Cracks in Iraqi-US relations

Cracks in Iraqi-US relations

Last week’s visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to Washington highlighted the widening gulf in the Iraqi-US partnership, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi stunned the Obama administration during a visit to Washington last week when he told journalists that the White House was unhappy with the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen which he warned could engulf the Middle East in war.

Al-Abadi’s criticism of the US-backed Saudi airstrikes in Yemen and his claims of the White House’s dissatisfaction with the mission prompted a swift denial from the Obama administration and the Saudi ambassador in Washington Adel Jubeir.

Whether scripted or not, Al-Abadi’s comments have underlined serious problems in the Iraqi-US relationship and have far-reaching implications for how Washington is engaged in Iraq’s political and security crises.

Since the US troop pullout in 2011, the Iraqi-US relationship has had many ups and downs but has worked largely by disguising key differences over several intertwined issues, mostly leftovers from the era of the decade-long US occupation of the country.

But many of the new disputes, which centre around broader regional policies and approaches to resolving and managing regional conflicts, seem to have made the Iraqi-US relationship more lopsided, and thus more fraught, than ever before.

While in Washington Al-Abadi took aim at the Saudi-led military campaign against the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. He explained his worries that Saudi airstrikes might be a precursor for a more assertive Saudi military role in neighbouring countries, including Iraq.

Ordinarily, this should not have bothered Washington, which is committed by the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement with Baghdad to help strengthen “security and stability in Iraq” and enhance its ability “to deter all threats against its sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.”

But Al-Abadi’s remarks seemed to have gone too far in unravelling the paradox in Iraqi-US relations and underscoring the Obama administration’s fractured and even contradictory Middle East policies.

For Al-Abadi and the rest of the Iraqi Shia, the US’s expanding role in Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis in Yemen is not helpful either in combating terrorism in the region or in easing mounting Shia-Sunni tensions.

For the Iraqi Shia, US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen looks like a tale of hypocrisy that rules the world.

What is puzzling to the Iraqi Shia-led government is that while US President Barack Obama has called on the Gulf nations to use their influence on Libya’s warring factions to help resolve the chaotic situation there, US drones flying over Yemen transmit the information that Gulf jetfighters use to attack targets in Yemen.

Obama’s invitation to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies for a meeting at Camp David next month “to discuss ways to enhance partnership and deepen security cooperation” may also increase the Iraqi Shia-led government’s fears about Washington’s gamble.

One of the scenarios for the upcoming summit is that the United States may propose to help the Saudi-led camp to acquire a similar status to Iran, both with an internationally recognised nuclear programme and a reinforced regional posture.

This feared scenario, if materialised, could initiate a trilateral relationship between the US, Iran and the Saudi-led camp that Washington will hope will ensure regional equilibrium and enhance stability.

But such a perception ignores the fact that the dynamics of Arab-Iranian relations are further complicated by historical, nationalistic and sectarian enmities and regional competition.

Worse, without regional institutions to achieve its goals it remains questionable whether such an innovation on the multilateral front would amount to something that could usefully be considered as the basis for new regional arrangements.

In this regard, Iraq’s concerns remain immediate and focused. Al-Abadi’s warning in Washington about Iraq being within the radar of Saudi Arabia was actually a message to the Obama administration that it needs to be more sensitive to concerns that its approach to Saudi Arabia could turn the conflict in Yemen into an all-out regional sectarian war.

Furthermore, it could encourage the kingdom to launch a similar campaign against Iraq or Syria.

Another sign of fissures between the Iraqi Shia-led government in Baghdad and Washington is over differences in conducting the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Iraq.

Since it started some ten months ago when IS captured vast swathes of territory in the country, the two sides have sharply differed on policies and the military strategies needed to beat IS and take back the land.

While Obama suggested a military strategy of airstrikes to “degrade and ultimately destroy IS” coupled with a political approach that called for Sunni inclusion in Iraq, the Baghdad government resorted to Shia Iran for help in battling IS.

Iran has been supporting Iraq with weapons, intelligence and training in the battles. But its main contribution has been in mobilising its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build a massive Iraqi Shia paramilitary force that has been effective in regaining control over Iraq’s Sunni provinces.

While the United States sees the Iranian involvement in the fighting in Iraq as possibly turning the war on terrorism into a sectarian war, the Iraqi government has criticised the “slow tempo” of the US airstrikes and their ineffectiveness.

Iraq complains of a lack of US intelligence and weapon supplies to the Iraqi security forces. Its main concern remains that the US military strategy to combat IS is not working and has even created further confusion in Iraq.

During Al-Abadi’s visit to Washington a key difference surfaced when Al-Abadi told reporters that the next step in military operations against IS fighters would be to try to roll them back in Iraq’s western Anbar Province.

In contrast, US top brass general Martin Dempsey said defending Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, was of secondary importance compared with protecting the Beiji oil refinery from IS militants, a stance even some Republicans in the US have criticised as minimising setbacks.

Earlier, the two sides had differed publically on when a military push to retake the northern strategic city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, would take place. Again, US officials expressed concerns about the role of the Iran-backed militias in the offensive, while the Iraqis insisted that they should be in control of the timetable and tactics in the battle to retake Mosul.

The disagreements have been costly as Iraq has had to delay an offensive to take back Anbar following Washington’s insistence that the Shia paramilitary forces should not take part in order for the US to provide airpower support to the Iraqi troops.

As a result, the IS militants initiated a counter-offensive and seized more land in Ramadi this week, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee Ramadi and triggering a fresh humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

Iraq’s security forces had to reorganise and bring reserves from the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Force in order to halt the militants from further advancing in Ramadi and threatening Baghdad.

One more sign of Iraqi frustration with Washington has been the latter’s failure to support Baghdad with the kinds of weapons it needs to fight IS. While in Washington Al-Abadi kept telling the media that the Iraqi security forces needed American weapons such as tanks and warplanes “badly”.

Nevertheless, he returned to Baghdad empty-handed and with only a pledge from Obama for $200 million in humanitarian support for those displaced by IS onslaughts.

The United States may have adopted certain policies in Iraq and the Middle East, but the Obama administration’s approach can hardly be seen as reflecting the true reality of Iraq’s and the region’s complex politics.

Its main deficiency is that it has failed to understand the region as it really is.

The confusion it has created has divided people in Iraq and in the Middle East between those who believe that the administration’s strategy empowers the Shia militias in Iraq and Iran, and others who see Washington as an ally in the war against the Shia.

At no time since it withdrew its troops from Iraq has the United States seemed so undone as a strategic partner because of its poor policies.

If there is one simple way of describing the US attitude towards Iraq, it is in the Iraqi proverb: “I won’t feed you. And I won’t let you beg.” That can hardly maintain a partnership based on trust and confidence.

This article appeared  first in Al-Ahram Weekly on April 23, 2015

End of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?

End of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The fate of Masoud Barzani’s presidency has put the nascent democracy of Iraqi Kurdistan to its biggest test yet, writes Salah Nasrawi

Ali Hama Saleh, a member of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Parliament for Gorran, or the Movement for Change, seems to have followed the wrong path in defending his party’s platform of reform. He has chosen to defy Kurdistan’s strongman, Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, who is making a bid to cling to power, by criticising his foot-dragging in giving the autonomous region a constitution.

Last month, Saleh wrote an open letter to Barzani whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and family members have dominated Kurdish politics for more than half a century, urging him to quickly fix the “presidency problem through dialogue between political groups.”

“Delay,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “will result in dire consequences.”

The reform-minded lawmaker and anti-graft campaigner also blasted the Region’s government led by Barzani’s nephew and son-in-law Nechirvan Barzani for widespread corruption and the mismanagement of financial affairs.

In his post, Saleh detailed the waste of billions of dollars received from the Baghdad government’s budgetary allocations over 12 years, revenues from selling oil from the Kurdish Region, local taxes and loans from foreign banks.

Thousands of loyalists and cronies had been receiving pensions and salaries from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) without being eligible for payments, while the government had claimed it did not have enough cash to pay the salaries of its civil servants, Saleh wrote.

“Who is responsible for the financial situation of Kurdistan, and why has it reached this stage,” he asked.

In a nascent democracy critical views by an MP would be tolerated, but not in Iraqi Kurdistan where Saleh’s call has provoked a strong response from Barzani’s supporters who have sought to punish him for crossing a red line by challenging Kurdistan’s leader.

When Saleh attended the parliament a few days later the wolves were circling waiting for him. Two KDP members attacked Saleh as he tried to step into the session.

As the assembly erupted in protest, members dragged the assailants out of the chaotic hall. Speaker Youssef Mohamed also ordered the session suspended, fearing an outbreak of skirmishes between rival members.

But the assault on Saleh soon resonated across Kurdistan, renewing a debate about Kurdish democracy, a much-trumpeted achievement since the autonomous region was established as a federal region of Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003.

Almost 12 years later that cherished narrative of Kurdish democracy is giving way to frustration and disillusionment among Iraqi Kurds who have been watching their government turning into another Middle Eastern autocracy.

The brawl in the Kurdish parliament has underlined how an iron fist is being used to silence opposition groups seeking reform. But it has also thrown Barzani’s controversial presidency wide open as he maneuvers to stay in power despite legal and constitutional restraints.

The wrangle over Barzani’s presidency has intensified ahead of the end of his term in office this summer amid demands by the opposition for a constitution for the Kurdish Region which sets out the rules for the election of the president of Kurdistan by the Region’s parliament.

The document, drafted in 2009, has never been put to public referendum for ratification after Barzani declined to sign it. It states that the president of the Kurdistan Region “may be re-elected for a second term on the date this constitution enters into force.”

The opposition argues that the draft constitution was rushed through by the parliament at the time by a caretaker government controlled by the KDP and the PUK, another Kurdish party, which share power in the region.

According to the opposition some of the constitution’s articles were changed within a matter of days and presented for endorsement by the parliament when one third of its members were not present.

It also claims that among the articles that were changed were those that made the Iraqi Kurdistan Region a presidential system, whereas the original document drafted by a special committee had stated that the region enjoyed “a parliamentary political system”.

Under the controversial draft constitution, the president wields absolute power, including the power to declare a state of emergency, issue decrees that have the force of law, dissolve the parliament and dismiss ministers.

Now the opposition wants the constitution to be sent back to the parliament to amend items related to the president’s power and reinforce the assembly’s powers, including its right to elect the president.

Barzani was first elected for a four-year term in 2005 by the parliament. In 2009, he was re-elected by a public election according to a law that stipulated that Iraqi Kurdistan’s president be directly elected by the people.

The opposition says that law contradicted the draft constitution and insists that Barzani has now served the two terms allowed in the document.

However, Barzani’s supporters argue that the term limits are not retrospective, so Barzani is eligible for re-election.

Nevertheless, when Barzani completed his two terms in office in July 2013, the parliament passed a law extending his tenure for two years. The move, pushed through by the KDP and its coalition partner the PUK, was rejected by the opposition parties and prompted fist-fights and the throwing of water bottles in the parliament.

Many of Barzani’s critics believe his insistence on holding a referendum has more to do with his autocratic tendencies and his intention to stay in power than it does with any concern for democratic politics.

To stave off a deeper confrontation over Barzani’s presidency, the region’s parliamentary speaker has started discussions with the main political groups to find the best way out of its worst political standoff since 2003.

But the crisis talks have remained inconclusive.

While the PUK’s Deputy Secretary-General Kusrat Rasoul said his party, which has 18 seats in parliament, needs more time to make a decision on “such a critical issue,” Gorran Party leader Nawshirwan Mustafa said his movement, which has 24 seats in parliament, still wants the election of the region’s president to be held by the parliament.

He also reiterated his movement’s demand for the ratification of the draft constitution.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union, the fourth-largest group in the parliament with 10 seats, has so far refrained from taking a public stance on the crisis. But Ali Bapir, leader of the Islamic Group in Kurdistan, which has six seats in parliament, said his party would support another extension for Barzani if other factions backed the move.

Barzani, who on Sunday chaired a meeting of KDP leaders to discuss the crisis, has remained tight-lipped about the controversy. Following the meeting, a statement said the party leadership had made an “appropriate decision” but did not give details.

Insiders say Barzani may be trying to settle the dispute outside the parliament in order to avoid further wrangling and public embarrassment.

In the past, Barzani succeeded in stifling dissent either by buying off opponents or by playing for high stakes, knowing that the opposition groups were too weak to stop him from pursuing such a course of action.

Iraqi Kurdistan has long been dubbed an oasis of democracy, political stability and economic growth in violence-torn Iraq. With a multi-party electoral system that allows Kurds to go out and vote their leaders into power, technically the region is a democracy, though it has been a far from functioning one.

Many analysts believe that attempts by Barzani to stay in office through outmaneuvering the opposition and violating legal and constitutional limitations will turn democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan into farce.

The region’s latest political crisis also comes at a crucial time for Iraqi Kurds who face formidable challenges, including the war with the Islamic State (IS) terror group and a financial crunch that has forced it to suspend its ambitious plans to become a haven for business.

In an interview with the American PBS TV channel recently, Barzani acknowledged that the war with IS had delayed the Kurdish bid for independence from the rest of Iraq, a goal he has been vehemently pursuing.

The face of Iranian diplomacy

The face of Iranian diplomacy

Much of the success in achieving a breakthrough in the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 Group may go to Iranian chief diplomat Mohamed Javad Zarif, argues Salah Nasrawi

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might be the ultimate power in Iran, but if there is one Iranian the world will remember as being behind the breakthrough in the nuclear talks with the world’s major powers it will be Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohamed Javad Zarif.

As chief diplomat of a nation long considered as an international pariah, Zarif has led a diplomatic charm offensive to break his country’s international isolation since he was appointed foreign minister by President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

In contrast to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, which isolated Iran over its nuclear programme and hardline foreign policy, Zarif’s diplomacy has seemed to signal Iran’s preparedness under Rouhani to move away from tough stances on its controversial nuclear programme.

Under the tentative framework agreement he and his team of negotiators reached with representatives of the world powers (the US, Britain, Russia, France and China plus Germany), Iran will keep its uranium enrichment capabilities, though there will be restrictions so that Tehran is unable to use the material in nuclear weapons.

In return, the United States and European Union will terminate all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has complied.  All UN Security Council sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme will be lifted immediately if a final deal is agreed.

Who is this Iranian diplomat who received a hero’s welcome from jubilant Iranians upon his return from the talks amid hopes that the pact he has reached will end years of Tehran’s international isolation?

Zarif was born in 1959 to “a traditional religious family” in Tehran, according to his biography which is posted on the Website of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He received his primary and high school education at a private institution in Tehran. According to some accounts, during this turbulent period in Iran’s history he became exposed to religious ideology, including the ideas of Ali Shariati, a famous Iranian intellectual who is sometimes dubbed the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

At age 16, Zarif left Iran for the United States for “security reasons,” apparently to avoid harassment by the secret police of the pro-US Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who was deposed by the revolution.

In the United States, Zarif attended Drew College Preparatory School, a private school in San Francisco, before joining San Francisco State University from which he received a Bachelors degree and then a Masters degree in International Relations.

Zarif continued his postgraduate studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, from which he obtained a second Masters in International Relations in 1984 and a PhD in International Law and Policy in 1988.

His doctoral dissertation was entitled “Self-Defence in International Law and Policy.”

While still studying in the US, Zarif was appointed a member of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations in May 1982, apparently because of the close ties he had built with the new Islamic regime in Tehran.

After long service as junior diplomat, Zarif was promoted to Iran’s representative at the United Nations in 2002. During his tenure in UN headquarters he participated in international gatherings, and in 2000 Zarif served as chairman of the Asian preparatory meeting of the World Conference on Racism and chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Commission.

At the UN, Zarif also held private meetings with a number of top Washington politicians, including Vice-President Joe Biden and former secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, then prominent US senators.

Zarif left office in 2007 and upon his return to Iran he joined Tehran University as a professor of international law. Later he served as vice-president of the Islamic Azad University in charge of foreign affairs from 2010 to 2012.

Zarif served on the boards of a number of academic publications, including the Iranian Journal of International Affairs and Iranian Foreign Policy, and he has written extensively on disarmament, human rights, international law and regional conflicts.

On 4 August 2013, Zarif was named minister of foreign affairs by the newly elected moderate Rouhani. He was confirmed by parliament with 232 votes.

Zarif has a son and a daughter, both of whom are married and live in Iran.

Despite criticisms by hawks, the nuclear deal which Zarif has signed has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, including Rouhani who pledged in a speech to the nation that Iran would abide by its commitments under the agreement.

If finalised, the agreement will cut significantly into Tehran’s bomb-capable nuclear technology while giving Iran quick access to bank accounts, oil markets and other financial assets blocked by international sanctions.

Proponents have noted that the deal, reached after 18 months of drawn-out negotiations, has proved that diplomacy is not futile and force is not inevitable.

For the negotiator of a country that has been constantly accused of embracing hidden agendas, the personal traits, international experience and professional skills of Zarif seem to have played a key part in making reaching the deal easier.

Many analysts have attributed the breakthrough in the talks to Zarif’s skills in building confidence with his counterparts, many of them maintaining scepticism about Iran’s readiness to reveal secrets about its nuclear programme.

In this regard, Zarif may have succeeded in breaking one of the persistent orientalist clichés of Iranians having a “bazaar mentality,” being expert carpet merchants of duplicity and deception.

Indeed, Zarif proved to be a shrewd politician and seasoned intellectual by brushing up on his history and religious lessons to push his arguments.

One of Zarif’s efforts during the negotiations was to counter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to torpedo the deal by claiming that Iran would eventually produce a nuclear weapon and try to destroy Israel.

In an interview with the US news channel NBC, Zarif said that “Iran saved the Jews three times in its history,” referring to the Persian king Cyrus who ordered the Jews of Babylon to return home from captivity after he conquered the Babylonian Empire in the 6th Century BCE.

Zarif said Netanyahu distorted both the current reality and writings in Jewish sources and the Bible.

“It is unfortunate that Netanyahu now totally distorts the realities of today,” Zarif said. “He even distorts his own scripture. If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews,” Zarif said.

But Zarif’s diplomacy has also made him plenty of enemies at home, especially among hawks who have always refused to make concessions on the country’s nuclear programme.

But again Zarif has been proved to possess the skills needed to address both foreign and local detractors.

The ideals set by the late Imam Khomeini and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were embodied in the nuclear talks held in the Swiss city of Lausanne, he said.

He also came under attack from hardliners for a stroll he took with US Secretary of State John Kerry in downtown Geneva and along the Rhone River for almost 15 minutes on 14 January as part of the bilateral talks.

At least 25 Iranian MPs signed a petition to question Zarif on the issue, calling the stroll “a diplomatic mistake.”

Zarif’s deal has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, however. He even returned to Tehran to a hero’s welcome as thousands of people desperate for an end to international sanctions greeted him at the airport.

But it remains to be seen if the deal will be wrecked by hardliners in Iran who have always preferred their “death to America and Israel” sloganeering to skillful diplomacy and making deals with the “Great Satan.”

A new Middle East deal

A new Middle East deal

 The tentative agreement signed with Iran is a double-edged sword for the Arabs, with everything depending on how they choose to use it, writes Salah Nasrawi

 When US president Barack Obama telephoned king Salman of Saudi Arabia last week to break the news of the nuclear deal with Iran, the monarch responded cautiously, saying he “hopes reaching a final and binding agreement will lead to improving security and stability in the region and the world at large.”

Obama seems to have tried to assuage Saudi concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme by stressing that the framework deal would “cut off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” and reaffirm US commitments to the security of one of its key Middle East allies.

Yet, Salman’s diplomatic remarks can hardly reflect the actual Saudi stance on the Iran deal which the kingdom and its Sunni Arab allies have never been shy about opposing even before it materialised, fearing it would fuel Iranian expansionism across the region.

Under the deal Iran made undertakings to cease all uranium enrichment, which could be spun further into weapons-grade material. Some of its facilities will either be destroyed or redesigned in order to render it incapable of producing or housing any fissile material for at least 15 years.

In exchange, the United States and European Union will terminate all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has complied.  All UN Security Council sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme will be lifted immediately if a final deal is agreed.

Even so, the Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia seems to find it difficult to accept the challenge of the deal, though Arab scepticism and dissatisfaction have not amounted to Israel’s ferocious opposition and its threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Arabs have two types of concerns: one is that the deal may not stop Tehran from seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, thus putting them at a disadvantage. The second is Iran’s continuing rise in both military and political terms. They believe the nuclear deal will embolden Iran and eventually tilt the strategic balance in its favour in the region.

As for the proliferation issue, the agreement is considered to make Iran a nuclear threshold state. This will make Iran stronger with dramatic implications for the future of the region since Iran will become a nuclear power-in-waiting.

Allowing Iran to keep its nuclear capabilities will push key Sunni states to act to protect themselves by trying to obtain nuclear arms for themselves. Efforts to acquire similar technology by key Arab countries will open a potential atomic arms race.

The Iran deal constitutes a geostrategic nightmare for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies who believe it opens the door to the Persian and Shia nation to become a regional superpower.

Tensions with Iran over a host of regional issues are already at an all-time high. The Arab camp has raised a red flag about Iranian expansionism across the Middle East.

From Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia is fighting mounting Iranian influence and engaging in proxy wars against Iranian-backed organisations.

Efforts by Saudi Arabia to contain the regional repercussions of the deal have already begun. It is no coincidence that an Arab Sunni coalition launched a campaign of airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shia rebels in Yemen only a few days before the world powers reached the deal with Iran.

Simultaneously, Saudi-backed rebels have recently made significant gains against the regime led by president Bashar al-Assad in Syria, including by capturing the strategic city of Idleb.

One of the worst scenarios for the Saudi-led Arab camp is for Washington to build up relations with Iran far beyond the nuclear deal. A US-Iranian regional alliance would have a decisive influence in the region

Given the critical milestone the Iran deal has created and the changes in the Middle East that it is widely expected to unleash, there is surprisingly little serious debate in the Arab world about how to deal effectively with Iran’s growing prominence.

Instead of shrewd strategic choices or even sophisticated diplomacy, key Arab countries show few signs of being able to reorient their policies for this new era.

Indeed, the Iran deal provides an opportunity for the Arabs to redefine their overall regional strategy on a more realistic basis that could change their fortunes. The Arabs should use the improving environment which is expected to prevail after the signing of the final deal to address regional rivalry with Iran.

The agreement itself reflects a realpolitik approach as the best way to change the behaviour of hostile governments, not through isolation or the threat of military force but by persistent engagement. The Arabs could learn a lot from this important lesson in easing strained relations.

The Arabs need to relax tensions with Iran, which have recently reached fever pitch involving sectarian and nationalist geopolitics making an Arab-Iranian détente long overdue.

Over the last decade several proposals have been made to try to deal with the region’s uncertainties as Iran has risen in power and influence due to a series of geopolitical changes brought on by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the new regional geopolitical dynamics it has unleashed.

In 2008, Bahrain’s foreign minister sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa proposed a gathering of Arab states with Israel, as well as Iran and Turkey, to try to solve the region’s problems.

A year later, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, then an adviser to supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unveiled a 10-point plan for collective security arrangements in the crisis-ridden region.

In 2010, former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa suggested that the 22-nation bloc engage Iran in a forum for regional cooperation and conflict resolution that would also include Turkey.

All these efforts to initiate a broad dialogue on balancing various security interests foundered due to competition and jealousies between the regional powers.

The present writer has also proposed a broader framework for a new order in the Middle East overturning the status quo which has been in place since the end of World War I and founded on European decisions.

In the Arabic-language book “The Dog of Esfahan: the Repressed Self in the Dialectic of Struggle between the Arabs and Iran” (2009), it is argued that this regional order would be based on the European model.

Starting with the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the wars waged by competing European dynasties in the 17th century and through the 1975 Helsinki Accords which eased tensions between the east and west, Europe has provided a historic example of nations solving their conflicts despite decades of war.

Even Asian nations which have fought bloody wars with their neighbours and suffered from prolonged conflicts have been able to overcome their historic animosities and join cooperation forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in order to promote regional peace and stability.

Now there is an opportunity that the nuclear deal with Iran will help create a momentum for such regional arrangements in the Middle East, binding Iran and its Arab neighbours in efforts to deal with specific issues such as maintaining existing relations and promoting cooperation in conflict-resolution and the peaceful settlement of regional disputes.

Obama has invited the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries to a summit in Camp David later this spring in order to discuss security cooperation following the signing of the deal.

The accord with Iran and Obama’s push to open up trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba will likely serve as an example of how countries must be open to negotiations with their enemies.

In fact, this perception of engagement, which is now being called the “Obama Doctrine,” is already embedded in Obama’s outreach to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, encouraging them to take the Iran deal as a regional fact.

“The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries,” he told the New York Times in an interview on 5 April.

 This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on April 9, 2015

More than just IS

This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on April 2, 2015.The paper went to print before the Iraqi military started its operation to root out IS militants from Tikrit in collaboration with the Shia militias. The participation of the militias highlights the challenges to the overall campaign against IS and US-Iranian competition in Iraq which the article aimed to pinpoint.

More than just IS

 As Baghdad prepares to retake Mosul from Islamic State forces, Tehran and Washington seem to be locked in a race for prestige in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

 On 25 March, US bombers launched their first airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Tikrit, coming off the sidelines to help Iraqi government forces fighting to retake control of the city from the terrorist group.

US president Barack Obama approved the bombardment after a request from Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shia militias that have been fighting alongside the Baghdad government troops move aside.

But the US decision to give air support to the Tikrit offensive, the biggest collaboration so far by the US-led coalition with the anti-IS campaign in Iraq, could define the US role in Iraq for years to come and shape its regional struggle with Iran.

The Americans stayed away from the Tikrit campaign when it started four weeks ago, largely because the United States has been refusing to take part in the operation which was launched without consultation with Washington. They insisted that they could only help if the operations were coordinated by the joint Iraqi-US military centre in Baghdad.

Prior to the Tikrit campaign, US officials leaked reports to the American media about the Iraqi military operation in Tikrit, saying that it had no clear targets. The reports also stirred doubts about whether government forces could beat the IS militants in street battles.

Though the Iraqi forces have regained a string of towns and villages near Tikrit from IS, the leaks also claimed that Iraqi short-term tactical victories would not be enough to defeat the group.

A main US criticism of the Tikrit campaign was its heavy reliance on the Shia militias. The latter’s track record of sectarian violence was highlighted in the American media with warnings that their involvement in more offensives threatened to drive more Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of IS.

It may be no coincidence that several human rights groups also released critical reports about abuses by the Shia militias during the Tikrit offensive. Most of these reports highlighted what they termed “violations of the laws of war” against Sunnis in the wake of the IS retreat from the towns.

These and other media reports carried disgruntled messages to al-Abadi, who is also commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, from Washington which has been leading an international coalition against IS since the terror group made stunning advance in northern Iraq last June.

Al-Abadi has also been under pressure from Brett McGurk, deputy leader of the US-led coalition, and Stuart E. Jones, the US ambassador to Iraq, who have been meeting with him regularly to press him to request coalition airstrikes and sidestep the Shia militias.

But when al-Abadi showed reluctance to heed the US warnings, knowing that he cannot tear up the Iraqi rule book without the green light from Iran, US officials went public to make their point about the offensives.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the operation to reclaim Tikrit was dominated by 20,000 Shia militia forces, which far outnumbered the 3,000 Iraqi troops also taking part in the assault.

Dempsey expressed concern about what might happen after the Shia militia forces took control of the Sunni-dominated city. The Obama administration has been pushing al-Abadi to form a Sunni National Guard to police their areas after the IS withdrawal.

After a recent trip to Iraq, Dempsey said he had seen a “plethora of flags” while flying over the country, but only one official flag of Iraq.

Iran showed its anger over the US joining forces with Iraq in the fight for Tikrit and in forcing the Iran-backed militias to stand down. The Iranians have orchestrated their own propaganda effort to discredit the US-led coalition in the anti-IS campaign.

On Monday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said a US drone strike had killed two of its advisers in Iraq. Iran’s controlled media outlets have been reporting airstrikes by coalition warplanes against Iraqi troop positions. Some of these outlets have been selling blown-up reports about the US maintaining networks of supply lines with the terror group.

The United States and Iran have been in stiff competition since Iraq started its campaign against the jihadists who seized huge swathes of land in Iraq in the summer of last year. Iraqi Shia militia leaders have been saying that they intend to deprive Washington of victory and “glory” in Iraq.

But the political match seems to be more than a contest between Iran and the United States over who is taking ownership of the war against IS. Instead, it seems to be a power play over Iraq and even the Middle East as a whole.

For now, efforts to drive IS fighters from Tikrit have entered their second month. While most Iranian-backed Shia armed groups have boycotted the offensives in protest against the US-led airstrikes, Iraq’s military has proved to be ill-prepared to drive the militants back.

That could have a big impact on the liberation of the remaining territories from IS insurgents, especially Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. In February, US Central Command officials disclosed that the battle for Mosul would likely begin in April or May.

Yet, the disagreements over the militias’ role may have far-reaching consequences for Iraq’s fragile government. Al-Abadi seems to be caught in a US and Iranian double-pincer that could not only cost him his job but also the country’s stability.

Since the militias were ordered to step aside, relations between al-Abadi and their leaders have sunk very low, and some of them have even accused the prime minister of hampering the liberation of Tikrit by capitulating to the American conditions.

Others have accused al-Abdi of “selling off” the Shias to the Americans.

On Monday, Hadi al-Amri, a key leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the name given to the militias, warned that his fighters “will not fire a single bullet” unless the US airstrikes stop.

This is a vital moment for al-Abadi, and it provides his government with possibly its greatest challenge since it was formed in August last year. While the row has brought al-Abadi to the brink of a conflict with the Shia militias, any caving in to the militias will be disturbing to the Iraqi Sunnis and the Americans.

Sunni leaders in Mosul have insisted that the liberation of their city should be carried out without involvement by Iran or the Shia militias except Iraqi volunteers and forces from the Iraqi army.

Tribes in Anbar, another Sunni-dominated province awaiting liberation from IS, have also resisted the participation of the Shia militias in the operations.

Meanwhile, Washington has intensified pressure on al-Abadi’s serving as the putative defender and protector of the Iraqi Sunnis.

On Sunday, US vice-president Joe Biden called al-Abadi to remind him of the importance of “the protection of civilians and of ensuring all armed groups act under the control of the state.”

According to a White House statement, Biden reiterated Washington’s demand that the Iraqi government enable fighters from Sunni provinces to participate in reclaiming their own territory from IS.

Washington is expected to increase the pressure ahead of a visit to the White House by al-Abadi in mid-April to discuss US military cooperation with Iraq in the joint fight against IS.

Moreover, the Tikrit offensive and the widely expected campaign to retake Mosul could have an impact on wider regional conflicts involving Iran with the Sunni Arab world, if Shia militias resume their participation in the anti-IS campaign.

Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of fuelling the conflict in a number of countries across the Middle East, including Iraq.

The Mosul operation is specifically sensitive to neighbouring Turkey, a largely Sunni populated nation which maintains close ties to Iraqi Sunnis.

While Turkey is concerned about Iran’s role, many in the country emphasise historical affiliations with Mosul going back to the Ottoman occupation of Iraq.

Twelve years after the US-led invasion that turned Iraq into a playground for terrorists and foreign forces, the bickering over the war against IS is not about defeating the terror group as much as it is about regional power.