The Islamic State is on the retreat. The combination of Peshmerga forces and US-led airstrikes halted their offensive on the Syrian border town of Kobane. The Iraqi Security Forces and Shiite militias are taking back the Isis-held city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. Elsewhere, the group have been rocked by desertions and internal dissent. While the Caliphate begins to fray, another shadow is beginning to stretch across the region: Iran.
In 2007, General David Petraeus concluded that the Iranian-linked Mahdi Army was a more serious threat to Iraq’s long-term security than al Qaeda in Iraq was (the group now known as Isis). Petraeus argued in a weekly report for Robert Gates that Iran was waging war against the US. He wrote: ‘Iran has gone beyond merely striving for influence in Iraq and could be creating proxies to actively fight us, thinking that they can keep us distracted while they try to build WMD and set up [the Mahdi Army] to act like Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq.’
In the broader regional battle against Isis, the US and her allies must consider the implications of a post-Isis Middle East and North Africa, and the power vacuum that will grow as the Caliphate begins to be rolled back. As Obama increasingly disengaged the US from the region, Iran began to take its place, after all.
Iran, in the millennial tradition of Persian statecraft, currently boasts the effective control of three Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, and the newly conquered capital of Yemen, Sanaa. In Baghdad, it boasts an influence not seen since the 17th Century, when Persia relinquished control of Baghdad to the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Zuhab. Through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), Iran’s quest for regional dominance has made use of the huge counter-mobilisation of Shiite ‘foreign fighters’ to Syria (where the term invariably refers to Sunni Muslims) to further their geostrategic and ideological ambitions.
As Benjamin Netanyahu put it in his recent speech to Congress, ‘Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror.’
With their main regional adversaries – the Taleban in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein’s Baathists in Iraq – removed, somewhat ironically in hindsight, by US action, Iran have used the Syrian civil war and the disintegration of societal cohesion in Iraq to secure influence over Shiite militias, which it seeks to mould into the model perfected by Lebanon’s Hezbollah (founded, trained, and funded to this day by the IRGC-QF). As Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent wrote in the Daily Beast on this expansion of Iranian power, ‘In Iraq and Syria, as we square off against Isis, the enemy of our enemy is not our friend, he is our enemy, too.’ Such a thesis is open to statecraft and leverage, but is a dire one, nonetheless.
After Hafez al-Assad’s Baathists took control of Syria, Damascus and Tehran began a fruitful alliance that is never stronger than in times of conflict. When the Arab Spring erupted, Tehran sought to protect its ally, both as a mutually beneficial partner, and to keep its supply-line to Hezbollah in Lebanon open. As Isis began its rapid expansion into Iraq, Tehran dispatched the IRGC-QF and weapons to Baghdad within hours. While the West fretted over the idea of further military involvement in Mesopotamia, Iran saw an opportunity to capitalise on the gains it had made in influencing Iraqi politics after the fall of Saddam. Iran’s spy-master, ‘Shadow Commander’ Qossem Suleimani, head of the IRGC-QF, put it bluntly: ‘We’re not like the Americans. We don’t abandon our friends.’
Writing in the Interpreter, Jim Molan argues that the West’s ‘tepid response’ to Isis runs the risk of seeing the spread of Iranian ‘control and influence from the northern Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean shore.’ I would argue that the eagerness of the Obama Administration to detach the US from the region (bungled, though understandable) after removing Iran’s two most important geopolitical opponents – the Taleban in Afghanistan and Saddam’s Baathist government in Iraq – has already allowed this to take place. Power, after all, begs to be balanced, and no adversarial state has been able, nor willing to counter the ascendancy of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Ongoing negotiations between the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program are equally disappointing. Widespread derision of Netanyahu’s speech, aside from highlighting the move among the chattering classes from serious discourse to petty animosity, ignored the complete lack of evidence that any ‘deal’ struck is unlikely to result in either détente, or even Iranian compliance. Iran, after all, has a distingushed history of exploiting nuclear agreements, acknowledged by the IAEA.
As others have put this rather pointed question in the past: would Iran in its current dealings with adversarial states, and with a weaponised nuclear capability, feel obliged, or adverse, in its curbing of IRGC-QF-led militias? After all, it can view, in its own current sphere of influence, two states which relinquished WMD capacity – Iraq and Libya – and one that retained it, Syria. Only one of those states has not been intervened against.
Since 1979, Iran, as Henry Kissinger writes in World Order, presented a dualistic challenge to international order: shrouding itself in the protections of the Westphalian state system, while simultaneously declaring it corrupt, intending ultimately to replace it. Anti-Western rhetoric emanating from Tehran has been unchanged for a generation, continuing today, and despite Iranian President Rouhani’s accepted position among the commentariat as a ‘moderate’.
The presence of Western forces in Iraq can act as a vital counter-balance to Iranian influence in Mesopotamia. A brief history of time, however, points towards a US that is understandably reluctant to engage Iraq militarily for the third time in two-and-a-half decades.
The US might realise a lack of balance to growing Iranian power is one that prevents a mutually beneficial conclusion to ongoing nuclear negotiations, and a curbing of Iranian-led Shiite militias, the most famous of which killed a sizeable amount of American troops in 1983.
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