Nothing would seem more absurd than watching the US making its ‘intentions’ clear about dismantling the ISIL’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria by, of course, bringing in its regional allies’ armed forces. A few days ago, Iran officially confirmed that its air force did carry out air strikes against the ISIL, confirming its avowed alliance with the US in this newly emergent phase of “war on terror.” Where it is interesting to see the ‘axis of evil’ becoming a ‘trusted ally’, there it is also significant to keep in mind the religious identity of this ally and the kind of impact it would leave on the region in the near future.
The US, by bringing in Iran, is tacitly giving a new color to the ISIL problem, thereby executing its most dangerous design to rupture the Middle East so deeply as to hardly leave any room—or no room for that matter—for any ‘peaceful’ exit out of the current crisis. What Iran’s participation in this war implies, in simple words, is that now almost entire Middle East is engaged in war. Not only is it engaged in this war, but significantly it is also acutely divided on the question of the ISIL, with Iran led block fighting against it and Saudi led block tacitly supporting it, and the US playing with both. This division is, however, not merely political; it is sectarian as well. In simple words, Iran’s participation, in the long run, is going to change the texture of this war from “war against fundamentalism” to a “sectarian war.”
On the part of the US, Iran’s inclusion serves no purpose other than that of paving the way for a long war, engulfing the entire oil rich region; for, the region, if it remains immersed in conflict, does mean that the West sees prosperity. How and the extent to which the on-going war is affecting the Western economy can be understood by closely looking at the current huge drop in oil prices, and the kind of affect it has and would further have on the health of troubled Western economy. Not only would this apparently looking an ‘economic’ issue strengthen the West, it would also negatively affect the oil producing states in the Middle East. Drop in oil prices would seriously affect the revenue earnings of these oil producing states, and this would further affect their ability to fight the war as affectively as they would have done with oil price remaining high, since this would have left them in state of sound economic standing.
Although the decision to cut down oil prices was taken by OPEC—an organization that includes Middle Eastern states (e.g., Saudia and Iran), member state’s decisions were informed by markedly differing strategic and political considerations. Iran agreed to it because Iran is seeking concessions from the West over the still outstanding nuclear issue; while, for Saudia, Iran itself was the key factor. Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf monarchies—Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar—sit on giant rainy-day funds and can comfortably weather a few years of cheap oil, provided that prices stabilize not too far from current levels. Saudi strategic allies, for instance, Egypt and Pakistan would likely benefit, as cheaper oil spurs their economies. But for Iran, its economy already buffeted by international sanctions, as the nuclear issue remains unresolved, the recent oil rout represents real pain that makes its regional ambitions much costlier and highly problematic. This dropdown has, therefore, paved the way for a bitter tussle between Saudia and Iran on at least two levels: economic and strategic. Economically, these states would compete for securing security of demand for oil; strategically they would stand ‘eye to ball to eye ball’ in Iraq and Syria and now in Iraq as well. Although Saudi Arabia is publicly denouncing the ISIL, it is far from fact that it is doing so practically too. Even if we accept that Saudia is not practically supporting the ISIL, it does not, in any way, make her Iran’s friend; for, the question of Syria and Assad’s regime continue to stand apart, forcing the two states to engage in long term proxy war.
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s tussle is, however, going to take a religious/sectarian color as well. Thanks to the US’ policy of enabling and facilitating Shia militia and Iranian forces’ entry into Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas to fight Islamic State. However, given the sociological realities of the Middle East, the entry of Shia forces, be it trained militias or Irani force, the infighting is going to intensify; for, it would give the local populace a pretext to side with their Sunni compatriots, that is the ISIS, and oppose the in-coming Shia forces.
Similarly, on the geo-political level, the entry of Shia forces into Iraq would imply that the Sunni powers, such as Saudia, Qatar, UAE, would be gradually left out of the picture, propelling them to increase their support for the ISIS because of the latter’s “Sunni” character. In other words, the threat to the ascendancy of Sunni players such as Gulf States, will simply increase both the scale and intensity of violence rapidly, with the various local factions open to be manipulated as armed proxies. Such a situation would most probably push Iraq back to 2007 like scenario when, on the surface, a struggle between insurgents and the United States was going on, however, the real fight was happening in parallel, as the minority Sunnis started to intensively resist the Shia government in Iraq. Furthermore, such a situation would also resonate political crisis that preceded Sunni-Shia street fighting. The solution to the problem was supposedly the Anbar Awakening, which ultimately led to an understanding which stipulated that the Shias would grant them (the Sunnis) a substantive share in power. However, the promise was thrown away in the basket of history, as was expected, and the fighting broke out.
If such a scenario occurs, which is most likely to occur given the sociological tensions existing in Iraq specifically and the Middle East generally, Iran and its allies are going to be pitched in a long term battle against Saudia and its allies. Whether or not they would espouse ideological reasons for their fight, people on the grounds of Iraq will be guided by their religious-cum-sectarian predispositions—hence, an entrenched sectarian warfare. With Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in such a warfare as argued for here, the US would find itself in the ideal position to manoeuvre and manipulate the oil rich region not only for ensuring interrupted supply of oil to the West but also for battling its strategic competitors—-Russia and China—in Asia, rather than in Europe. If this plan works out for the US, it would certainly place her in such a position as to secure an ‘uncontested’ global hegemony’—the original objective of the US’ grand strategy for the twenty-first century. Notwithstanding the US’ strategic calculations, it is quite obvious that the plan to involve Iran implies not a solution to the on-going war, but an extension of it on a wider scale; and, the US clearly stands to gain much from it.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.