Iran seeks to appear as counterterrorism partner to the U.S.

There is much talk about the unique opportunity emerging from the womb of fragmented Iraq...

Raghida Dergham

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There is much talk about the unique opportunity emerging from the womb of fragmented Iraq to produce qualitatively new regional and international agreements. Some are saying that the time has come for the “grand bargain.” Others call for adapting to the situation on the ground, and to officially acknowledge the idea of autonomous provinces and the need to transition from a “simple state” to a “compound state” in Iraq. However, there are also some who see Iraqi events as the beginning of collapse, partition, fragmentation, and bloody sectarian warfare in the entire Arab region.

What is happening in Iraq and Syria is extremely serious, and there is no room for any errors, which would be truly devastating. It is time for a new approach at the regional level, especially with respect to Saudi-Iranian relations, and at the international level, especially with respect to U.S. involvement rather than self-dissociation. Barack Obama has started to correct his policies, though concerns remain regarding the possibility of him backing down, at least in the view of those who have been closely observing the U.S. president. The Iranian leadership is trying to take advantage of the events in Iraq to further its interests, especially in the context of Iranian-American relations.

The Saudi leadership believes that U.S. vigilance regarding the layers and repercussions of Iraqi events opens the door to a new dialogue between the two countries on Iraq and Syria, and also on the requirements of mending Saudi-Iranian relations. As for Russia, it is watching with concern the developments in Iraq for fear they may impact its “victories” in Syria. For this reason, perhaps, Russia is downplaying and reducing the Iraqi event as something that solely falls under the category of terrorism, just like it had done with the events in Syria. The difference is that Russia is a direct actor with military contribution in the Syrian civil war, where Russia is in an organic alliance with the ruling regime and President Bashar al-Assad. By contrast, Russia is a marginal player in Iraq.

The only link between Iraq and Syria in the mind of the Iranians is the need to eliminate ISIS and similar groups in the two countries

Raghida Dergham

The common denominator among all these parties is that they are all convinced the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses a threat to all of them, being a barbaric terrorist group whose main ideology is destruction and the establishment of an Islamic “emirate” to replace any pluralistic and open form of government. The other common denominator is that all these parties are fully aware that what is happening in Iraq is also an uprising against the administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was brought by the United States and Iran to power, and that ISIS is only one out of dozen groups or so that are taking part in the rebellion.

All sides agree

All sides agree on not allowing ISIS to achieve victories that can lead to the creation of that “emirate” it so desires. The difference is that some want to immediately defeat ISIS as a precondition for a comprehensive political process, while others believe that a military solution is not possible without an immediate political process that shuns exclusion, marginalization, and sectarianism. ISIS, in this context, can never be part of a political solution in the mind of any party. It is part of the military solution, which is being discussed to eliminate and defeat ISIS as a terror group.

The problem is that ISIS was practically the vanguard of the uprising that upended the internal balance of power in Iraq, but ultimately, it is only one among many other factions in the Sunni uprising against Maliki’s exclusion of Sunni Arabs. Realistically, ISIS broke the first ring of the siege, and created a new dynamic against Iranian hegemony over the government of Iraq through Nouri al-Maliki. But behind ISIS’s vanguard, many other factions overlap with ISIS, in spite of the differences that will inevitably surface among these groups, which have conflicting objectives and ideologies.

Thus, any talk about decisive victory against ISIS means military action that inevitably requires air strikes, in which the United States will have to have a role through drones, reconnaissance planes, and special forces, which President Obama has now dispatched to Iraq to provide assistance though not to engage directly in combat.

International assistance

The Iraqi government has asked the secretary-general of the United Nations to provide cover for international assistance - meaning U.S. assistance on the basis of previous bilateral agreements between the two countries, and given that Iraqi military capabilities are limited while Iraq lacks the kind of fighter planes needed for such a military action.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari focused on the issue of international support as the key to the solution, and said that important developments are going to take place in the coming period. Zebari stressed that what was needed was a stand against terrorism rather than a stand with the Maliki government or with Shiites, saying that ISIS’ threat affected everyone, though he acknowledged that a military solution is not possible without a political process, and called for proceeding along both paths.

Iran, according to sources, is ready to persuade Maliki to step down, but not before things return to normal as they stood prior to the Iraqi uprising’s seizure of posts and crossings, and not before ISIS is eliminated by means of airstrikes. Tehran wants to cancel what has happened on the ground as a precondition for agreeing to Maliki stepping down. The Iranian leadership believes that there is a golden opportunity now to formulate a bilateral “grand bargain” with the United States to fight ISIS and similar groups, beginning in the Iraqi theater.

To be sure, Tehran may be prepared for Maliki to step down in a way where he can save face, and has in its pockets a replacement who is no less loyal to Iran. However, Tehran categorically rejects any calls for it to similarly abandon Bashar al-Assad in any deal - be it a small or a grand bargain. To be sure as well, Tehran does not feel itself under any U.S. pressure in that direction. In other words, it has not heard from U.S. officials anything about Assad’s fate similar to what they said about Maliki’s.

The only link between Iraq and Syria

The only link between Iraq and Syria in the mind of the Iranians is the need to eliminate ISIS and similar groups in the two countries, reverse any victories on the field achieved by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and head off any Syrian uprising similar to the Iraqi uprising - i.e. where Sunnis ally themselves with the “devil” to get out of the status quo.

Deep inside, the Iranian leadership is aware of the difficulty of achieving what it is touting as an opportunity to its advantage. The Iranian leadership, realistically and practically, is not ready for the “grand bargain” yet, because that bargain requires serious concessions by Iran and also Saudi Arabia. The only player that can push Iran and Saudi Arabia toward that grand bargain is the United States. Perhaps there is a real golden opportunity here if the Obama administration decides it is time for a comprehensive approach to find serious and permanent solutions in both Iraq and Syria, but this requires a coherent strategy and it is not clear whether Obama and his team are up to this or not.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as usual, has been touring, exploring, endeavoring, analyzing, and hoping for things. It is time for his president to boost his efforts with a clear and bold strategy with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is really time for a new, firm, and determined approach that would delineate and limit the Iranian roles in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and defeat Salafist terrorism, something that requires partnership with the Sunnis rather than sectarian wars.

But if the U.S. priority is to seal a nuclear agreement with Iran at any cost, then the Obama administration has only itself to blame in the event of total collapse in Iraq and unchecked growth of Salafist terrorism, as this is the only alternative to the failure of the United States to confront Iran over the consequences of its policies and military intervention in two major Arab countries.

Historical responsibility

Historical responsibility also falls on Saudi Arabia at this serious and decisive stage. It is the time to take advantage of the favorable opportunity to advance ideas conscious to the fate of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and perhaps also the Kingdom itself. Insisting on the exclusion of Iran from regional and international understandings will not do any good. Iran has become a key player in Iraq, in Syria, and in Lebanon, and any solutions in these countries requires negotiations with Tehran.

Certainly, the Saudi leadership is aware more than others that ISIS and similar groups threaten the stability of Saudi Arabia, if they emerge victorious and establish their emirate. Decisions taken by the Kingdom to prevent its citizens from joining extremist organizations and to fight terrorism are important and necessary decisions. Now, Riyadh must not leave the scene and allow Iran to claim that it is the natural partner for the United States in the fight against ISIS and its ilk, and must not allow Russia and even the United States to reduce Iraq and Syria to an issue of terrorism. It is of the utmost importance for Saudi Arabia to make every possible effort to immunize Lebanon from falling into the arms of ISIS retaliation against Hezbollah, because Lebanon’s collapse would be a strategic loss to Saudi Arabia, and not just to Hezbollah and Iran behind it.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is trying to emerge as a natural partner for the United States in the fight against terrorism, and is touting old-new ideas to the U.S. media and the American public - under the title of readiness for regional cooperation and the establishment of a new security regime that includes the GCC, Iraq, and Iran.

The GCC countries are fully aware that Iran’s tireless goal is to break and dismantle the GCC framework and replace it with a security organization dominated by Tehran, which has not forgotten that the six GCC countries once supported Iraq in its war against Iran under Saddam Hussein, along with the United States. Deep down, Iran denies that one of the GCC’s goals in supporting Iraq back then was to prevent the export of Iran’s mullahs-led revolution, and impose the Iranian system of government upon neighboring countries.

It is important for Saudi Arabia to put forward a narrative to counter that of Iran, which has a guise of logic and reconciliation. If Iran’s narrative is unacceptable, then let Riyadh come up with its own to counter it. If it is acceptable with reservations or conditions, then let Saudi Arabia clarify this comprehensively. It is important for Saudi reconciliatory proposals not to be absent and for Riyadh itself not to be absent from making initiatives.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 27, 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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