30.06.2014 Author: Viktor Mikhin

The Middle East: A boiling caldron of contradictions

7711The brilliant ideas of brilliant people survive the centuries and become relevant at the appropriate time for them. Many experts analyzing the current situation in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq, recall the Russian writer, Lev Tolstoy, who once wrote in his memorable novel “Anna Karenina”: “Everything is mixed up in the Oblonsky household”. It is exactly this phrase that comes to mind of all those who are, in one or another, attached to the events of the Middle East, politicians, diplomats, presidents, prime ministers, kings and emirs.

Now deep, rapid and turbulent changes in the Middle East cannot accurately define the interests of the individual states caught up in these events. The successful advancement of the militant organization, the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) on Iraqi territory has literally obliterated the balance of power and interests that had existed in the region up until that point. Swiftly and quickly a new picture of the interests is emerging for all those who are in one way or another involved in the maelstrom of recent events.

Most of all, it concerns Tehran, which as it seemed, had rather firm control of the internal situation in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, with great reverence toward his Iranian brothers in faith tried, wherever possible, not to infringe on the interests of his powerful neighbor. At the Iran-Iraq border Iranian troops were free to cross, in Iraqi airspace Iranian civil as well as military aircraft were free to fly and on the territory of Iraq there was a flow of military equipment and weapons for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Iranian business people and businessmen felt at home in Baghdad, Basra and other Iraqi cities. However, al-Maliki, as he normally likes to declare, “I am first and foremost an Iraqi, and then an Arab and only then am I a Shiite,” sometimes allowed his subordinates to take a very limited kind of anti-Iranian campaign, which, in general, would not spoil the whole picture of the importance of the Iranians in the Tehran-Baghdad alliance.

And the victorious march of the militant Sunni organization ISIS, whose leaders openly declared for the overthrow of the Shiite leadership in Baghdad and the creation of a new Sunni state, was extremely unsettling for the Iranian ayatollahs. Moreover, in Tehran, until recently, many considered that the main purpose of ISIS, which was established by the monarchs of the Persian Gulf and generously equipped with American arms, was the fight against the regime of B. Assad. It is precisely for this reason that Iranian intelligence did not imagine a highly successful invasion of Sunni militants into Iraqi territory that would place the entire government of al-Maliki in jeopardy.

Tehran understands very well that any plans to build a new Sunni state on Syrian and Iraqi territories will inflict a fatal blow on the Assad regime, as well as on Iran’s plans to maintain friendly relations with a regime in Syria, as well as placing into question Iranian intentions to lay oil pipeline to the coast Mediterranean. It is not in vain that, in the Western press from time to time there are maps of what a future Middle East would look like and where the Assad Alawite emirate occupies only a small spot along the coast and a where large portion of the former Syrian territory emerges a new Sunni state.

Moreover, recent developments have given more confidence and determination on the part of the Kurds to officially announce the establishment of their own state on the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is without surprise that they brought in their full combat ready brigades (Peshmerga) to fully ensure the safety of their territory, not allowing ISIS militants into Kirkuk and thereby directing the Sunni troops to the south, in the direction of Baghdad. And if Iraqi Kurds declare its independence, this will have an enormous impact on the Iranian Kurds, giving them confidence to fight for secession from Iran. This factor makes Iran’s leaders very nervous, as they very well understand that this scenario will bring them one never-ending conflict, which will be fueled continuously from the outside.

All these unpleasant events forced groups to take quick and appropriate measures. Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, Mohammed Ali Alhakim, in the beginning of the invasion of Sunni groups into Iraq diplomatically declared, “The Government of Iraq has not yet turned to the United States or to any other countries on the provision of military assistance of any kind”. But at the same time, by his words, Baghdad is already receiving support from other countries, “in the various areas in which they need help”. It is fully understandable that an Iranian could only talk about the Iranian assistance. The diplomat also declared that in Iraq, “there are very well-trained units that will soon enter into battle with the terrorists”.

Realizing that the transfer of Iranian troops in Iraq may abroad, most specifically from the West, cause a negative reaction, Tehran asked its Lebanese allies in Hezbollah to fight in Syria to fight on the side of the Damascus regime, thereby sending its militants into Iraq to fight against Sunni jihadists from the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). With this goal in mind, according to the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, a special military force will be created to serve under the auspices of an elite unit of Quds forces (Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard). Hezbollah’s TV Channel, Al-Manar led with the statement by Deputy Secretary General, Naim Qassem, calling this movement of Sunni jihadists a violation of the fundamental dogmas of Islam and a threat to all mankind. That is why Hezbollah will not stop fighting, “while the true flag of Islam is not unfurled victoriously over the battlefield”. At the same time there were unofficial reports that there were already representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in action against militants on Iraqi territory. There is evidence that suggests that Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, commander of an elite unit Quds, of the Islamic Revolution Guards, arrived in Baghdad to coordinate action against ISIS militants. As reported by the BBC, the general gained a lot of experience in fighting against jihadists in the course of the Syrian civil war where Iran actively supports President Bashar Assad.

Later the Iranian President Hussein Rouhani said that his country, without any hesitation or delay will protect Shiite shrines in Iraqi territory against “murderers and terrorists”. He made it abundantly clear that Iran is prepared to “stop the terrorists in their tracks”. In his words, Kurds and Shiite veterans are prepared to unite in the fight against Sunni insurgents. Speaking in the western Iranian province of Loristan, the Iranian president specifically stated, “with regards to the Shiite shrines in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, Kadima and Samarra, we declare that to the murderers and terrorists, the great Iranian people will not hesitate to protect these shrines”. And he further went on to say that, “these terrorist groups and those who fund them, be it in the region or in the international arena, it does not matter, I hope I shall put them in their place.” Nonetheless, it should be understood that, in any case, the final decision on military intervention in Iraq must be made by the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The American newspaper, the Washington Post, on this occasion summarized it this way, “under the pretext of protecting Shiite shrines, Iran could easily occupy Iraq and put an end to the Sunni fanatics and as a bonus annex this territory. The last part of that scenario goes against the interests of Washington, but the first part, Washington can turn a blind eye to it. The U.S. is actively trying to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran and at stake is the abolition of the international sanctions against the Islamic republic; and agreement on this has almost been reached”.

And indeed this is a stroke of brilliance on the part of the Persians, as they were described by Alexander the Great, trying from an Iraqi “blessing” make Iranian “good” (a blessing in disguise per the Russian proverb) and force the West, primarily the United States, to lift sanctions. And apparently, the Iranian tactic seems to be working. Concluding in the fifth round of the Vienna negotiations between the “group of six” international mediators and Iran on a comprehensive settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue was largely defined in this in this process: the parties worked out a basic document that still requires a great deal of detail and agreement of significant disputes. The head of the Chinese delegation, Wang Tsun described the appearance of the document, which he called a “textual framework” and evidence of “progress” and rapprochement. A senior representative of the American delegation said that the document will “help to continue the negotiations”. But Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif called the text a “prelude” to a future agreement. We recall that the purpose of the negotiations, in which on the one hand there is Iran, on the level of Iran Foreign Minister Zarif, and on the other, the “group of six”, comprising of the U.S., UK, France, Germany, China and Russia, coordinated by the head of EU diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, to reach an agreement on guarantees of the exclusive peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and at the same time, trying to define the procedures on the removal of the international sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Recent events in Iraq have revealed new approaches in dealing with controversial issues, as evidenced by a “warmer” American position against the Iranian ayatollahs. U.S. President Barack Obama said that Iran could “play a constructive role in stabilizing Iraq” and urged Tehran to support the creation of a broad Iraqi government that respects the interests of Sunnis and Kurds. Barack Obama stated that supporting the creation of such a government Iran would be playing a positive role, but if Iranian intervention is reduced to nothing more than sending troops to assist a Shiite led government, then Tehran can only make the situation worse.

The main objective of Iran at the moment, based on recent events, is to make the last decisive breakthrough in recognizing it as a stabilizing force in the Middle East region. But this role it cannot play if it has to, at the same time, compete with the United States. Unlike Afghanistan, any cooperation in Iraq is likely to be public. And if Iran is to play a constructive role, the world would notice and appreciate it. But to change old patterns requires courage, strength and political will. It remains to be seen whether the leadership in Tehran is capable of it and whether or not Washington can accept it.

In any event, from the streets of Iranian cities they have urgently removed all anti-American propaganda. But whatever both sides can make it, they should not allow the long-standing feud to get in the way. In any case, the successful march of ISIS militants shows that open and frank dialog between the U.S. and Iran on regional issues is long overdue, and so is the establishment of normal diplomatic relations.

Victor Mikhin, correspondent member of the Russian Academy of Natural Science especially for the online magazine“New Eastern Outlook”.

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