Notwithstanding whatever has already been said about the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), it has accomplished three things that were previously unthinkable. The first, and least important, is that it has sealed the political future of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who is Iran’s and Washington’s man at the same time.
It has now been determined that Al-Maliki’s exit, despite having been the biggest winner in the recent parliamentary elections, is a precondition for delivering Iraq from its current predicament, if there is indeed to be such a delivery. Perhaps this is what provoked the Iraqi premier to express his sectarian views about events and the “other” component of the people whom he is supposed to represent in parliament and government. He delivered a speech that took the Iraqis back in history more than 1,400 years, announcing that what is going on now is a continuation of what was happening then: “It is a confrontation between the supporters of Yazid and the supporters of Al-Hussain.” Was he speaking as the head of a national government or the imam of a Shi’ite institution?
The second thing is that ISIS has compelled the US president to reconsider his firm position of non-intervention in events unfolding in the region. Barack Obama is still adamant that he will not deploy US troops on the ground in Iraq but events might force him to do so. He has despatched 300 military advisers to help the effort to control the situation. The Washington Post suggests that this number may rise to 600. The Obama administration’s position is now dependent upon events sparked-off by ISIS which have subjected US policy to sharp criticism from the domestic political establishment and media. Such criticism continues to sharpen as events unfold.
The third and most important thing which ISIS has imposed is putting Iran into a confrontation with an option it has always sought to avoid; direct and overt military intervention in Iraq and Syria at the same time. Iran’s expansion of its role and influence in the region has relied primarily on its Arab Shi’ite allies. This is because it realises the danger of intervening directly in Arab countries due to historic, national and sectarian sensitivities of which the Iranians and others are well aware.
In Syria for instance, which has a huge Sunni majority, in the absence of any significant Shi’ite political component Iran found a precious ally in the form of the Assad family rule, which possesses a powerful security state. This was apparent prior to the revolution and became clearer after it. The Assads and their Syrian allies are the ones who practically undertake to accomplish what Iran seeks, namely barring the majority from the corridors of power. The Assad family wants to remain in authority at any cost including the perpetration of massacres and war crimes against the Syrian people. Iran thinks that it is, thus, making political gains without direct intervention. However, the revolution has proven that the Assad family, together with its local allies, is incapable of accomplishing the mission without external support. This is what compelled Iran to send Arab Shi’ite fighters to Syria, the most significant of which have been Lebanese Hezbollah and some from the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq. This, in turn, necessitated the provision of financial support, military equipment and Revolutionary Guards advisers under various official pretexts.
In Iraq there was no revolution but a sectarian quota-based regime that was imposed by virtue of a US-Iranian understanding and an Iraqi political class that rose to power in accordance with this understanding and within the framework of the American occupation. Iraq’s current predicament reflects the shabbiness of the new political class. Shi’ite forces believed that they had been subjected to Sunni hegemony. Instead of seeking a pluralistic democratic alternative and a process of power sharing, they opted for what amounts to an act of vengeance for past conditions, as seen by them, to say the least. They became convinced that it was now their turn to monopolise power at the expense of Sunni forces. Yet, they could not do that without Iranian support. Once again, Iran saw a window of opportunity to achieve what it desires by means of internal Arab forces.
The explanation for this is clear. Iran succeeded in convincing its allies that it was the state for the Shi’ites in the region and that enhancing its influence would tilt the balance of power in its favour. This, it argued, would not only serve to protect the rights of these allies, but would also empower them within their own countries. This was, indeed, a vision that reflected political stupidity engulfed in the smoke of raging conflicts.
The scene has changed in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul. Suddenly a force emerged composed of ISIS and its allies from within the rebellious Sunni tribes and the remnants of the old Iraqi army. What has made things worse is that the fall of Mosul has brought down with it Iran’s most important ally, Al-Maliki and the “State of Law Coalition” headed by him and it has divided the Shi’ite forces. The majority of the Sunnis reject ISIS as a matter of principle. However, the majority happen to be politically exposed. The Americans are closer to the Kurds and the Shi’ites. Iran is their enemy and has been trying to exclude them and marginalise them while supporting the sectarian expansion into their country. The neighbouring Arab states do not provide them with any clout or support comparable to that obtained by their foes from Iran and the United States. The Kurds are preoccupied with building their own state and the recent events have proven to them that their options are not with Baghdad or with Tehran but in Erbil and Kirkuk.
Al-Maliki was hoping, and so was Tehran, that Washington would stop the escalation and halt the advance of ISIS and the tribes by means of air strikes. However, Washington seems hesitant, having realise that Al-Maliki, and Tehran too, are to blame for the problem. Perhaps the best person to sum up the US view of the events was General G. Gardner, who was the first to take charge of the reconstruction of Iraq in the wake of the occupation. In a noteworthy statement to CNN, Gardner considered ISIS to be Iran’s problem before being America’s problem. He said that Iran had an air force and asked: Why does it not strike ISIS? Then he added what has never been heard from an American before, namely that “Al-Maliki is an Iranian lackey who wants us to hit ISIS so as to reap the political gains afterwards for himself and for his sponsors in Tehran.” Another American general, David Petraeus, who commanded American forces in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, warned about turning the US air into a weapon in the hands of the Shi’ites against the Sunnis in Iraq.
The events have placed Iran in direct confrontation of the Iraqi case. The fall of Mosul means that its allies are no longer capable of facing the situation on their own. Should it intervene directly and overtly? Iranian intervention would consolidate the division of Iraq and turn it from a status quo into an official reality. This might, from one aspect, serve its interests. Yet, its direct intervention will turn the game against it and will increase its haemorrhage that is ongoing in Syria at the moment. Worst of all, the division of Iraq will isolate it geographically from Syria.
So, how will it act? Iran continues to maintain silence while making covert moves. The answer to this question is one of the indicators that will determine where events in Iraq are heading.
Translated from Al Hayat newspaper, 22 June, 2014