By Raghida Dergham
31 May 2015
There have been many recent surprises in the Arab world, mainly heading towards the direction of a developing U.S.-Iranian relationship that goes beyond mere appeasement. This is while the U.S.-Israeli relationship remains a quintessential alliance and while the U.S.-Arab relationship continues with various brandings across the Gulf to Africa, through the Orient and its torn countries.
The Americans want to say that U.S. public opinion does not care about what is happening in the Arab region and that the talk about American roles in the terrible changes that have played out there for years is part of “conspiracy theories.” As for the Arabs, from various affiliations and orientations, they seem “certain” that it is U.S. policy that is manipulating the Arab region, and leading it to partition and fragmentation.
What is clear is that there is a decline in the trust and increase in suspicions in the U.S.-Arab relationship, in parallel with the realignment of Iran in the direction of becoming a reliable partner for the United States. The Obama administration has a big appetite for Iranian offers and for upgrading the bilateral relationship. However, developments on the ground sometimes raise questions about whether the silent U.S. blessing of the Iranian role in the Arab countries is an endorsement of Iranian ambitions or an attempt to implicate Iran in a way that would make Syria and perhaps even Iraq the “Vietnam” of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies.
What ISIS is doing in Syria is astonishing, but equally astonishing is how the Iraqi army and the Syrian regime army have handed over to ISIS extremely important areas in both countries. The entry of the Popular Mobilization forces, which are sometimes called Shiite militias, to the Anbar province alongside the Iraqi army to repel ISIS is a dangerous development that exacerbates concerns and suspicions. However, what is happening in Iraq and Syria is not completely separate from what is happening in Yemen, where the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia is fighting the Iranian influence represented by the Houthis and their current ally former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. And from the cracks created by the sectarian and tribal wars in the Arab region, the projects for fragmentation and partition are returning to the fore.
Among the most important statements to be made in public this week following ISIS’ takeover of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, were those made by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander. Soleimani quoted his message with criticism of the United States, which he said did nothing to help the Iraqi army against ISIS, has no will to fight, and is establishing false alliances as he put it. However, the most important message he sent out was when he said that only the Islamic Republic of Iran can fight ISIS.
Soleimani’s message is important because it means that Tehran wants to convince Washington that it is the only party able to repel ISIS and not the Arab, international or Sunni coalition. What Tehran wants is to be the only de facto ally of the United States, which has made the war against ISIS a top priority. Tehran wants to tell Washington that it must not oppose its presence in Iraq or Syria, directly or through Shiite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. Only in a ground battle, Tehran says, not through aerial bombardment, can ISIS be defeated; and there are no Saudi or Gulf forces on the ground.
Subsequently, one of Iran’s priorities is to convince Washington that regional Iranian ambitions are not expansionist but necessary.
Washington seems almost convinced of the Iranian narrative. Washington believes it is in its interests to ignore the expansionist goals of the Islamic Republic and focus on partnership with Iran against ISIS. Especially so when Tehran sees the ISIS project as an existential threat to its so-called Shiite Crescent project.
That project had emerged during the tenure of former U.S. President George W. Bush at the hands of the neoconservatives, who believed U.S. strategy must be based on supporting that crescent because it served U.S. and Israeli interests. The neocons believed that partitioning the Arab countries was an indispensable necessity to allow the creation of a “Petrostan” from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to Iran to parts of Iraq, with corridors to Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. In the view of the neocons ten years ago or so, the tools for achieving this partition include roles to be played by al-Qaeda and similar groups, like ISIS now, to carry out sabotage in Saudi Arabia and help partition and fragment Iraq and Syria.
Obama’s Two Phases
U.S. President Barack Obama for his part underwent two phases: The first at the start of his tenure when he adopted the idea of mainstreaming the Turkish model with the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt and other Arab countries. Obama believed this would encourage “moderate” Islam against Islamic extremism. In the second phase, Barack Obama decided that the U.S. interest requires a détente with the mullahs in Tehran, and so he complied with all their conditions under the title of encouraging “moderation in Iran, as the Iranian regime sold it through Hassan Rouhani.
What is common between the Obama administration and the neocons in the Bush administration is that they both agree on the project for a Petrostan/Shiastan, and what this requires in terms of strengthening Iran, weakening the Arab states that are confronting it, and partitioning the Arab countries. This is a shared interest for Iran, Israel, and Turkey, because removing the Arabs from the regional balance of power suits all three countries.
Therefore, the Arab interest definitely requires that none of the leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE make a strategic mistake that would end up weakening this important axis trying to restore the Arab role in the regional balance of power. In this regard, the Egyptian media – and not just the Egyptian leadership and the public – must not slip into arrogance, one-upmanship, or petulance with regard to the Gulf contribution to saving Egypt and empowering it. For their part, the Gulf states must be alert to Egyptian sensitivities, including history, to understand the causes of Egyptian hesitation with respect to the war in Yemen, which has shaken Gulf trust in the Egyptian partner. This is not a time for accountability, but a time for a realistic review of the requirements of the Gulf-Egyptian partnership and protecting it against erosion or collapse. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of all those concerned with the partnership.
What the Gulf leaders heard at the Camp David summit two weeks ago with President Barack Obama regarding Yemen was not encouraging and did not show understanding of the importance of the war in Yemen from the Arab, Gulf, or Saudi perspective. The opinion of Obama’s advisers in this issue is that Iran is not a key player in Yemen, and that Iran does not interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs. The opinion of Obama and his advisers is that Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Arab coalition have exaggerated the Yemeni threat, and that it was necessary for them to become involved as a party in this war. If Yemen ends up being a quagmire for the Arab coalition, then they would have no one else to blame but themselves, according to the U.S. thinking, which is radically at odds with the Saudi and Arab thinking. The latter holds that the war in Yemen was extremely necessary to stop the Iranian encroachment on the Arab countries, and that there is zero room for defeat in Yemen, as this would threaten Saudi national security.
Iran, Iran, Iran
At Camp David, the Gulf leaders found the U.S. president fully focused on Iran as a priority, and that his main message was that no one would be allowed to sabotage his main strategy of Iran, Iran, Iran.
According to sources, Barack Obama did not hear the language of decisiveness that the Gulf leaders had pledged to use. The Gulf leaders did not call for establishing, for example, a no-fly zone in Syria in order to bring about a quantum leap in the support for the moderate armed Syrian opposition. They only listened to Barack Obama say that his priority is repelling ISIS at any cost, that his support for moderate opposition forces will not be upgraded, and that he will not become involved.
The opinion of Obama’s advisers is that if Iran, the Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah are the instruments by which ISIS can be expelled then so be it. Obama will not become involved in Syria. Let Hezbollah fight the war on ISIS, and let them both perish, after they exhaust the Assad regime and fragment Syria, because Washington no longer cares.
The U.S. policy on Iraq, as the Gulf leaders heard, is that the priority there too is for repelling ISIS at the hands of no matter whom. The Obama administration has decided to ignore the danger of enabling the Popular Mobilization at Iran’s hands. For this reason, Washington decided to ignore the fact that the Iraqi army handed over Ramadi without fierce resistance would inevitably lead to calls for help from the Shiite militias in the capital of Sunni-majority Anbar. In other words, Iran has entered Anbar, and this will have very serious implications.
ISIS’s adventures in Iraq and Syria raises questions because of the ease at which it is making its sweeping gains. Indeed, the mysterious organization may have been born in Syrian and Iraqi prisons, and was subsequently unleashed by Bashar al-Assad and former Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki – both allies of Iran – to tarnish the Syrian revolution. After that, ISIS became ISIS Inc., and a cocktail of intelligence agencies are exploiting ISIS for both divergent and convergent objectives. What is strange, however, is that all these parties do not seem to be concerned by ISIS, which has otherwise spread terror and panic in ordinary hearts.
The Arab region will undergo a difficult and complex period ahead. The mistakes made by Arab leaders are major mistakes. Iranian ideas have found a sponsor with Barack Hussein Obama.
If only federalism could make its way to realistic Arab strategies. This is the best scenario compared the partition of the Arab region.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.