On Saturday, Will Rodriguez published a piece here at SOFREP that laid bare an apparent use of American-made weaponry by Iran in Iraq. My article is not a point-by-point engagement of Mr. Rodriguez’s piece. Rather, it is simply a response that highlights some potential alternatives for continuing to remain so rigid in our approach to security policy in the Middle East. In reading his article, I was unsure as to why burdening the Iranians with the responsibility of fighting ISIS on the ground is, in his words, “bad news.”
In ensuring that the Iranians are invested in the successful outcome of the battle against the Islamic State (IS) by placing the burden of stabilizing the Iraqi regime fully on their shoulders, we also ensure that the Iranians expend valuable financial and military resources in fighting IS while the U.S. reaps the benefits of a degraded ISIS capacity to both threaten the U.S. at home and our interests abroad. To quote the 19th-century British statesman and two-time prime minister Henry John Temple and apply his words as pragmatic counsel to U.S. strategists and policymakers:
“I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…”
Looking at the issue from the perspective of Tehran, stability is in their interest as it remains in the interests of the U.S. even more. Iran’s shared border with Iraq means that a destabilized Iraq, dominated by ISIS, would threaten to spill over into Iran. This makes for a convenient, if temporary, alliance.
This pseudo-cooperation on battling an enemy shared by both the U.S. and Iran could provide the U.S. and Europe significant leverage in negotiating a halt to Iran’s nuclear program. The halting of that program would go a long way toward integrating Iran back into the community of nations, encourage a resurgent democratic dissident, promote an opposition movement in Iran, and potentially lead to an epochal change that may lead to a toppling of the Iranian clerical government regime.
Iran’s investment in a stable Iraq is based on the existential threat of ISIS to Iran. In this regard, U.S. interest in destroying ISIS (the group destabilizing Iraq) and Iran’s converge to make convenient allies in the war against the Islamic State. Given the choice between the barbarity of the Islamic State and a temporary alignment of the U.S. with Iran in battling the threat the group poses to the entire region, it is wise and pragmatic to make use of the Iranians as a proxy force. In this regard, the Iranian regime would be responsible for the success of the degradation of ISIS on the ground and a deterrent against further onslaught by the terrorist group. By ensuring that Iran shoulders the burden of the ground fight, the U.S. would limit the capacity of the regime in Tehran to dedicate resources elsewhere, to include military modernization, infrastructure, and nefarious activity abroad.
The conflict would ensure that the regime in Tehran remains preoccupied with a protracted battle in a neighboring state and sap dwindling resources the regime maintains as it suffers under sanctions and exclusion from much of the international community. Investing Iran in the ground fight and placing the burden on the Tehran regime is a pragmatic policy that limits the financial contributions of the U.S. and acts as a bulwark against the deployment of large-scale numbers of U.S. conventional ground forces.
U.S. interest in the Middle East is firmly rooted in our fundamental pursuit of stability—both in the short term to reverse the surge of Sunni-dominated ISIS, and in the long term to assist in facilitating the Baghdad government’s efforts to assert control over the state of Iraq. Iran essentially acts as a proxy for American policy in Iraq in this regard; if you saddle the regime in Tehran with the burden of ensuring that the Baghdad government is in full control of its territory, you also create an opportunity for cooperation between Iran and the other powers in both the region and the West.
Further, given the proximity of Iran to Iraq, its shared border, its inevitable influence on the Iraqi culture and government, and the difficulty of the West in counterbalancing that Iranian influence, it is more pragmatic to invest the Iranians in fighting the ground battle against ISIS. The U.S. could simply respond with the more cost-effective strategy of air- and sea-based strikes which, according to General John Allen, have been extraordinarily effective in destroying the leadership of ISIS in Iraq in recent months:
U.S. intelligence shows that half of the Islamic State’s leaders in Iraq have been killed, but there is still a long fight ahead to render the group irrelevant, the retired U.S. general in charge of the international coalition to counter the militants told Congress on Wednesday.
“We have pretty good intelligence on this matter,” Gen. John Allen said of the number of militant commanders killed. “In the process of tracking the elements within the senior echelons of [Islamic State’s] leadership, we have been tracking and systematically as we are able to find them, deal with them.” (Dan Lamothe, The Washington Post, February 25)
Unless proponents of escalating the number of United States military forces on the ground are prepared to acknowledge the risks to American national interests and convince the American people that they must once again shoulder the overwhelming burden of the cost of financing a ground war for Iraq, perhaps investing Iran’s regime in the outcome and placing the burden on the shoulders of Tehran is a viable alternative.
The surge of Islamic State (IS) forces into Iraq this past summer has dramatically altered the geopolitical terrain of the Middle East. Aside from the obvious impact upon the interests of the United States, the effects of the rise of ISIS have reverberated among the region’s competing major powers Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. As ISIS has continued to battle Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq, the balance of power in the Middle East has continued to ebb and flow between the major regional powers.
For Iran, the conflict with ISIS has taken on the character of an existential threat. An Iraq and Syria dominated by Sunni ISIS would greatly impact the rise of Iran as a powerful hegemon; the defeat of Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s most important ally, would alter the balance of power in the region and tip it decidedly towards the Sunni powers. It is rather easy to envision a scenario where Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia would choose a more pragmatic path of aligning with the Islamic State to balance the rise of Iran as a dominant power in the region.
In Saudi Arabia we find a markedly different set of security interests threatened by an established IS. Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities are limited. Any incursion by a foreign power or non-state actor threatening the existence of the regime in Riyadh would almost certainly catalyze an instant deployment of U.S. military forces to protect it. In this regard, the revenue generated by Saudi Arabia’s energy deposits is generously re-allocated to social welfare programs that placate citizens into accepting the rule of the Riyadh regime and the authority of the religious police that underline the ability of the ruling family to quickly quash dissent. In an indirect (but no less important) strategy, the Saudi royal family relies on the military of the United States to ensure its survival.
In recent months, as oil prices have nosedived, the government of Saudi Arabia has scrambled to mitigate the damage of that lost revenue. However, they have stubbornly refused to cut their daily oil production, instead choosing to absorb that revenue loss and attempt to outlast what is clearly a damaging case of market fluctuation out of the favor of the regime. Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical interest in the Middle East is the continued domination of the energy markets; this means an ongoing, almost perpetual, effort to stunt the rise of Iran, ensure the continuation of sanctions on the Tehran regime, and assert themselves as the regional dominant power.
This has placed the Saudi regime in a precarious position in the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. While the Saudis have been careful to remain at arms length from the negotiations table, preferring to allow the U.S. and Europe to absorb the criticisms of other powers in their efforts to limit the concessions to the Iranians while simultaneously eliciting guarantees by Iran that the regime will not seek to weaponize its nuclear materials (including heavy water plant installations and enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade U-235).
For Turkey, the primary concern is the destabilizing effect an established Islamic State would have on Ankara’s ability to maintain the status quo with regard to the issue of Kurdish pursuit of an independent state. The valuable energy deposits lying beneath territory controlled by Kurdish forces could sustain a government capable of providing for the basic needs of its people, ensuring their loyalty, and in no small way would attract the long-term support of the U.S.
Turkey’s other concern is its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While the Atlantic Alliance remains concerned with territorial gains and escalating recruitment by ISIS, Turkey has played both sides against the middle: Concern for any increase in Kurdish leverage via their gains in battling ISIS to a standstill (and even rolling them back in certain areas) have reverberated throughout the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Historically, Persians have been a, if not the, dominant power in the region. At the moment, there is an ongoing battle for hegemony, reflected in this latent but very recognizable proxy-fought battle between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Each is balancing the others and each is striving for a stronger hold on regional power. Given the costs incurred by the American people in blood, treasure, and international prestige in the past 12 years of fighting in Iraq, perhaps fully vesting the Iranians in taking responsibility for the security of the region is the best of a poor list of options. Both Turkey and Iran deal with the Kurdish question; the issue of Kurdish independence is a threat to the territorial integrity of both countries and Iraq.
In this regard, the stability of Iraq is in the interests of all three of those states. As the fight in Iraq continues and the government in Baghdad is less able to assert its authority over its territory, the prospect of a permanently fractured state becomes more of a reality. Should that happen, Kurdish forces in Iran and Turkey could choose to take the opportunity to declare that they wish to join with Iraqi Kurds in declaring an independent Kurdish state. It is not difficult to imagine the military conflict engulfing Turkey, northern Iraq, and Iran at that point. Stability remains a primary concern in Iraq.
An investment of the Iranian regime in sorting through the morass of destabilized Iraq would not damage U.S. interests any more than it would burgeon them; a stable Iraq is in the interests of both Iran and the United States. An alliance of convenience, temporary, dedicated strictly to the destruction of ISIS and their forces in Iraq, is the pragmatic and rational approach to solving the issue of further escalation of the war in Syria and Iraq.
(Featured image courtesy of worldjewishdaily.com)