Convergence between Obama, Rowhani to pressure Maliki

The Obama administration will not be able to extend support to Maliki as long as he persists with his intransigence

Raghida Dergham

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There are two conflicting theories regarding the impact of the recent developments in Iraq, first on the future of Iran's regional role, including in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; second, on the Iranian interior in the battle between moderates and hardliners; and third, on the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 countries as well as on Iran's bilateral relationship with the United States. One of the two theories expects the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) to insist on not losing its foothold in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. This means that the IRGC would be more determined to fight the forces gathered against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, cling on further to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and seek Hezbollah's help to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at all costs. The IRGC would also prevent moderates in Iran from giving in to U.S. demands to get rid of Maliki to save the nuclear negotiations, and the desired bilateral relationship between President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rowhani.

The other theory sees, first of all, that the Iraqi uprising will defeat the Shiite Crescent project, since Sunni forces have taken over key areas, including border areas and crossings with Syria. Second, that this could result in the removal of Nuri al-Maliki, one way or another, followed by Bashar al-Assad, and possibly also the leadership of Hezbollah. Third, the Iraqi uprising could precipitate new region-wide developments involving Saudi Arabia and Iranian moderates, which would contain sectarian tensions and avoid Sunni-Shiite wars. Fourth, all this could advance nuclear negotiations between the West and Iran, and help Barack Obama push for qualitative reform in U.S.-Iranian relations. Examining the breathtaking developments in Iraq over the past ten days can help us analyze the situation, and determine whether it is part of the theory of escalation, partitioning, and deadly wars, or the theory of containment and correction of misguided paths.

The Obama administration will not be able to extend support to Maliki as long as he persists with his intransigence

Raghida Dergham

On the surface, there seems to be an American-Iranian convergence over supporting the Iraqi government and army against ISIS, whose name initially dominated the Iraqi uprising. In effect, the uprising involves at least ten Iraqi factions, in addition to the Sahawat (Awakening) tribes and a spontaneous uprising against Maliki's exclusionary policies against Iraq's Sunni Arabs, whom he marginalized while monopolizing power. Therefore, the convergence between the U.S. and Iran, to the point of appearing as allies in Iraq and in supporting Maliki against the ISIS threat, is being frowned upon.

When examining the U.S. and Iranian positions more deeply, particularly in light of reports about a U.S. request to the Iranians for Maliki to be replaced, things seem a little different.

There are signs of convergence between President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rowhani, based on compelling Maliki to work with Sunni Arabs and Kurds to correct the situation and mend the problems that have arisen with it. Maliki's response has been that there is no room for an accord with Sunni Arabs and Kurds at present, and that the only course of action to be taken is a decisive military response. Within Iraq, there are Shiites who object to Maliki's accusations against the Kurds of backing ISIS, and consider this to be a strategic mistake. Some also blame him for underestimating the willingness of Iraq's Sunnis to establish Sahwat councils against ISIS similar to those established in 2007 to defeat al-Qaeda.

Things could develop in a way as to prompt Obama and Rowhani to work together to get rid of Maliki and find a replacement for him, though they might find themselves, in the battle to topple Maliki, facing the IRGC and the Quds Force led by General Qassem Suleimani, who has since rushed to Iraq to support Maliki.

The Obama administration will not be able to extend support to Maliki as long as he persists with his intransigence, not only because of his dictatorship and his transformation into a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, but also because Obama would be surrendering to hardliners in Iran and their desire to keep Maliki in his post, which would directly stoke sectarian war in Iraq and its surroundings.

Tension with Gulf states

Furthermore, Obama clinging to Maliki now would lead to the return of tension with Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, particularly that this would practically mean an alliance with the hardline Iranian elements in Iraq. In addition, any U.S.-Iranian alliance in Iraq today will not only be reprehensible, but will also be unacceptable for certain parties in the United States itself, in light of the ongoing nuclear negotiations that require firmness rather than acquiescence - a least in the view of these parties.

At the same time, there have been signs of differences between Sunni fighters and ISIS, which will become more and more of a pariah for the Iraqi Sunni community that rejects its extremism. These differences allow the Obama administration to distinguish between its insistence on defeating ISIS and its desire to encourage the emergence of Sahwat-style gatherings to combat Sunni extremism and terrorism.

This requires Barack Obama to pursue a careful policy with the Arab Gulf countries, because these countries will not support ISIS and its ilk for fear that things would get out of control, and that such groups would run amuck in the region and threaten the Gulf. However, these countries will not sit idly by and watch the battle for a new Iraq to end Maliki's authoritarianism and reduce Iranian hegemony. Obama must walk a tightrope in order not to side with a certain camp and appear as though he is a biased party in this key battle for Iraq.

U.S. and Iranian officials have held direct talks on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna. In a rare move, they discussed the developments in Iraq and issues of "common concern" for Washington and Tehran, including the ISIS debacle, as spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department Marie Harf said. U.S. officials have rushed to declare that "We are open to continuing our engagement with the Iranians, just as we are engaging with other regional players on the threat posed by ISIS in Iraq," giving out the impression that the Obama administration has outsourced the task of running Iraq to Iran, as well as winning Syria and controlling Lebanon.

Some see that the events in Iraq have exposed Iran's failures in light of the fall of major Iraqi cities and the collapse of the Iraqi army following the Sunni uprising. They believe that the Iranian military machine is also unable to achieve real victory in Syria, no matter how much it seems as though Iran is accomplishing what it wants there, including keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. This segment of people believes that internal and regional political confusion is clear through the conduct of various Iranian leaders, especially with the approaching deadline of July 20 for the nuclear negotiations.

The shock of the Iraqi earthquake might be the worst possible development for Iran, which wants to negotiate from a position of strength. Suddenly, Iran found itself in a fragile situation that exposes its weakness in Iraq and also Syria. If the issue in Iraq was indeed an offensive by ISIS - as was said in the beginning - this would have been in the interests of Iran and its negotiations with the West. However, now that it appears ISIS is only one party that other factions have started to sideline, the situation is now the opposite, and it could adversely affect the Iranian side.

The United States would benefit from a weaker Iran in Iraq and Syria to get what it wants in the nuclear negotiations. The United States will not be able to ally with Iran against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their ilk, because eliminating them can only come through Sunni Sahwat-style groups, and not by provoking and marginalizing Sunnis, or allying with Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In Iraq, it is likely that Nouri al-Maliki will maintain his intransigence and reject political solutions, which will worsen military and sectarian battles. Iran has sway over Maliki. If the IRGC-led faction decides that this is its battle, then Iran would not abandon Maliki and would not back down in the face of the Sunni uprising. If Hassan Rowhani's faction prevails and Iran agrees to replace Maliki to save the nuclear negotiations, which would gradually cause the sanctions to be lifted from Iran and usher in a period of official rapprochement with the United States, then a new roadmap for Iraq may emerge on the basis of more autonomous regions rather than partitioning.

Syria’s crossings to Iraq

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is waking up to the real prospect that he could not have imagined when he started feeling comfortable with his temporary victories and his reelection as president: Crossings to Iraq are of paramount importance, and they threaten those imaginary victories, because their seizure by disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria will alter the military equations in the Syrian arena.

In Lebanon, it will not be easy for Hezbollah to intervene in Iraq as a military party in its battle on behalf of Iran, because Iraq is not Syria, and because geography makes the task more difficult and exposes Hezbollah's positions in Lebanon to further fragility and retaliation. Hezbollah will remain on alert in the Iranian command and control room, but it might have to make alliances to protect its back in Lebanon. For this reason, Hezbollah is seeking accords with the Future Movement for joint action toward repelling the likes of ISIS from Lebanon, in return for political concessions. For one thing, Hezbollah's leadership understands that the Future Movement resembles the Sahwat in Iraq in terms of its role in deterring radical groups, at least given its leading Sunni representation.

Anything can happen in this era of sweeping change in the Arab region, Iran and Turkey. Most likely, the nuclear talks will not be disrupted, regardless of whether a final deal will be sealed come July 20 or later on in the fall. The U.S. decision is to make those negotiations a success, because Obama wants a final agreement to be at the heart of his legacy. What is vague, however, concerns the Iranian regional ambitions and Obama's position on them. Clearly, Iran was until recently negotiating from a position of strength. Now, after the Iraqi earthquake, Iran is negotiating from a position of confusion.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 20, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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