Iraqi disputes over Iran’s role in fighting ISIS

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The nuclear deal that President Barack Obama insists on concluding with Iran has had negative repercussions within the United States but positive ones in terms of the Russian relationship with Middle Eastern countries. The U.S. president will help rescue Russian President Vladimir Putin from his misadventure in Ukraine through the Iranian gateway. But at the same time, Obama will fuel a constitutional dispute that will deepen divisions in the United States ahead of the launch of the race to the White House.

Regionally, the nuclear deal and U.S.-Iranian accord set to replace estrangement with partnership could revive the spirit of the Persian empire among the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran - with Ali Younesi, advisor to the moderate President Hassan Rowhani, declaring recently that Baghdad is the capital of the resurgent Iranian empire.

The accord could also bolster the audacity of the Revolutionary Guard and encourage it to seek more adventures in Arab territories, as evinced in the overt propagandization of the role of Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, in the Tikrit battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Some like to consider this battle a “prelude” for a major battle in Mosul, which will take place soon and have important implications in the context of the U.S.-Iranian partnership in Iraq, near the border with Turkey.

A segment of Iraqi officials are talking about the post-ISIS phase, after victory in the battles with Iranian help, and are behaving as though the U.S.-Iranian accord is now the natural umbrella protecting the new Iraq. Another segment is warning against Iranian encroachment in Iraq, regardless of the pretexts, especially in areas adjacent to Turkey, where Iranian incursions are seen by Ankara as a challenge to its national security.

These Iraqi officials also talk about huge losses suffered by the Popular Mobilization militias and also crimes committed by the latter that resemble the crimes of ISIS that these militias are fighting, and warn against ethnic cleansing attempts and bids to partition Iraq in the service of a “Persian Crescent” project. Some ask if there is a strategy for the Sunni Arabs and Turkey to counter the U.S. and Israeli-sanctioned Persian/Shiite expansion, and whether the fundamental difference between Turkey and Egypt over the Muslim Brotherhood is an obstacle that can be overcome to build a Saudi-Egyptian-Turkish alliance of a different nature. So what lies on the horizon?

At the third session of the Sulaymaniyah Forum at the American University of Iraq, founded by the former head of the Kurdistan Regional Government Barham Salih, a large number of senior Iraqi officials from various institutions and backgrounds spoke about the present and future of Iraq in light of the war on ISIS and the U.S.-Iranian relationship. There was a refreshing amount of candor in the interventions.

These are fundamental disputes between Iraqi leaders in the government and parliament, and will certainly have an impact on the battle against ISIS, especially in Mosul and Anbar

Raghida Dergham

Iraq’s Minister of Education Hussain al-Shahristani described Iraq as the first line of defense of humanity, world security and global values. He said that an Iraqi victory in the battles was certain, thanks to its forces, tribes, the Popular Mobilization, and the Peshmerga. Shahristani also said that victory over ISIS required defeating Takfiri ideology. This view was echoed by other speakers as well.

Deputy Speaker Sheikh Humam Hamoudi said the ISIS threat is the urgent priority. Eliminating ISIS, he added, was a necessary requirement for building “mutual trust”, stressing that ISIS was not two groups in Iraq and Syria but a single group. In his view, the magnitude of the threat requires moving immediately against ISIS rather than wasting time negotiating and thinking what comes after ISIS. To those who believe in the necessity of accord over power sharing he carried reassurances from the highest level of Shiite religious leaders in Iraq.

But Vice President of Iraq Osama al-Nujaifi, who hails from Mosul, said “neglecting the Sunni dimension will not end the battle” with ISIS, but will “give it the justification to carry on.” He said that the new government is an opportunity that must not be missed to build the Iraqi homeland.

Nujaifi warned that building a Shiite force - 100,000 strong - that would be larger than the Iraqi army was cause for concern and said that it must be kept under control, calling for building a balanced military force “for all Iraqis.” He said that the religious authorities “influencing” Popular Mobilization groups must make a decision in this regard, while Sunni religious authorities must address and seek to eliminate extremist ideology adopted by groups like ISIS.

Iraqi Parliament Speaker Saleem al-Jubouri urged people to think about the post-ISIS phase. He said the areas where people were allowed to bear arms such as with the Popular Mobilization could suffer consequences of this. Jubouri warned publicly that Iraq could be on the verge of partitioning if no understanding is reached regarding placing armaments under the government’s authority later, if Iraqi and regional circumstances are not made to encourage such agreements.

Fundamental disagreements

These are fundamental disputes between Iraqi leaders in the government and parliament, and will certainly have an impact on the battle against ISIS, especially in Mosul and Anbar. In effect, disputes intensify when the conversation in Iraq shifts to the Iranian role in this battle. For example, Faleh Fayad, the national security adviser, said, “Frankly, we will ask support from Iran and from the United States.” He also said “yes” to Iran’s military role, and said Iranian military advisers present in Iraq deserve credit after the international community was delayed in assisting Iraq. Fayyad said, “We will thank Iran and the United States despite the sensitivity Iran causes in the regional surrounding, which has not come to terms with Iran’s role in Iraq.”

By contrast, Vice President Nujaifi said, “Iran used the vacuum to its advantage, but the absence of the Arabs fueled the disequilibrium” threatening Iraq.

These divisions are sharp and real in relation to the assessment of the battle against ISIS and the future of Iran in Iraq, especially in light of the truce and partnership coming to the U.S.-Iranian relationship.

U.S. General David Petraeus, known for the successful idea of al-Sahawat - or Awakening Council, an alliance fighting al-Qaeda in the western Anbar province - expressed deep concern over the militias’ control of the territory recaptured from ISIS, calling for their integration into the Iraqi army. He called for thinking about the nature of the military forces controlling the streets in Mosul after ISIS’s defeat there, and said the key question is who will control whatever is left of Mosul.

What is most interesting about what Petraeus said what not his allusion to the U.S. military role which he said is bigger than people realize. What is most interesting is what he said about the long term effects of the Iranian backing of the Popular Mobilization, warning that the latter could pose a long-term risk to Iraq. Petraeus said Qassem Suleimani’s public appearance in the Sunni Triangle could backfire on Iran.

Extent of the deal

Some saw this issue from the standpoint of Iranian negotiations with the United States, and Tehran’s intention to let all those concerned know that the deal does not include relinquishing regional ambitions and bids to expand Iranian influence, and that if Tehran agrees to “postpone” nuclear-bomb making abilities, it needs to expand regionally in the immediate term to compensate and show the Iranian people that the regime is strong and will become stronger after the deal.

According to informed Iraqis, the cost of Iran’s war in Syria has been borne by the Iraqi treasury, which is today “emptier” than it was under former Prime Minister Maliki. Accordingly, Tehran is in dire need for the nuclear deal, because it would allow it to press ahead with its wars in Syria and Yemen, which are necessary for Iranian strategy to have access to the Mediterranean and control Bab al-Mandeb, as well as have a foothold on the Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia.

However, this does not mean that Iran will prevail in the long run. The challenges in Iraq are serious, and a large part of the Iraqi people are angry with Tehran. If the partitioning of Iraq will reassure Iran and shield it from resentment and retribution, the Iranian “empire” will collapse in the long run because of the grudges that go beyond Iraq and ISIS.

Though Iran is benefitting today, it could be implicated tomorrow among enemies, especially if it moves to partition Arab countries to build its Persian Crescent. Today, President Barack Obama has decided that Iran is a natural ally for the United States. Recall that this decision was made previously by the neocons who dominated the administration of George W. Bush, so what Bush started with the Iraq war, Obama is now completing with the deal with Iran.

Today, there is no evidence showing that Arab leaders or Sunni leaders in Arab countries, Turkey, and Pakistan have a calculated long-term strategy. The political and security strategy against the U.S.-Iranian deal and to counter Iran’s regional expansion is absent both as far as the near and long terms are concerned.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on March 13, 2015.

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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