MESOP ANALYSIS : Iran more likely than US to intervene in Iraq crisis / Over the edge

Michael Young – Now Media – 15/06/2014 – Over the edge – How Sunni discontent has backfired on Iran.

The gains of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in recent days have been partly made possible by the participation of discontented Iraqi Sunnis. ISIS is a vanguard, to which various Sunni-dominated groups, including onetime Baathists, have attached themselves, all fighting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

If so, this can tell us a great deal about the pitfalls of Iran’s approach to the Arab world, particularly its seeming refusal to push for conciliation with Sunnis in Iraq or Syria.

For years, Maliki has embarked on a reckless path of marginalizing Iraqi Sunnis, generating the rancor that has greatly facilitated the ISIS campaign. Maliki began by alienating the Sunni Arab Awakening that American forces had put in place in Anbar province to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He then had an arrest warrant issued against Tareq al-Hashemi, the vice president and most senior Sunni official, who later fled Iraq. And finally, Maliki used force to break up a months-long protest in Anbar where Sunnis had gathered to denounce the government’s mistreatment of their community.

Iran, which has considerable influence over Iraq, and over Maliki in particular, apparently did nothing to dissuade him from pursuing his Shiite-centric policies. Today it is paying the price, with reports suggesting that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and someone often described, rightly or wrongly, as Iran’s proconsul in Iraq, is feverishly working to contain the debacle. 

Iran’s strategy in the Arab world is, to a great extent, based precisely on the type of behavior that led to catastrophe in Iraq. In Iraq and Syria in the past three years, where their allies have not had a realistic chance of co-opting enraged Sunni communities, Iran has encouraged fragmentation. It has done so on the assumption that the Islamic Republic is better able to exert its influence in divided, conflictual Arab societies than in ones that are unified and can stand up to Iranian hegemony.

In Iraq, this has meant that Iran accepts Maliki’s divisive policies and supports him in his sectarian standoffs. In Syria, it has led to the consolidation of President Bashar al-Assad’s control over Damascus, the border area with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communication lines in between. Outside those areas the regime and Iran haven’t the manpower or the wherewithal to recapture and hold territory. This essentially means Iran has helped harden Syria’s sectarian partition lines.

In Lebanon the situation is somewhat different. Because its Hezbollah allies have been able to play a dominant role in the institutions of the Lebanese state, Iran has not sought fragmentation. Instead, Hezbollah has resorted to the language and practice of consensus, backed by the occasional threat or use of violence, in such a way as to neutralize its adversaries. 

Everywhere, Iranian behavior is based on a careful reading of the balance of forces – of what Iran’s allies can impose on those who disagree with them, no matter how contentious. Almost nowhere (Lebanon sometimes being an exception, due to its complicated sectarian makeup and Hezbollah’s need to preserve key political alliances) has there been a sustained effort by Iranian-backed officials or parties to engage in the politics of compromise with disgruntled Sunni communities.

We are now witnessing a counter-reaction to this inflexible approach in Iraq, while in Syria Assad’s policies have virtually ensured that he may never rule over a united country again. Arab divisions may benefit Iran, but that’s assuming the Islamic Republic can indefinitely contain the potentially devastating consequences of the policies it abets, which is not guaranteed.

The problem with the Iranian strategy is that its reliance on “creative Arab chaos” makes it difficult for Tehran to build something durable through its alliances. And yet, historically, Iran is a nation of institutions, and has succeeded remarkably in some cases – for example in its creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. But in Syria and Iraq, its partners have been brutal or irresponsible abusers of institutions, emptying them of their meaning and turning them into bulwarks of personal power.The Iranians must think long and hard about the Iraqi lesson. ISIS is simply a symptom of the fire spreading through the drywood of Sunni regional discontent. That’s why Tehran may have no choice but to consider a different approach to the region’s Sunnis, or face sectarian blowback everywhere.Potentially, this realization can open valuable doors for cooperation with Saudi Arabia, especially as both have an interest in defeating ISIS. However, it may also require an overhaul of Iranian thinking on the Arab world, as well as a modest understanding that power plays in the region cannot long succeed when directed against the Sunni majority.  

The collapse in Iraq has been a setback for the United States, which spent a trillion dollars on the country, lost thousands of lives, and trained Iraq’s army. But it is, above all, a reversal for Iran, whose ally Nouri al-Maliki pushed the Sunnis over the edge, which now threatens Iran’s vital interests. To calm the furies, Tehran will have to reexamine its methods, and decide whether sectarian brinksmanship is the way to keep going.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling

Correction: This piece originally named Tareq al-Hashemi as Iraq’s deputy prime minister. He was in fact vice president. NOW regrets the error.