Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Iranian ascendancy

US policy in the Middle East has paved the way for the continuing rise of Iran, writes Peter Van Buren

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The US has been running around in circles in the Middle East, patching together coalitions here, acquiring strange bedfellows there, and in location after location trying to figure out who the enemy of its enemy actually is.

The result is what you’d expect: chaos. This is further undermining whatever’s left of the nations whose frail characters have given birth to the jihadism that America has been trying to squash.

In a classic tale of unintended consequences, just about every time Washington has committed another blunder in the Middle East, Iran has stepped in to take advantage. Iran is the rising power in the region, and American clumsiness is to blame for the new Iranian ascendancy.

The US recently carried out air strikes in support of the Iraqi militias that Iran favours as they took back the city of Tikrit in Iraq from Islamic State (IS) forces. At the same time, Washington began supplying intelligence and aerial refuelling on demand for a Saudi bombing campaign against the militias Iran favours in Yemen.

Iran also continues to advise and assist Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whom Washington would still like to depose. As part of its Syrian strategy it continues to supply and direct Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group the US considers a terror outfit.

Meanwhile, the US has successfully negotiated the outlines of an agreement with Iran in which progress on severely constricting its nuclear programme would be traded for an eventual lifting of sanctions and the granting of diplomatic recognition. This is certain to further bolster Tehran’s status as a regional power, while weakening long-time American allies.

A clever pundit could undoubtedly paint all of the above as a realpolitik ballet on Washington’s part, but the truth seems simpler and more painful. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US policy in the region has combined confusion on an immense scale with awkward bursts of ill-coordinated and exceedingly short-term acts of expediency. The country that has benefited most is Iran. No place illustrates this better than Iraq.

 

IRAQ REDUX: On 9 April 2003, just over 12 years ago, US troops pulled down a statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolically marking what then US President George W Bush hoped was the beginning of a campaign to remake the Middle East in America’s image by bringing not just Iraq but also Syria and Iran to heel.

There can be no question that the invasion of Iraq did indeed set events in motion that are still remaking the region in ways that were once unimaginable.

In the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Arab Spring blossomed and failed. Today, fighting ripples through Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa and other parts of the Greater Middle East.

Terrorists attack in once relatively peaceful places like Tunisia. There is now a de facto independent Kurdistan, last a reality in the 16th century, which includes the city of Kirkuk. Previously stable countries have become roiling failed states that are home to terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the US military rolled across the Iraqi border in 2003.

The fighting in Iraq itself also roars on. Who now remembers US President Barack Obama declaring victory in 2011 and praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of Bush’s Iraq.

Trillions of dollars had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but as with the Vietnam War decades earlier, the US was to move on and not look back. So much for the dream of a successful Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

But unlike in Vietnam, Washington did go back, quickly turning a humanitarian gesture in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people from destruction at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) group into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 62 nations was formed. The tap on a massive arms flow was turned on.

The architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq and a leaker of top secret documents, retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus, was brought back in for advice. Round the clock bombing became the order of the day, and several thousand US military advisors returned to familiar bases to retrain some part of a US-created army that had only recently collapsed and abandoned four key northern cities to IS militants.

Iraq War 3.0 was officially underway, and many pundits predicted a steady escalation with the usual quagmire to follow. Such a result can hardly be ruled out yet, but at the moment it’s as if Obama had stepped to the edge of the Iraqi abyss, peered over and then shrugged his shoulders. Both his administration and the US military appear content for the moment neither to pull back nor press harder.

The American people seem to feel much the same. Except in the Republican Congress, there are few calls for anything much. The ongoing air strikes remain “surgical” in domestic politics, if not in Iraq and Syria. Hardly noticed and little reported on, they have had next to no effect on Americans.

Yet they remain sufficient to assure the right wing that the American military is still the best tool to solve problems abroad, while encouraging liberals who want to show that they can be as tough as anyone going into 2016.

At first glance, the American version of Iraq War 3.0 has the feel of the Libyan air intervention — the same lack of concern, that is, for the long game. But Iraq 2015 is not Libya 2011, because this time while America sits back, Iran is rising.

 

IRAN ASCENDANT: Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last major transformational event in the Middle East was the 1979 fall of the classic American stooge, the Shah of Iran. Otherwise, many of the regimes in power since the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, had stayed in place, and so had most of the borders set even earlier, in the aftermath of World War I.

Iran should send America a fruit basket to thank it for setting the stage so perfectly for its ascent. In 2003, the US eliminated Iran’s major border threats: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the west and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the east.

The long slog of Washington’s wars in both those countries dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for yet more of the same, and cooled off Bush-era plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Better yet for the Iranians, when Saddam was hanged in 2006 they not only lost an enemy who had invaded their country in 1980, launching a bitter war against them that didn’t end for eight years, but gained an ally in the new Iraq.

As US influence withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi elections to produce a broadly representative government, Iran stepped in to broker a thoroughly partisan settlement, leading to a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad bent on ensuring that the country’s minority Sunni population would remain out of power. The Obama administration seemed nearly oblivious to Iran’s gains in Iraq in 2010 and seems so again in 2015.

In Tikrit, Iranian-led Shia forces recently drove IS forces from the city. In charge was Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Al-Quds Force (a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), who had previously led the brutally effective efforts of Iranian special forces against US soldiers in Iraq War 2.0.

He returned to that country and assembled his own coalition of Shia militias to take Tikrit. All of them have long benefited from Iranian support, as has the increasingly Shia-dominated Iraqi army.

In addition, the Iranians seem to have brought in their own tanks and possibly even ground troops for the assault on the city. They also moved advanced rocket systems into Iraq, the same weapons Hamas has used against Israel in recent conflicts. Only one thing was lacking: air power.

After much hemming and hawing, when it looked like the assault on Tikrit had been blunted by well-dug-in IS fighters in a heavily booby-trapped city, the Obama administration agreed to provide it.

On the US side, the air of desperation around the decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit was palpable. You could feel it, for instance, in a statement by a Pentagon spokesperson almost pleading for the Iraqi government to favour Washington over Tehran.

“I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against IS. Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition,” he said.

Imagine if you had told an American soldier leaving Iraq in 2011 that just a few years later in the country where he or she had watched friends die the US would be serving as Iran’s close air support. Imagine if you had told him that Washington would be helping some of the same Shia militias who planted IEDs to kill Americans go after Sunnis and essentially begging for the chance to do so.

 

THE LIMITS OF AIR POWER: The White House no doubt imagined that US bombs would be seen as the decisive factor in Tikrit. Bizarre as such a “strategy” might seem, it has proven even stranger in practice.

The biggest problem with air power is that while it’s good at breaking things it isn’t decisive. It cannot determine who moves into the governor’s mansion after the dust settles.

Only ground forces can do that, so a victory over IS in Tikrit, no matter what role air strikes played, can only further empower the Iranian-backed Shia militias. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that this is the nature of air power, which makes it all the more surprising that American strategists seem so blind to it.

As for liking Washington better for its helping hand, there are few signs of that. Baghdad officials have largely been silent on America’s contribution, praising only the “air coverage of the Iraqi air force and the international coalition.” Shia militia forces on the ground have been angered by and scornful of the United States for, as they see it, interfering in their efforts to take Tikrit on their own.

The victory in that city will only increase the government’s reliance on the militias, which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi now refers to as “popular volunteers”, rather than the still-limited number of soldiers the Americans have so far been capable of training.

That also means that the government will have no choice but to tolerate the Shia militia’s atrocities and acts of ethnic cleansing that have already taken place in Sunni Tikrit and will surely follow in any other Sunni areas that are similarly “liberated.” Claims coming out of Washington that the US will be carefully monitoring the acts of Iraqi forces ring increasingly hollow.

What Tikrit has done is solidify Iran’s influence over Al-Abadi, currently little more than the acting mayor of Baghdad, who claimed the victory in Tikrit as a way to increase his own prestige. The win also allows his Shia-run government to seize control of the ruins of the previously Sunni enclave. No one should miss the obvious symbolism that lies in the fact that the first major city retaken from IS in a Sunni area is also the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.

The best the Obama administration can do is watch helplessly as Tehran and Baghdad take their bows. A template has been created for a future in which other Sunni areas, including the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, and Sunni cities in Anbar Province will be similarly retaken, perhaps with the help of American air power but almost certainly with little credit to Washington.

 

IRAN IN SYRIA, LEBANON AND YEMEN: Tehran is now playing a similarly important role in other places where US policy stumbles have left voids, particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

In Syria, Iranian forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Al-Quds Force and their intelligence services, advise and assist Al-Assad’s military. They also support Hezbollah elements from Lebanon fighting on Al-Assad’s side.

At best, Washington is again playing second fiddle, using its air power against IS and training “moderate” Syrian fighters, the first of whom refused to even show up for their initial battle.

In Yemen, a US-supported regime backed by Special Forces advisers and a full-scale drone targeted assassination campaign recently crumbled. The American embassy was evacuated in February, the last of the advisers in March.

The takeover of the capital, Sanaa, and later significant parts of the rest of the country by the Houthis, a rebel Shiite minority group, represents, in the words of one Foreign Policy writer, “a huge victory for Iran ... the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos.”

The panicked Saudis promptly intervened and were quickly backed by the Obama administration’s insertion of the US in yet another conflict by executive order. Relentless Saudi air strikes (perhaps using some of the $640 million worth of cluster bombs the US sold them last year) are supported by yet another coalition, this time of Sudan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni powers in the region.

The threat of an invasion, possibly using Egyptian troops, looms. The Iranians have moved ships into the area in response to a Saudi naval blockade of Yemen.

No matter what happens, Iran will be strengthened. Either it will find itself in a client relationship with a Houthi movement that has advanced to the Saudi border or, should they be driven back, a chaotic state in Yemen with an ever-strengthening Al-Qaeda offshoot. Either outcome would undoubtedly disconcert the Saudis (and the Americans) and so sits well with Iran.

To make things even livelier in a fragmenting region, Sunni rebels infiltrating from neighbouring Pakistan recently killed eight Iranian border guards. This probably represented a retaliatory attack in response to an earlier skirmish in which Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed three suspected Pakistani Sunni militants. Once started, fires do tend to spread.

For those keeping score at home, the Iranians now hold significant positions in three Middle Eastern countries (or at least fragments of former countries), in addition to Iraq.

 

THE NUCLEAR QUESTION: Iran is well positioned to ascend. Alone in the region, it is a nation that has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically stable and religiously, culturally and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control.

While still governed in large part by clerics, Iran has seen evolving democratic electoral transitions at the secular level. Politically, history is on Iran’s side. If you set aside the 1953 CIA-backed coup that ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohamed Mosaddegh and put the US-backed Shah in power for a quarter of a century, Iran has sorted out its governance on its own for some time.

Despite decades of sanctions, Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, has managed to hold its economy together, selling what oil it can primarily to Asia. It is ready to sell more oil as soon as sanctions lift.

It has a decent conventional military by local standards. Its young people reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. Unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one 36 years ago.

Recently, the US, Iran and the P5 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) reached a preliminary agreement to significantly constrain that country’s nuclear programme and lift sanctions. It appears that both the Obama administration and Tehran are eager to turn this into an official document by the end of June.

A deal isn’t a deal until signed on the dotted line, however, and the congressional Republicans are sharpening their knives. But the intent is clearly there.

To keep the talks on track, by the end of June the Obama administration will have released to the Islamic Republic a total of $11.9 billion in previously frozen assets, dating back to the 1979 Iranian takeover of the US embassy in Tehran. In addition to the straight-up flood of cash, the US agreed that Iran may sell $4.2 billion worth of oil, free from any sanctions.

The US will also allow Iran approximately $1.5 billion in gold sales, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.” Put another way, someone in Washington wanted this badly enough to pay for it.

For Obama and his advisers, the agreement is clearly a late grasp (or perhaps last gasp) at legacy building, and maybe even a guilty stab at justifying that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The urge to etch some kind of foreign policy success into future history books that, at the moment, threaten to be grim reading is easy enough to understand.

So it should have surprised no one that John Kerry, Obama’s once globetrotting secretary of state, basically took up residence in Switzerland to negotiate with the Iranians. He sat at the table in Lausanne bargaining while Tikrit burned, Syria simmered, his country was chased out of Yemen and the Saudis launched their own war in that beleaguered country.

That he had hardly a word to say about any of those events is an indication of just how much value the Obama administration puts on the nuclear negotiations.

For the Iranians, trading progress on developing nuclear weapons for the full-scale lifting of sanctions was an attractive offer. After all, its leaders know that the country could never go fully nuclear without ensuring devastating Israeli strikes, and so lost little with the present agreement while gaining much.

Being accepted as a peer by Washington in such negotiations only further establishes their country’s status as a regional power. Moreover, a nuclear agreement that widens any rift between the US, Israel and the Saudis plays to Tehran’s new strength.

Finally, the stronger economy likely to blossom once sanctions are lifted will offer the nation the possibility of new revenues and renewed foreign investment.

 

WHAT LIES AHEAD: Over recent months, despite the angry, fearful cries and demands of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the Saudi royals, and neo- and other conservatives in Congress, Iran has shown few signs of aspiring to the sort of self-destruction going nuclear would entail.

In fact, trading mushroom clouds with Israel and possibly the US never looked like an appealing goal to the Iranian leadership. Instead, they preferred to seek a more conventional kind of influence throughout the Middle East. They were hardly alone in that, but their success has been singular in the region.

The US provided free tutorials in Afghanistan and Iraq on why actually occupying territory in the neighbourhood isn’t the road to such influence. Iran’s leaders have not ignored the advice. Instead, Iran’s rise has been stoked by a collection of client states, aligned governments, sympathetic and/or beholden militias and, when all else fails, chaotic non-states that promise less trouble and harm to Tehran than to its various potential enemies.

Despite Iran’s gains, the US will still be the biggest kid on the block for years, possibly decades, to come. One hopes that America will not use that military and economic strength to lash out at the new regional power it has inadvertently helped create.

And if any of this does presage some future US conflict with an Iran that has become too powerful, then we shall have witnessed a great irony, a great tragedy and a huge waste of American blood and resources.

The author drew attention to US waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

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