Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

No democracy without security

Having contributed to the chaos in Iraq and Syria, the United States now has no choice but to work with Iran to end it, writes Akbar Ganji

Al-Ahram Weekly

The bloody carnage by the Islamic State (IS) continues in Iraq, and the United States and its allies are adding to the bloodshed by bombing areas under IS control. We should ask ourselves how this terrible situation has come about.

 Two important factors have contributed to the tragedy in Iraq. One is the internal factors within the country itself, while the second is the role that external forces have been playing. Since its birth, Iraq has never been a democratic state, but has been besieged by dictators, corruption, fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic teachings and ethnic and religious strife.

The most important external factor contributing to the present state of affairs in Iraq has been the United States and its policies toward the country. Naturally, the US pursues what it considers to be its national interests, but when it comes to pursuing such interests vis-à-vis Iraq and, more broadly, the Middle East, the US has committed fundamental errors.

From goading Iraq to invade Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, to the crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s and up until 2003, when the US invaded and occupied Iraq illegally, US policy towards Iraq has been one disaster after another and has produced a long list of catastrophes, destruction and bloodshed.

 At least half a million Iraqi children and young people died as a result of the economic sanctions of the 1990s and hundreds of thousands more have died since 2003. The Pentagon even drew up plans in 2002 to use nuclear weapons against seven countries, including Iraq, “in case of an emergency.”

Why has the US committed such crimes? The answer is that it has always wanted to frighten the Arab states into submission. As former CIA director James Woolsey put it two months after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, “Only fear will re-establish [Arab] respect for the United States,” and the invasion of Iraq was a prime means for creating such fear. In the world of warmongers such as Woolsey, “respect” means submission.

But the most important consequence of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the destruction of its political order, which gave rise to Sunni terrorism through the emergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), now IS, and effectively partitioned the nation along ethnic and religious lines.



MOWING THE LAWN: According to a strategy referred to as “mowing the lawn,” every few years Israeli forces go into Gaza to destroy Hamas’s infrastructure and its ability to wage war.

Likewise, American forces attack places like Yemen and Pakistan to supposedly root out terrorists using drones and other means. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism adviser to US President Barack Obama, has said, “The problem with a drone is that it’s like your lawn mower. You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back again.”

The same strategy has been used against Iraq over the past 25 years. The US supported a monstrous Iraqi state during its war against Iran, but then it had to contain the country in the 1990s and invade it in 2003. The US-led invasion of Iraq destroyed the Iraqi army and left it unable to fight IS effectively. Had it not been for the help that Iran provided, Baghdad would perhaps have fallen into IS hands last summer.

But it would be naïve to think that the get-tough policy of the US towards Iraq, which began in 1990, was created in a vacuum. What has been happening in Iraq is part of the US strategy for the Middle East and North Africa over the past four decades more generally, and, in particular, the continuation of its policy toward Afghanistan in the 1980s, when it helped the so-called Afghan mujahedin fight the Soviet Union.

 A change in policy began during then President Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s, after both Iran and Iraq had been exhausted by war and sanctions. In October 1998 the US Congress approved a resolution that made “regime change” in Iraq the official policy of the United States.

Clinton did not get to carry out the new policy, but his successor, George W Bush, did. Even before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Bush was determined to invade Iraq.

Bush lied to the American people about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and a non-existent link between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al-Qaeda, and he attacked and occupied Iraq. The true outcomes of the invasion are as follows.

First, the invasion gave rise to AQI and then to IS. According to a 2011 report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, from 2004 to 2007 the most potent forces fighting the US and its allies, as well as the Iraqi government, were those of AQI. Despite the fact that some of its top leaders, such as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, were killed, the organisation eventually morphed into the present IS.

Second, the invasion effectively partitioned Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions. The US cannot claim that it could not have foreseen what would happen in the aftermath of its invasion or what is happening in Iraq now. As early as 1994, then US Vice-president Dick Cheney asked, “Once you have got to Iraq and taken it over and taken down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place?”

He continued, “That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim, [having] fought over it for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire.”

The partition of Iraq further exacerbated the religious and ethnic tensions in the country. Once again, this was foreseen, but ignored. In an op-ed article in May 2006, then US Senator Joseph R. Biden and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: “Some will say moving toward strong regionalism would ignite sectarian cleansing. But that’s exactly what is going on already, in ever-bigger waves. Others will argue that it would lead to partition. But a breakup is already underway. As it was in Bosnia, a strong federal system is a viable means to prevent both perils in Iraq.”

Clinton recently said that if the United States had not invaded Iraq, the present situation would not have arisen. So he too has finally recognised what US policy, including that of his own administration, has done to Iraq.

A 2013 report by the Council on Foreign Relations expressed similar views. Although “AQI’s campaign of violence has diminished since the peak years of 2006 and 2007, the group remains a threat to stability in Iraq and the broader Levant,” the report said.

It continued, “Since the complete withdrawal of US forces in late 2011, AQI has accelerated the pace of attacks on mainly Shiite targets in what analysts say is an attempt to reignite conflict between Iraq’s Sunni minority and the Shiite-led government of [former Iraqi prime minister] Nuri Al-Maliki.

“Meanwhile, the militant group has expanded its reach into neighbouring Syria, where it has forged ties with Jabhat Al-Nusra, a Sunni militant faction providing tactical support to the insurrection against the Al-Assad regime. In April 2013, the two groups formally merged into the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.”

The funding for the latter group comes from “the region, including those based in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia,” but “the bulk of Al-Qaeda’s financing, experts say, comes from internal sources like smuggling, extortion, and other crime,” the report noted.

Yet, after all the destruction and bloodshed that the US-led invasion of Iraq produced, Bush’s only regret is that IS has emerged.



THE ROLE OF US ALLIES: As the US was leaving Iraq in 2011 it was also attacking Libya where AQI fighters were playing a prominent role in fighting former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Then, when the civil war in Syria was transformed into a sectarian Shiite-versus-Sunni war by US allies in the region, the AQI migrated to Syria and began its terrorist war under the name of ISIS and later IS.

In early October 2014, during a discussion with students at Harvard University, Biden said the following: “Our biggest problem was our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends, and I have a great relationship with [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, whom I just spent a great amount of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc? What were they doing? They were determined to take down [Bashar Al-] Assad in essentially a proxy Sunni-Shiite war.

“They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Al-Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were [Jabhat] Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and extremist elements of jihadists coming from other parts of the world. If you think I am exaggerating, take a look.

“So, now, what is happening? All of a sudden everybody is awakened because this outfit called ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and Levant], which was Al-Qaeda in Iraq, found space and territory in western, excuse me, eastern Syria, worked with Al-Nusra, who we declared a terrorist group early on, and we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”

Biden’s admission needs no further explanation.



FROM SYRIA TO IRAQ: Given the vast experience that AQI and later IS gained in Libya and Syria, and the new weapons they captured there, it was only natural for IS to return to its birthplace in Iraq. The result has been more bloodshed.

According to a UN report, 8,868 people were killed in Iraq during 2013. In the first ten months of 2014, at least 10,000 people were killed, over 17,500 injured, and 1.8 million displaced, all in the war against IS. The situation has become considerably worse over the last two months as the number of people killed, injured or displaced has been rising dramatically. The net result is that the US military has returned to Iraq with its involvement in the country becoming deeper by the day.

Worse yet, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, whose forces have occupied territory in Iraq, has threatened the central government in Baghdad with secession from Iraq, dreaming about a Greater Kurdistan in parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

In an interview with CNN, Barzani said that Iraq is disintegrating and now is the best time for the Kurds to make their decision regarding independence for Kurdistan.

 Barzani also spoke to US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to the province about Kurdistan’s independence. Israeli president Shimon Peres has said that Kurdistan’s independence is a “foregone conclusion” and that his country will recognise the new nation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also expressed his support for an independent Kurdistan.

Thus, the seeds that were sown by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan have grown and produced fruit everywhere. Apparently, no lessons were learned from the experience of the two wars.

Meanwhile, in an article in the Washington Post last July, Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, William Luers, former US ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia, and Thomas Pickering, US undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997-2000, emphasised that working with Iran is critical to saving Iraq from IS.

They acknowledged that Arab Gulf states, all US allies, have been covertly or overtly aiding Sunni radical groups and had helped in creating a sectarian Sunni-versus-Shiite war. They wrote: “It makes no sense for the West to support a war against Al-Assad as well as a war against the Islamic State. Al-Assad is evil, but in this case he is certainly the lesser evil.”

I agree. If the United States recognises that instability, changing national borders, destruction and millions of dead, injured and displaced in the Middle East are not in its national interests, it must work with Iran. Without Iran, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to defeat IS. Recent polls indicate that 61 per cent of the American people support working with Iran. The US also needs Iran to help end the war in Syria and keep the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan.

Obama’s recent letter to Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei apparently sought to foster cooperation between the two nations. IS and other jihadi groups are security threats against both countries, and thus Iran and the US have common interests in defeating IS.

Finalising a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the United States over Iran’s nuclear programme and cancelling, or at least suspending, US economic sanctions against Iran will create the necessary positive atmosphere for cooperation between the two countries and will open the door on cooperation between them for confronting terrorism.

Israeli and Saudi lobbies and their allies in the US, together with Iranian hardliners, oppose the nuclear agreement, but Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani can overcome their opposition. The agreement will make it possible for the two countries to work together to take steps toward ending the war in Syria by imposing a ceasefire there and holding free elections under United Nations supervision.

The US must set aside its fantasy of training the “moderate” Syrian opposition in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Doing so will indicate only one thing: that the US has once again not learned the necessary lessons. An Iran whose national security is guaranteed, and its regional interests respected, will open the way to ending the war in Syria.

Guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Middle Eastern countries is the necessary condition for defeating terrorism and creating a secure and more stable region. Without security, there can be no democracy.

Democracy and respect for human rights are not, and cannot be, the fruit of invading nations in the Middle East and North Africa. In the same way as the United States criticises Iran’s human rights record, it must do the same with regard to its own allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Arab nations of the Gulf.


The writer is an Iranian journalist.

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