Should America Realign with Iran?
On Sunday it was announced that a deal had been reached to implement the interim agreement with Iran on suspending its nuclear program. Since the agreement was negotiated late last year, the ground has been laid in the media for the acceptance of the lifting of sanctions on the Tehran regime. The aim has been to reduce the public perception of Iran as a threat and perhaps even promote it as an ally. The most open espousal of such a realignment of American policy in the Middle East was presented on the front page of the New York Times on January 7, written by Thomas Erdbrink and datelined Tehran. Titled, "U.S. and Iran Face Common Enemies in Mideast Strife" the theme was to shift attention from Iran as a state-supporter of terrorism in the region to al-Qaeda as the main enemy of U.S. interests.
As Erdbrink put it, "While the two governments quietly continue to pursue their often conflicting interests, they are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen." Clearly, the Shiite regime in Iran is concerned with the surge in Sunni insurgencies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq against its sectarian allies, but why is this a "common" concern for the United States? The U.S. alliance system in the Middle East is based on the Sunni states, from Turkey to Egypt and Jordan and Kuwait to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. Turkey is on the front line of the Syrian civil war where the Saudis and Gulf states are funding the Sunni rebels.
Iran, with its large population, oil wealth, expansionist ambitions, support for Hizb'allah, and an active nuclear weapons program, poses a threat to the region far beyond what al-Qaeda can muster. Al-Qaeda is one of several factions fighting for the Sunni cause against the Shia. Washington should enjoy the irony that al-Qaeda is shedding blood fighting in alignment with American allies against the common Iranian foe. Like the eight-year Iran-Iraq War during the Reagan administration, which foreshadowed today's larger sectarian conflict, keeping enemy forces engaged elsewhere lessens their ability to take action against the U.S.
Iran also poses the greatest threat to Israel. A nuclear-armed Tehran regime is an existential danger of the first order. Even if that potential risk is avoided, the presence of Hizb'allah on Israel's border is a constant menace. The Sunni-Shia confrontation has, however, provided a basis for security cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The spread of the conflict into Iraq is being used to shift American public opinion in favor of Iran and is allies. Erdbrink reported that "Iran offered to join the United States in sending military aid to the Shiite government in Baghdad, which is embroiled in street-to-street fighting with radical Sunni militants in Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold." From Fox News to The New Republic, stories have appeared from American veterans who fought against Sunni insurgents in Anbar in the wake of news that an al-Qaeda linked group has seized control of parts of city of Fallujah. For the left, this is proof that the Iraq War was not worth the effort. The truth is more complex, but it is hard not to conclude that both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations lost their focus on the strategic object in Iraq, which was regime change from a hostile leader to a friendly one.
The U.S. sent an army to Baghdad in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein who had gone mad after his invasion of Kuwait had been repulsed by a U.S.-led coalition in 1991. Getting rid of Saddam, however, was not enough. The regime had to be changed to one with which Washington could work as an ally. Yet, even with 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, the U.S. allowed a new leader to take power who was hostile to American strategic interests. That man was Nouri al-Maliki who became prime minister in 2006.
While in exile, Maliki lived first in Syria then moved to Iran in 1982 where he stayed until 1990 when he moved back to Syria. Maliki is a Shiite who won his current position with the support of pro-Iranian radicals in parliament, including the bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army often fought against U.S. forces. Maliki, following the demands of Tehran, refused to allow U.S. forces a residual presence after Obama fulfilled his campaign pledge to remove all American combat units from Iraq. As soon as the last U.S. troops were gone, Maliki purged Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled first to the Kurdistan province of Iraq and then to Turkey. On September 9, 2012, Hashemi was sentenced in absentia to death by hanging.
It was Maliki who opened the domestic offensive against the Sunni community, reopening the sectarian conflict that the U.S. had worked so hard to end during the military "surge" and the "awakening" political movement. Washington had persuaded Sunni leaders to turn on the "foreign" al-Qaeda by promising that they would get a fair deal in a democratic Iraq. Maliki broke that promise. The Sunni are now fighting for their survival against a Shiite autocracy backed by Iran. Al-Qaeda has taken the opportunity to rebuild its presence in Iraq as it has done in the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the Sunni-Shia battle line now cuts across both countries. The United States has no theological dog in the Sunni-Shia fight, but it does have interests to protect. These favor the Sunni faction in the current strategic situation in the Middle East.
An agreement with Iran which would lead to the lifting of economic sanctions would give the Tehran regime the boost it needs in the Syrian and Iraq battles. The sanctions have started to bite, stirring up dissent at home as well as weakening the resources Iran can devote to foreign adventures. When Erdbrink wrote that "With Iran as an island of stability in a region plagued by violent protests, sectarian clashes and suicide bombers, there are not that many options left for Washington, experts here say" he was talking through his hat. Iran is not an island of stability, as shown by the protests following the stolen 2009 elections which had to be quelled by mass executions.
The United States still holds the balance of power in support of the stronger regional alliance system. It is Iran that is under pressure and isolated on the ground in the region, even if it has Russian and Chinese diplomatic support in the nuclear talks. Washington has the money, expertise, and weapons to build groups that can fight for influence in Syria and Iraq against both Iran's puppets and al-Qaeda if it has the will to do so. The U.S. also has the military capability to disrupt Iran's nuclear program. Yet, the Obama administration has wavered in its efforts and Congress is drifting into an isolationist stance as shown by its indifference to events in Syria.
A deal with Iran would give cover to further withdrawal from the area, which is why U.S. allies from Israel to Saudi Arabia are opposed to the Iranian negotiations. Dictatorships are adept at exploiting "war weary" democracies. The mullahs in Tehran will never slacken in their plans to dominate the region nor waver in their hatred of the "Great Satan" America. U.S. policy must remain committed to blocking Iran's ambitions as its top priority in the region.