence.

 

But even if Iran is wary of Kurdish independence because this might give ideas to its own Kurds, it is hardly motivated by safeguarding the unity of Arab states. For example, in Iraq’s oil-rich Basra Province there is a growing movement for autonomy, as resentment of Baghdad’s neglect of the region grows. The south is majority Shiite, but this has not prevented a yearning to widen the margin of self-government with respect to the Shiite-dominated government in the capital.

 

Iran, which has considerable sway in the Basra region, has apparently not sought to curtain such sentiments, which only advance its divide-and-rule approach to the region.

 

But Iran is also ensuring that as wide spaces escape from government control due to the fragmentation of Arab states, they become more vulnerable to non-state actors such as ISIS. In other words, the American strategy of building consensus to reinforce governance institutions and prevent the emergence of vacuums in the region is precisely what Iran is systematically undermining.

 

Iran has benefited from the mistakes of the Bush administration — namely its mismanagement of the postwar situation in Iraq — but above all from the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East. Whereas the first created an opportunity for Tehran to enter Iraq and start pulling sectarian strings to its advantage, the second opened a highway for Iran to pursue its long-term ambitions.

 

The Obama administration should remember this as it argues that the United States and Iran have a common benefit in collaborating against ISIS. The fact is that ISIS is a direct consequence of Iranian policies in Iraq and Syria — policies Iran is still implementing. The Americans are deaf, but they don’t have to be dumb and blind.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling 

 

Iranian demonstrators hold a placard bearing portraits mocking US President Barak Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry alongside anti-Israel slogans during a rally to mark the 36th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran's Azadi Square on 11 February 2015. (AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

Whereas Bush created an opening for Tehran to enter Iraq and start pulling sectarian strings to its advantage, Obama opened a highway for Iran to pursue its long-term ambitions."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    It is utter nonsense to suggest that Arab divisions are caused by Iran. It is equally utter nonsense to reduce the unrest seen in many Arab countries to a wedge driven by Iran in otherwise virginal Arab unity and stability. Iran may be exploiting divisions, it may be exploiting the Arab uprisings; but Iran - just like every other nation on earth, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab Mastodons - has interests and it aims to maximize them. This ought not to be, in principle, a problem. As I have argued before, it is easier for the US to manage the Arab world using one or two channels (Iran and/or Israel) than attempting to manage 21 different Arab countries, each beset by myriads of political, social, and political ills, and in constant conflict with one another. As it views the region's upheavals, the US sees that Saudi Arabia is no longer a reliable stable entity. On the other hand, the Iranian theocracy itself may not last either, in which case a strong, and less Islamic, Iranian ally is a better horse to bet on.

    February 19, 2015

  • jrocks

    Hani boy. What on earth are you talking about? Do you ever understand any of the arguments put forward by anyone?

    February 20, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    JSUCKS: I quote Mr. Young's piece: "The reality is that during the last decade Iran has been actively pushing for fragmentation of the Arab world." and again, after several examples, "What is the rationale? Quite simply that an Arab world deeply divided, shattered into sectarian entities, and weakened represents fertile ground for Iran to impose its hegemony regionally." Now do you, Jsucks, even read before salivating at the sound of the bell?

    February 20, 2015