Implications for Iraq?
There are good reasons why Iraqis should not celebrate the new Iranian-US rapprochement, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki was quick to welcome a landmark telephone call between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday, hailing the overture as a breakthrough in ending the tension between the two countries while offering Baghdad’s help to advance Iranian-US relations.
Al-Maliki’s celebratory remarks came just hours after the disclosure of the first direct contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 34 years. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran nearly a year after the Islamic Revolution that toppled US ally shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
Al-Maliki’s enthusiasm contrasted sharply with the scepticism expressed by Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbours who have been dismissive in their response to the drive by Washington to mend fences with a country whose regime they believe embraces expansionist ambitions.
“It is a victory for everyone. The fruit of peaceful solutions will be reaped by all in the region and around the world,” Al-Maliki said in a statement on Saturday. “It will reflect positively on the region’s chronic disputes and provide an example for their resolution,” he said.
In the first high-level US-Iranian contact since the Islamic Revolution, Obama held a 15-minute telephone conversation with Rouhani to discuss bilateral relations and Iran’s nuclear programme.
The call followed intensive diplomacy and the exchange of goodwill gestures after Rouhani was elected in June. The two leaders have agreed that their foreign ministers will follow up talks between the two countries.
Many Americans were scornful of the US policy shift, however, and criticised their president for taking seriously what they called Iran’s deceptive policy.
Some US politicians have warned that the move cold be a sign of desperation for a deal with Iran, which is offering only rhetorical “heroic flexibility” in foreign policy but maintaining a hardline stand on its nuclear programme.
Unsurprisingly, Iran’s other Sunni Arab neighbours, who have traditionally been worried about the Shias rise in the region, remained suspicious of the new development.
While Sunni Arab governments have remained tight-lipped on Obama’s move, the media has received the thaw in Iranian-US relations with alarm, expressing fears that Obama’s charm offensive will only buy Iran time to continue its march towards building a nuclear weapon and further strides in its endeavour at regional expansion.
Saudi Arabia and some other Sunni-dominated Gulf countries share fears about a shift in the regional balance of power towards Iran and its allies, such as the Iraqi Shias and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.
“Obama’s hastiness begs the question: is the US-Iranian crisis about the nuclear dossier alone? What about the other issues which concern Washington’s allies, whether Arabs or Israelis? And what about the Iranian expansion in the region,” asked Saudi columnist Tarek Al-Humaid in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat paper on Sunday.
One of the main concerns of Sunni Arab governments is that Iran will now adopt a broader agenda and will be able to use Iraq as a springboard to assume hegemonic control over the Gulf region.
The Iranian-US presidential telephone call and Al-Maliki’s supportive approach have rekindled the debate about Iran’s influence in Iraq, which has been on the rise since the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein more than 10 years ago.
For many Iraqi and Arab Sunnis, the real victor in the 2003 war between the US and Saddam’s Iraq was Iran, a country which only three decades ago fought a bloody war with Iraq that cost the two countries some one million casualties.
Last week the US magazine The New Yorker shed new light on Iran’s influence in Iraq, which it described as reshaping the Middle East, giving details of the role played by Qassem Suleimani, one of Iran’s most powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards commanders, who handles his country’s security and political dossiers about Iraq.
The magazine disclosed how Suleimani, in charge of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, an elite division of the Guards, has been instrumental in shaping Iraqi politics, engineering post-Saddam governments and masterminding militias.
It reported that as the American occupation had faltered, Suleimani had begun an aggressive campaign of sabotage and had even been instrumental in helping Al-Qaeda to enter the war by providing it with protection.
Suleimani also began sending his own forces into the country as advisors and ordering attacks on American soldiers and even Iraqis, the magazine said.
This had spelled the end of US influence and the beginning of the Iranian dominance of Iraq, The New Yorker said. Many Iraqis now refer to Suleimani as Iraq’s real ruler, and no one has rejoiced about the recent US overture more than Suleimani.
Shortly before the news of the Obama-Rouhani telephone conversation broke, Suleimani boasted that Washington’s “willingness to negotiate with Iran is a result of the Iranian people’s resistance and steadfastness”.
“They [the Americans] spent $3 trillion in Iraq, but they were forced to withdraw in humiliation,” he said. “All the wars in the region have ended in Iran’s victory.”
Iran’s influence in Iraq has been evident through its footprints in the country’s political, economic and cultural landscapes. Its resolve to increase its influence in Iraq, including by building a military and security alliance with the Shia-led government, has been telling.
Just last week, Iran concluded an agreement to boost defence cooperation with Iraq. Iran’s Defence Minister Hussein Dehqan, who signed the agreement with his Iraqi counterpart Saadoun Al-Dulaimi, expressed Iran’s readiness to help equip and strengthen the Iraqi armed forces.
“The Iranian government and nation are prepared to expand cooperation with Iraq at a strategic level in all areas,” said Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani.
Last year, the then Iranian minister of defence, Ahmed Vahidi, and Al-Dulaimi signed a document of bilateral cooperation.
Since the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 Iran has moved to bolster its economic ties with Iraq. In July, Iran’s vice president for international affairs, Ali Saidlou, acknowledged that during this period his country had tripled its trade with Iraq to $12 billion.
Iranian goods dominate Iraqi markets. Tens of thousands of Iranian-manufactured cars roam the streets of Iraqi cities and most food stuffs are Iranian.
In July, Iran concluded a landmark energy deal with Iraq to sell the country some 25 million cubic metres of natural gas to fuel its power plants via a new pipeline. The deal will make Iran a major player in Iraq’s energy future.
Iraq’s purchases of Iranian goods now offset Iran’s losses in international trade because of the Western embargo, imposed in an attempt to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear programme.
Along with political, military and economic relations, the growth of cultural and religious interactions speaks volumes about the rising Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iraqi leaders have been turning to Iran for help to resolve disputes. Iran was instrumental in assisting in coalition-building negotiations to form governments in post-Saddam Iraq, for example.
Last month, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi travelled to Tehran, reportedly to seek Iran’s help in forging new political coalitions ahead of next year’s elections.
In a multilateral setting that is not conspicuously stage-managed, the Iraqis should understand that the Iranians are not after an agreement on their country’s nuclear programme.
Instead, they are after a grandiose deal with the United States that would empower Iran to become more of a regional superpower. Unfortunately, Iraqi leaders do not seem to be aware of the looming dangers if their country becomes hostage to broader Iranian ambitions.
Al-Maliki’s presumption that the Iranian-US rapprochement will help Iraqis to find peace between its feuding communities is too easy, if not misleading.
Rather than taking some of the poison out of the Sunni-Shia split in Iraq, an Iranian-US deal could inflame the regional sectarian conflict and Iraq could become the deciding factor in the battle for influence in the region.
Writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper on Saturday, Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi urged the Gulf countries not to panic because of the Iranian-US conciliatory statements and to have confidence in themselves.
“What we need is some focussing and planning to identify who our strategic allies are and what our lasting interests are,” Khashoggi wrote, a commentator who is close to the Saudi royal family.
He quoted former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki Al-Faisal as saying that “Iran is only a paper tiger.” The gist of his remarks was that Saudi Arabia was ready to use its money and influence to resist Iran’s influence in Iraq and throughout the region.
By contrast, Tehran sees Obama’s approach as an opportunity to convince the Americans that better relations with Iran would help America deal with a host of other problems, including Syria and Gulf security.
“What is necessary for the two sides [Iran and the United States] is that they have common objectives and not competing objectives,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif told ABC News this weekend.
Iraq needs leaders with the vision to deal with the consequences of the disorder that might result from a bipolar system that could come about if the Iranians succeed in cutting a deal with the Americans, or if that system is challenged by regional actors.
Without concrete measures to end the country’s lingering ethno-sectarian conflict and political and security deadlock, however, Iraq will remain vulnerable to a variety of domestic, regional and global challenges, including the possibility of an Iranian-US détente.