By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
1 September 2014
We must not underestimate the significance of the Iranian government’s initiative to provide military help to Iraq’s Kurds who suddenly found themselves confronting the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Before analyzing the Iranian stance and the motives behind it, we must re-narrate what happened after the Iraqi city of Mosul fell into the hands of ISIS and after alarm bells were sounded following news that it appeared that ISIS forces, not the Baathists, defeated the troops of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Meanwhile, as Baghdad fortified its defences in preparation for the battle, ISIS surprised everyone by heading north towards the country’s Kurdistan region! The second surprise was the defeat of the Peshmerga forces, known as a traditionally strong militia. It turned out that years of Kurdish relaxation, particularly following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime 10 years ago, affected these Peshmerga forces as they are no longer as competent as they used to be. If it hadn’t been for the U.S. military’s quick air force intervention, terrorists may have succeeded in seizing major Kurdish cities.
There has been news of Kurdish anger against Arabs and Arab governments, blaming them for the spread of ISIS. If this is true, it certainly expresses the Kurds’ ignorance of ISIS’ regional relations. Meanwhile, Iran’s rush to aid the Sunnis among Iraqi Kurds expresses Iran’s tripartite strategy towards Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Tehran wants to dominate the area to protect its influence in Baghdad. It also aims to control eastern Syria and to influence Kurdish relations with Turkey. Arabs don’t have plans to dominate or to gain influence in either Iraq or in Syria and they also avoid raising Turkey’s suspicions. Iran, however, is less concerned about respecting the rules of the regional security balance. Iran desires to take over Iraq at any price by presenting itself as the protector of Sunni Kurds and Shiite Arabs.
I am still not convinced by the statements made to justify ISIS’ turn towards the north (to Kurdistan) and their move away from Baghdad - including statements written by Wafiq al- Samarrai in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, even though he is more experienced than us on this matter. This makes one wonder: How can an organization whose members do not hesitate to die, head towards a distant area and give up the capital, Baghdad, when it was only 80 kilometers away from it? In all cases, ISIS is a mere brief historical stage in a long era of regional struggles. No one will remember ISIS in few years but Iran wants to seize Iraq for decades to come, and this is the regional game of the struggle over land and influence.
The Interests of Arab Governments
Unfortunately, the interest of Arab governments in Iraq’s Kurdistan is limited and it’s no match for the interest of the United States and Iran, although the Kurdistan region is like a balcony which different powers use to overlook Baghdad since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Kurdistan is also important in the game of balance played out in the Iraqi parliament and cabinet. Iran’s domination over Iraq will eventually lead to targeting the Arab Gulf area, because this is the center of regional and international battles and it is the center of global energy, funds and political influence.
As for the Kurds, they feel grateful to the Iranians without giving any attention to the nature of Iran’s goals, particularly as Arab governments have not communicated with them to even verbally convey their solidarity against the threat of ISIS. This is what one Kurdish official told me. Truth be told, Kurdistan’s leaders are wrong to point this exaggerated finger of blame as Arab governments don’t have an expansionist agenda like Iran does. Second, ISIS is a general problem that is not limited to Kurdistan. There are Kurds, not only Arabs, fighting alongside ISIS! Third, ISIS has done worse to the Sunnis of Anbar. It also shed the blood of many Syrian people and killed hundreds of young men from the al-Sheitaat clan and they are all Sunni Arabs. Finally, the Kurds must remember outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister’s Nouri al-Maliki’s abuses against them and how all these violations would not have occurred if Maliki hadn’t coordinated with Iran. So, let’s not think that Iran’s sudden rescue of Kurdistan is for the sake of god.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.