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Obama’s tough choice on Iraq: cooperation with Iran

Obama's tough choice on Iraq: cooperation with Iran

Yesterday President Barack Obama spoke to media in the White House briefing room in order to provide an update on his government’s approach to the situation in Iraq. The Commander-in-Chief, looking visibly tired, told reporters that under his direction the U.S. has increased its intelligence capabilities in Iraq; will continue to support Iraqi security forces with the creation of joint operation centers; through his recently announced Counter Terrorism Fund, provide additional equipment and up to 300 military advisers; and utilizing recently-moved assets in the Persian Gulf, take targeted action against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), “if and when we determine the situation on the ground requires it.” In an attempt to highlight the counterterrorism policies outlined in his West Point speech on May 28 and diminish fears of American boots on the ground, Obama emphasized his administration’s belief that the most effective response to ISIS is through partnerships in which Iraqis take the leading role. Acknowledging the sectarian nature of the conflict, the president also called on Iraqi leaders to agree to a political plan for the country’s future, one which includes Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the ongoing attempt to form a national government. Obama also made it clear that U.S. forces would not support one sect against another in the Iraqi government’s attempt to retake the regions lost to ISIS.

ISIS’s thwarting of Iraqi security forces in Mosul over a week ago has sparked this all-hands-on-deck response from Washington; a crisis for which the White House, is in part, responsible. The administration’s willful inaction, by refusing to arm Syrian rebels, has helped to create the conditions for ISIS’s resurgence during the Syrian conflict. A capable force that cut its teeth fighting soldiers in Iraq, the better-funded and -armed ISIS was able to emerge out of its Iraqi enclave of Anbar, enter into Syria, gain territory and bully both moderate and Islamist rebels from April 2013 until January of this year, when Syrian rebels pushed the group back to its eastern enclaves of Raqqa and Der ez-Zor governorates bordering Iraq. Taking advantage of governance vacuum created by the Syrian civil war, ISIS has now turned its attention to Iraq in view of creating an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and al Sham: the area containing Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Jordan.

In doing so, it has found fertile ground for expansion. The Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government, without a thorough understanding of Iraq or how to proceed once the dictator fell, laid the foundation for today’s crisis. Taking advantage of weak national institutions and the sectarian governance system created during this process, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite,looked to monopolize state power. By embezzling state funds; politicizing the security and judicial branches; hollowing out the military; and sidelining post-conflict reconciliation processes in favor of persecuting rival leaders, Maliki ensured the resentment of Iraq’s Sunni population, and, now significant support for the ISIS-led insurgency.

ISIS has sought to build on these feelings of neglect and disenchantment vis-a-vis Baghdad in a sinister manner. Since the capture of Mosul last Tuesday ISIS has claimed to have executed 1,700 Shiite members of the Iraqi army, with pictures now circulating online of hundreds being lined up an summarily executed. In doing so, the group is using what the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Aaron Y. Zelin has labeled the “massacre strategy.” By killing Maliki’s coreligionists and threatening to destroy the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, ISIS is attempting to spark a sectarian civil war and concurrently place itself as the defender of the country’s downtrodden Sunni minority.

Maliki’s response to this sectarian threat has so far been worrisome: Rather than responding to ISIS’s advance toward Baghdad and these multiple provocations with a cross-sectarian approach, the Iraqi Prime Minister has sought the help of Shiite militias. Holdovers from the American invasion of Iraq, these fighters are more trustworthy than the army, which embarrassingly crumbled during the assault on Mosul. Furthermore, they are now religiously obliged to join the fight against ISIS after a call to arms from the leading Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Many other Shiites have already responded in Baghdad by registering with the army or joining up with these aforementioned militias. Adding to the sectarian drama, militia members are also returning from Syria, where they have helped to prop up the embattled regime of Bashar al Assad and in doing so, have already reddened their hands with Sunni blood.

Leading this coordinated effort to defend the Maliki government is Iran, a country which has played a strong role in Iraq since the American invasion and the primary patron of its Shiite community. Reportedly, General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, is now in Baghdad and in direct control of the Shiite militias he once helped to establish. There are also indications that the Quds Force has taken part in the defense of another holy city, Samarra, with the announcement of the death of one its members. Given Soleimani”s track record as the architect of the Assad regime’s survival — an effort that has included heinous acts and war crimes–he is not out to win Sunni hearts and minds.

The United States is now in a difficult position, blindsided by ISIS and now witness to the increasing involvement of Iran, it must decide on how to involve itself in what is quickly becoming a sectarian conflict; a decision which must include Iran. While the administration should not be willing to give Tehran a carte blanche, given Iranian involvement in Syria and the possibility of similar atrocities in Iraq (for which there is already evidence), Iran’s participation is key to creating a cross-sectarian government capable of tackling the crisis and to help stop the downward spiral towards sectarian conflict.

According to the State Department, the two governments have already discussed Iraq’s political process on the sidelines of the ongoing P5+1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program on Monday. These meetings should continue on a regular basis and in good faith, with the Deputy Secretary of State continuing his involvement with top Iranian officials. It should be made clear both to Tehran and Baghdad that U.S.-Iranian cooperation is the best hope for stability, lest the Maliki government would like to rule over a rump state, as Assad in Syria. Furthermore, the Iranian regime must come to understand that cooperation on government formation in Iraq and a subsequent government-led response to the crisis is crucial and a much better alternative to alienating the Sunni population through a Quds Force-led counterinsurgency campaign — one that would make it difficult for Baghdad to regain control and will not deal with the crisis’s underlying issues.

The administration is open to such cooperation. In response to a question posed by the press on U.S.-Iranian cooperation, Obama stated, “you know, our view is that Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we’re sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it’s inclusive and that — if the interests of Sunni, Shia and Kurd are all respected.” It also acknowledges the fact that Iran’s actions so far have pointed in the wrong direction, “If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia and it — if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation and the prospect for a government formation that would actually be constructive over the long term.”

Cooperation is not impossible nor should it not be attempted. Both countries worked together during the 2001 during the invasion of Afghanistan, with Tehran providing military, intelligence and political support, Iran, like the US, would benefit from a stable Iraq, one which would act as a bulwark against Sunni extremism, both in the region and internationally. The US is also seeking to reduce its footprint in the Middle East and finally implement its Pivot to Asia, for which cooperation with the Islamic Republic is required; the logic underpinning the current nuclear negotiations.

It is now time to turn words into action, the Iranian government will not take proactive steps to cool down sectarian tensions in the country without coherent dialogue with the U.S. and promises of deeper cooperation in the future on Iraq’s stability. If the White House is unwilling to do so the U.S. military might well intervene in Iraq on behalf of one sect, the Shiite government of Nouri al Maliki and in turn, put itself on the side of Iran and its Shiite militias without a comprehensive agreement on the country’s future.



Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil