Iran is being rewarded for temporarily halting a fraction of its nuclear activities, while the al Quds Force, Revolutionary Guards and its Hezbollah proxy mop-up the last of the Syrian resistance and mobilise to fully bring Iraq into its sphere of influence.
Nearly 35 years ago, US diplomatic staff were taken hostage by a group of young Iranian revolutionaries, which included former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The crisis, which lasted some 444 days, coupled with the failed rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw (1980) – that caused the death of 8 US servicemen – has epitomised US-Iranian relations ever since. That is, until President Obama decided to break the US’s long-standing isolation of Iran in its misguided quest to rehabilitate the Islamic Republic for the sake of nuclear containment. At least that is the official narrative. On the surface, the second Obama administration has negotiated the successful curtailment of Iran’s nuclear programme so that the production of nuclear weapons remains a distant aspiration. If only this was true. Instead, the Islamic Republic has duped the US. It is now set to emerge as the main powerbroker in the Gulf region; the US has, ironically, empowered Iran and facilitated its long reach over Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. In short the US, together with its French and German allies, are enriching Iran and the regional consequences are unforeseen, but likely tragic.
What is less shrouded is the Iranian drive into Iraq and the support the Islamic Republic is lending to the embattled al Maliki government there. This demonstrates the long-assumed partnership between Iraq’s Shia government and Iran, a point that has many around the Gulf watching in guarded disbelief. While there is certainly a high degree of accuracy behind recent reports of the Sunni Islamist surge in northern and central Iraq, many have failed to adequately understand the why and the why now?
The answer is clear; Iranian support to Syria’s Bashar al Assad essentially won the war there in May (2014) and Syrian border guards – on instruction from Damascus – facilitated the movement of rebel fighters to Iraq. So, the defeat of Syria’s rebels created a massive bubble of extremist fighters and instead of expending additional resources in fighting them, an agreement was reached to allow their transfer to the Iraqi front. In doing so, Iran and Syria have forced the hand of the US, which had a stark choice to make: allow Sunni Islamists in league with al Qaeda to overthrow an al Maliki government they encouraged and financially and militarily propped-up or work with their avowed adversary, Iran, in preventing that eventuality.
While the choice was stark, few would have anticipated the speed with which it was taken. Obama’s team wasted little time in weighing US options and has thrown their stakes in with Iran and has played directly into the Islamic Republic’s hand. Despite the heavy ‘Great Satan’ rhetoric used to publically debase the US, Iranian officials are pragmatic and understand Obama well. They rightly assume that the US government cannot allow an Islamist takeover of Iraq after a decade-long intervention and the countless US material and human costs expended there for the sake of ridding the region of Saddam’s totalitarian regime and, in its aftermath, an al Qaeda-esq insurgency. Iran understands the US intolerance of radical Islam and helped create a new problem in Iraq that it will cynically assist in overcoming.
So, Iran is attempting to recast itself as a moderate alternative in the region. Those who understand the Middle East know that the last thing Iran is, is moderate. However, the manner it is approaching the current Islamist surge is well calculated to show the international community that it is a responsible actor set on maintaining the status quo. What its true ambitions are, however, gravitate around increasing its economic activities, financial stability and political reach. Even before this latest crisis, Iran had attracted many hundreds of companies from the US, France and Germany as a reward for negotiating over its nuclear programme. By February 2014, Iran was relieved of its economic meltdown and generated an estimated $45 billion (USD) for its national coffers.
Unfortunately, there are few doubts as to where that money will end up. On 16 June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran has blocked access to secret nuclear sites, is generally opaque about the country’s nuclear programme and is not set to meet the impending P5+1 negotiations deadline. Iran is not complying with its denuclearisation commitments. There are other issues as well. In April 2014, Jane’s International Defence Review reported that Iran was on track to complete the production and deployment of its Bavar 373 surface-to-air missile system. And, Iran’s deployments to Syria were costly, they need to reconstitute their asymmetrical forces and this will also cost money, as does keeping sectarian embers burning in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Money flowing into Iran ends up in the purses of the Revolutionary Guard and the Revolutionary Guard spends it on further armaments.
Now that the Obama Administration has committed itself to working with Iran for the stabilisation of Iraq, the Islamic Republic’s adventurism will be overlooked and more sanctions will be lifted. The US, under Obama, is therefore culpable in enriching Iranium and ensuring the intransigent Shia state a place in the chambers of regional power. It is a sad commentary that the survivors of Iranian radicalisation and political violence among the US’s diplomatic corps and its allies have to elbow their way to a White House that seems to have forgotten the lessons of history.
----------Mitchell Belfer is Editor of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies at Metropolitan University Prague