by D. R. HAFEZ – 1st February 2015
Geopolitics is a fickle subject, none more so when the events happen outside European borders, but seem to have an impact on European perceptions of their own strengths and influences in the region. As the recent events of the last few weeks have shown, the Syrian border town of Kobane not only bore the brunt of fierce internal fighting within the context of the bloody civil war but more importantly, became the embodiment of differing strategies within the “anti-Daesh” camp. Indeed, how to forget the thinly-veiled western criticisms directed towards the Turkish government for their apparent reluctance to let through Kurdish fighters on their way to battle ISIS (Daesh in Arabic), or indeed the very visible US-led air strikes on Isis outposts that brought “the West” ever closer to the idealized clash of civilizations that Baghdadi and other Islamists yearn for. Yet, for all of the western media’s focus on the slippery task of fending off ISIS whilst at the same time not letting the Assad regime take the moral high road, Iran’s crucial military and paramilitary action against Daesh has been largely overlooked, or at best grossly simplified. The recent fall of the black eschatological banner of ISIS from Kobane provides the perfect opportunity to focus on Iranian efforts in the region.
A lens problem
In an article entitled “Is Iran playing along sectarian lines in Iraq”, and dated the 9th of January 2015 the political scientist Majid Rafizadeh raised the issue of Iran arming predominantly Shiite militias in Iraq, evidence, according to him of Teheran’s maliciousness when dealing with Daesh. Surely, as Mr. Rafizadeh pointed out, Teheran’s arming of Shiite groups such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, validates what the Saudi analysts have long feared – an under-the-table Iranian attempt to gain the upper hand in the Middle East and eventually be capable of confronting the Saudi-established sphere of influence.
This view however, suffers from several pitfalls. Firstly and by Mr. Rafizadeh’s own admission, Iraq has recently signed an agreement with Iran to train Iraqi forces – in a country with a Shiite majority of around 60-65%, it is no wonder that statistically, more Shiite Iraqi soldiers will be trained than their Sunni brothers in arms. However, the stress should be placed on the fact that Iran has agreed to train the Iraqi forces, thus recognizing (if only on an official level for cynics) the right to Iraqi military independence and the need for efficiency and autonomy. More importantly, again pointed out by Mr. Rafizadeh himself, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council) has recently come out urging both Shiite and Sunni leaders of not obliging Islamic terrorist groups by stirring confessional tensions. Without wishing to state the obvious the Saudi and Gulf states’ positioning with regards to Islamism is hardly faultless. Yes Iran may indeed have ulterior motives for arming Shiite militias and becoming heavily involved in the Syrian conflict, but it is too politically savvy to fall into the trap of creating a Sunni-Shiite confrontation when it is on the brink of being recognized as an inescapable go-to player in the region. The faith-tinted glasses must sometimes come off when discussing the Middle East, in order for other more pragmatic lenses to contribute to an accurate picture of the situation.
What would you do?
In truth, a weak Iraq is a hindrance to Iran. Indeed, being a de facto prime target for Sunni terrorist groups, Iran’s attempt to strengthen its border security by creating strong, independent and nationalist buffer zones is all the more comprehensible. To put it in layman’s terms, if your garden was at risk from being destroyed by vermin living next door to you, wouldn’t you help your neighbour (particularly if his own attempts were hopeless) in getting rid of the problem? Iran’s heavy involvement in fighting Daesh must not be completely removed from its continued propping up of Assad’s regime, but likewise the terrifying prospect of utter chaos on Teheran’s doorstep cannot be ignored when trying to dissect Iranian intentions in Iraq.
Of course, from a “western” point of view, the difficulty resides in not giving too much moral high ground to Teheran, gently cajoling it into modifying its stance vis-à-vis Damascus or on the ever-present nuclear issue, whilst at the same time showing some understanding towards its involvement in Iraq. Getting the balance right, all the while factoring in Saudi reactions and our strategic alliances with Riyad, is the key if the West wishes to save face on the Syrian front and maintain pressure on Iran in other areas. The gradual retrieval of Kobane from ISIS with the help of heavy western intervention not only symbolizes a first visible victory, but more importantly, the necessity of confronting a problem with unity, despite grave differences of opinion between the actors.