This is the fourth of a four-part series looking at the United States’ increasingly-evident de facto alliance with Iran in the region. The first part looked at the way this policy has developed since President Obama took office and how it has been applied in Iraq; the second part looked at the policy’s application in Syria; the third part looked at its application in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Yemen; and this part is a conclusion.
After much courtship and many concessions—from the United States—the “interim” nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was signed. The JPA’s extension into a rolling and effectively permanent agreement during the Obama Presidency has given Iran the cover of American power for its nuclear program and locked in an already-incipient dynamic in the region where there is a de facto U.S.-Iranian partnership. This has not only resulted in Bashar al-Assad being protected by U.S. power but has allowed Iran to exert pressure—with tacit threats to U.S. personnel operating on the ground, for example—that extracts concessions in the nuclear negotiations. That these concessions are exacted from the United States in order that the United States can undertake actions in Iraq and Syria that benefit Iranian-aligned governments shows how dysfunctional the Obama administration’s strategy for upholding U.S. interests in the Middle East has become.
The overwhelming desire of the Obama administration since its inception has been to reduce America’s commitments in the Middle East. The U.S. had “overinvested” in the region, as Obama’s former National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon memorably said. But in getting out, certain core interests had to be defended. Obama defined down what America’s core interests were. With the importance of Middle Eastern oil declining, a higher level of instability is seen as tolerable. Israel’s security is believed to be secure. This left the Obama focus on (Sunni) terrorism that could strike the homeland.
Where previous concerns for a flow of oil at reasonable prices and stability reinforced one-another to buttress a close alliance with Saudi Arabia, if the core interest is against Sunni militancy, Iran can look like a better ally than Saudi Arabia. Even where the Gulf States are not funding or otherwise supporting terrorism, so the argument goes, they are useless in combatting it; they are a spent force. Sunni Arab States are backward-looking and stagnating but Iran has a large and educated middle class that could take the country in a more positive direction. As for the Iranian regime’s furious hostility and repeated threats against Israel, these are seen by the Obama administration as rhetoric for public consumption. Obama, after all, believes the theocracy is “self-interested,” i.e. rational, and does not harbour apocalyptic, genocidal intentions toward Israel.
Choosing between Saudi Arabia and Clerical Iran is a gruesome task, but if President Obama is going to “throw away a U.S. framework built … over the last century,” which an accommodation with Iran axiomatically does, he should have a really good reason to believe that it will work to defend U.S. interests better than current conditions. Theocratic Iran gives no such confidence: the regime is by its nature an agent of chaos that bitterly despises the West. And a very steep price will be paid for disseminating the impression that America “often grows bored of its friends, seeking instead the company of its seemingly more intriguing enemies.” States like South Korea, in the shadow of aggressive despotisms and relying on American security guarantees, were alarmed enough at the “red line” debacle on chemical weapons. To find that America can, on an administration’s notice, switch between its allies and foes is even more alarming.
In practical terms, this dual track, of withdrawing the U.S. from the Middle East and deputising Iran to take over as the guardian of some American interests, has proceeded by attempting to draw Iran into a in a “concert of powers” system—which would also include Russia. Such a system would create a “balance” between America’s allies and foes, and would leave Iran no reason to seek the protection of nuclear weapons, so the thinking goes. The initial problem with this is that by definition it means empowering Iran against America’s erstwhile allies. President Obama, in his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, said we were in “an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game.” But in the Middle East, a ruthless Machtpolitik is the law of the land: empowering one actor is weakening another. And in the case of Iran, Obama’s intention for “balance” is not matched on the other side, where the intention is hegemony. While something like the chemical weapons “deal” in Syria might seem to the Obama administration to be the model, getting all parties from all sides to agree on a common interest, Russia and Iran quite rightly saw victory, not compromise.
Iran-as-counterterrorism-partner makes no sense. If the Obama administration succeeded, and not only degraded but destroyed the Takfiri Caliphate, it would hand the liberated areas over to Iran; this is a cure worse than the disease. The sectarian governments in Baghdad and Damascus that Iran supports provoked the wars in Iraq and Syria in the first place, and these wars have now merged. The presence of the Iranian-backed sectarian government in Iraq and especially Assad are the greatest spurs to Salafi jihadism in the world. No strategy that involves partnership with Iranian-controlled sectarian “State institutions” is going to bring stability to the Fertile Crescent—or indeed to Yemen, where Iranian-backed forces have taken over, and Obama is treating them as partners against al-Qaeda. Defeating Salafi jihadism requires getting moderate Sunnis to reject the Salafi jihadists, something they will never do while the alternative is Iran. Moreover, “The Iranians are not capable of shouldering the weight that Obama wants them to carry.” Iran’s power-projection capabilities are above those of the Gulf States, but they are not sufficient to restore order and defeat Sunni militancy in the Fertile Crescent, even if Iran wanted to—and it doesn’t.
Iran’s strategy all along in Syria was to ensure extremists took over the insurgency to prevent Western help to the revolt and try to enlist the U.S. on the side of the Assad dictatorship—an aim Iran has basically succeeded in. Not only has Iran deliberately increased the Sunni terrorism in Syria, but the clerical regime has since its inception worked with Sunni jihadists when it finds them convenient, including Gelbuddin Hekmatyar, HAMAS, and al-Qaeda, with which Iran has had a relationship since the early 1990s—including contact with up to half of the 9/11 killers—and an important role in the formation and evolution of what is now the Islamic State.
Instability is not a downside for Iran: it is the whole point. Iran’s interests are in keeping open a corridor to the Hizballah, threatening Israel to ward off a Western strike on the nuclear program, and in having weak and pliant neighbours that are “incapable of posing a threat to Iran,” as, say, Saddam Hussein did. Managed chaos, with the official institutions, especially the security sector, under Iranian control, neutralises these States and keeps the Iran-allied governments off-balance and reliant on Iran, which means Iran does not want the Sunni jihadists totally defeated.
The West’s interests, meanwhile, are in stability and humane, inclusive politics in the Muslim-majority States, and creating the largest possible perception of an Israeli military threat to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program to be used as leverage in trying to disarm Iran without war. These interests could not be more divergent—and Iran, at least, knows it. Iran has a clear intention to subvert American purposes in the Greater Middle East and can sense America’s weariness. Iran is using this to demoralise America’s remaining friends and pressure them to cut a deal accommodating themselves to Iranian hegemony.
The focus on Sunni terrorism also neglects the fact that Iran has orchestrated a full-fledged Shi’a jihad on the model of Afghanistan in the 1980s in Syria, turning the tide for Bashar al-Assad. Iran has moved thousands of Shi’ite jihadists, many of whom have Western blood on their hands and some of whom are U.S.-designated terrorist organisations, into Syria. Iran’s proxies have used methods of warfare against Sunni non-combatants every bit as cruel as those used by the Islamic State against non-Sunnis, and these Khomeini’ist jihadists are integrated within Iran’s global terrorist network, a network that has targeted Western interests more lethally than the Islamic State, from Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C. These instruments of Iran’s State power are what Obama’s strategy is enabling, when at least as much effort should be dedicated to countering these groups as the Islamic State.
Obama’s few public statements on what he wanted for Iran internally suggest he is drawing closer to Iran—effectively making the U.S. a faction within Iran’s regime rather than the leader of the international community enforcing its will to curb Iranian misbehaviour—so the U.S. can, over the long-term, open Iran up. This cunning strategy to empower the long-awaited moderates in Iran’s ruling elite could take “a decade or fifteen years or twenty years,” the President has said. But pausing Iran on the threshold of nuclear weapons with much greater infrastructure than America’s allies are happy with, lifting the sanctions, and “ensnaring [Iran] in a web of cooperation,” as Michael Doran put it, would, the argument says, avoid entangling the U.S. in another (and probably futile) war, reduce the sense of siege that empowers the hardliners in Iran where the population is otherwise quite pro-American, and avoid the devastating sanctions-plus-dictatorship period that destroyed the socio-economic basis for democracy in Iraq.
Aside from the rather speculative assumptions that moderates exist within the Iranian ruling order—let alone that Hassan Rowhani is one—and that the U.S. knows how to empower them, this places the U.S. on the side of the opposition within the regime, not the opposition to, the regime, and thus creates a U.S. interest in perpetuating some version of the dictatorship. More fundamentally, there is every reason to think that removing the constraints on Iran will not empower reformists but empower the regime, which will seem victorious in its standoff with the Great Satan. Success is a powerful motivator: if the theocracy emerges from its negotiations with a nuclear capacity, no sanctions, and a Jihadist Empire, the dissidents in Iran are going to find themselves in the predicament they did during the 2009 uprising: painted as American hirelings without the benefit of American support, demoralised, and defeated.
Correcting The Nuclear Policy
In writing about the second extension of the JPA last November, I noted that the fact that these negotiations were now an endless process with Iran racking up concession after concession was easy to predict because the nuclear negotiations are being used by the Obama administration to further its ambitions of a regional accommodation that allows Obama to claim as his lasting legacy the lowering of the American footprint in the Middle East. Thus, nothing would be done to derail the negotiations, and the removal of the American willingness to play hardball—an unwillingness even to walk away, let alone impose further sanctions or order airstrikes on the nuclear-weapons facilities—left the initiative with Iran.
Sanctions were finally beginning to take effect when the JPA was signed in November 2013 and the U.S. had a chance, if its central policy was to disarm Iran, to threaten Iran to reach a deal, “or else”. But because the central policy wasn’t Iran’s disarmament but Iran’s cooperation in (allegedly) stabilising the Middle East, what the U.S. really wanted was a nuclear deal that could get them past this thorny issue and to more pleasant pastures like fighting the Islamic State. This meant the U.S. threw away the “or else”: the process was the interest, which allowed Iran to turn the tables; now Iran could threaten to walk away from the negotiations if it didn’t get what it wanted. Iran gained sanctions relief, and every six months Iran can now say, “Pay up, or we leave.”
This is why President Obama is so furiously opposed to sanctions that would be triggered by an Iranian failure to make a nuclear deal by a date-certain, because for the Obama administration this has to be an endless process. Iran is never going to sign a deal that dismantles its nuclear-weapons program and Congress will never accept a deal that leaves Iran perpetually within dashing distance of a nuclear weapon. But if it is sold as a process that is eternally six months from a deal, then it can continue forever—with much talk after each six months elapses of being this close, but having made progress that leaves just one more, merely technical matter to resolve. In the meanwhile, the communication with Iran, the rapport-building, those meetings on the “sidelines” where they “deconflict” the Iraqi and Syrian theatres where American and Iranian forces operate in tandem—this is all part of trapping Iran in a web of cooperation that will (allegedly) ameliorate its worst tendencies and have it (allegedly) act on behalf of American interests like combatting terrorism.
It might be said that while this is not ideal, it does keep Iran from a nuclear weapon—the program is “paused” while the negotiations go on. But that actually isn’t true. Breakout time actually has been lengthened, from six weeks to eight weeks, by dissolving the enriched uranium, but Iran’s infrastructure to recreate the stockpile is wholly unthreatened by these negotiations, and all the while the negotiations go on, Iran is allowed a research and development program that is creating more advanced centrifuges that can be installed to make up the lost time the moment Iran chooses. The latest news is that Iran will be allowed to keep 10,000 centrifuges if we ever get to a final deal, which is a complete capitulation to Iran’s right to enrich and a latent nuclear-weapons capacity. And when the U.S. made a tentative remark about limiting Iran’s ballistic missile capability—the delivery system for a nuclear weapon, unmentioned in the JPA or subsequent negotiations—it was immediately slapped down by Iran.
There is a point where maths simply steals a march: if Iran is allowed to keep 10,000 centrifuges, it is a latent nuclear power and can be blatant at any time of its choosing—and the JPA helps with that, too. The JPA has said that a final deal will include a “sunset clause,” a point when all special dispensations for Iran, including inspectors and sanctions, will be lifted. At that point, Iran can “walk, not sneak, into the nuclear club.” While the sunset clause should be considered a wrecking amendment, it is not the only one that Iran has already acquired, which would form part of a final deal. The other two wrecking amendments are: Iran not having to come clean about past weaponisation so nobody even knows the baseline the IAEA is expected to work from in determining whether Iran is complying with whatever deal is made, and Iran now having a de facto “right to enrich,” conceded by the conversation changing from “eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons … to [how to] tolerate and temporarily restrict that capability,” after six U.N. Security Council resolutions said Iran was not to have a single centrifuge.
With this fifteen-month old process at this pass, the best suggestion has been given by Thomas Nichols: “It’s time to walk away from the Iran negotiations.” “This process has become humiliating, not least because our diplomatic body language is telegraphing an eagerness for a deal—any deal—with such clumsy obviousness that only the dumbest opponent could fail to notice it,” Nichols writes. “Make no mistake: this would be a bad outcome. But talking isn’t always better than silence … And [walking away is] better than a bad deal that burns up what little credibility we have left just to get a piece of paper.” There is nothing to be gained by continuing these talks. The Congress should pass, and the President should sign into law, punishing and escalating sanctions that would be triggered of Iran does not verifiably surrender a weaponised nuclear capacity by July. When Iran doesn’t do that, the U.S. should terminate the negotiations and all the interim accords made up to now, and begin an aggressive containment policy that might one day force Iran back to the negotiating table.
Correcting The Policy In Syria and Iraq
Concurrent with the changes in the nuclear negotiations should be a change in the region, primarily reversing the sense of American retreat, which is driving potential allies to accommodate themselves with the emerging Iranian order, and the place to start is Syria. Rather than the predicament where the “U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS have transformed the U.S. military into a Syrian air force,” as the Pentagon has put it, there should be an open declaration that America means to remove Bashar al-Assad. This regime-change policy could be short-term or long-term (containment being a regime-change policy, lest it be forgotten.) The declaration would serve the purposes of reunifying America’s regional allies, all of whom have been alienated by Obama’s pro-Iran tilt, and it would give incentive to rebels inside Syria to side with America, because at present the most powerful anti-Assad forces are Salafi or Salafi jihadist like Ahrar a-Sham, Jabhat an-Nusra, and even the Islamic State.
A serious commitment should be made to building up a nationalist force opposed to Assad and the I.S. inside Syria that can be a successor government. In north-west Syria, the starting point should be fortifying Aleppo, preventing Assad and I.S. from completing their shared goal of destroying the nationalist rebels on the Northern Front. A serious policy would also restore rebel control in Idlib, reversing al-Qaeda’s conquest of the area at the expense of U.S.-backed rebels. This requires not just weapons and logistics, but supplies to ensure that a rebel administration maintains popularity.
The plan to introduce a 5,000-man U.S.-trained army into northern Syria in May is going to present the Obama administration with a straight choice once the regime attacks it: either defend it, and go to war with Assad, or do not defend it, and openly side with Assad and Iran. That there is ambivalence about this, with Obama so far refusing to do anything that can be interpreted as an act of war against Assad, is some of the strongest evidence that a conscious pro-Iran tilt is being pursued. But it will be politically impossible for Obama to abandon this 5,000-man force. At that point the U.S. might as well do the right thing—morally and geopolitically—as well as the politic thing, and protect not just this 5,000-man army but all rebels receiving U.S. support. A no-fly zone in Syria need not resemble the one in Libya—it would not necessarily involve sorties to take out Assad’s air defence, for instance. Israel has shown repeatedly Assad’s air defences are ineffective; he could simply be told that his planes are no longer to fly.
Making the U.S.-led Coalition the only force in the air would also resolve the most damaging effect of the U.S. airstrikes in Syria: the Coalition and Assad are bombing in the same areas with the same justification, and the Coalition is therefore getting the blame for Assad’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians, often with barrel bombs or chlorine gas. “We thought the least [the Americans] could do is to stop Assad’s air force from flying. But [the regime] have bombed … more than at any time before the Americans arrived,” lamented one rebel, summing up the regime’s attempt to use the Coalition airstrikes in the east of the country, which alleviated the pressure on the regime from I.S., to destroy the moderates in the west. The Islamic State also made use of this: just yesterday, in its latest propaganda video featuring John Cantlie, the I.S. claimed that Assad was attacking civilians with American guidance. If only Coalition planes were in the air in Syria, the air campaign could be conducted in a way that did not push people into I.S.’s camp.
In southern Syria, an encouraging rebel administration has been set up that has even worked through complex issues like civil-military relations. Among the reasons that the humanitarian-sounding “freeze” in Aleppo is no such thing is that Assad would use freed-up troops to try to destroy this rebel enclave. The U.S. focus has allegedly shifted toward the Southern Front, and the South does deserve more attention, but this should not come at the expense of the North. Proper provision of weapons and administrative supplies in the South could protect this promising proto-government.
Degrading the Islamic State in eastern Syria requires working with the local population: the tribes. In August 2014, the Shaitat tribe rebelled against the I.S.; but like anti-ISIS revolt of January 2014 in northern Syria, led by the rebels, the Shaitat received no Western support. Hundreds of tribesmen were unmercifully slaughtered. If the tribes are going to risk another uprising, they are going to have to be assured sustained support. Such support would also reverse the damaging sentiment—given Syria’s demographics—that the U.S. has no interest in Sunni lives. “We saw what the Americans did to help the Yazidis and the Kurds. But they have done nothing to help the Sunnis against the Islamic State,” one tribal leader lamented. It is true: none of the (Sunni) rebels “receive nearly enough assistance … to qualitatively impact conflict dynamics,” and the tribes “remain almost totally ignored, despite their significant potential to influence local society.”
Working with the tribes will not be pretty: it is an environment where security, honour, and avarice meet, and the tribes have decided that the I.S. Caliphate is “temporar[ily] … the best of all worlds,” as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan describe in their excellent new book on the Islamic State. While the tribes “don’t endorse ISIS ideologically or join it en masse because they calculate that its reign won’t last forever,” the tribes do not want their areas to turn into a warzone. Tribal authority is fickle and very localised, and the I.S. has woven the tribes intimately into its governance strategy to stave off a renewed Sahwa (Awakening), playing not just one tribe against another, but the younger tribesmen—who are less sullied by collusion with the regime—against the elders of the same tribe. In enlisting tribesmen to fight the I.S., “chances are they’ll be fighting their own kinsmen,” just as I.S. enlisted Shaitat tribesmen to put down the Shaitat revolt.
To begin just making Syria better—since “solving” is a long way off—it would require some steps the Obama administration has considered too aggressive. For example, it is impossible to see why Assad should be allowed to use starvation as a weapon of war. American air power could be used to break the terror-sieges the regime has imposed. The Obama administration’s stated goal in Syria is to “train and equip a moderate Syrian opposition to provide a counterweight to the terrorists and the brutality of the Assad regime,” with the “lasting solution” being a “political transition”. To do that, the rebellion would have to have something to bargain with.
The Interim Government of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) means nothing in exile in Turkey, but it has been recognised by the U.S. as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” and if the SOC were moved onto Syrian soil and established a government with an army (the rebels) under civilian control, then a range of options, especially political and legal, open up for removing Assad. The regime would surely attack the SOC, and the Salafi jihadists would also seek to destroy an administration like the SOC’s that is elected and Western-aligned. For this reason, as Frederic Hof, the former lead on the Syria desk at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, has explained, the SOC would need the protection of American military force—a no-fly, no-drive zone.
If it became necessary to disable Assad’s aerial capacity, cratering the runways and taking out the surrounding infrastructure is not beyond the U.S.—Assad only had six functioning airfields in 2013. This northern rebel administration could then be used to begin rebuilding, and helped to unify with the rebels in the south to form a national army that could, when the time was right, extend its writ across Syria, neutralising both the Sunni jihadists and Iran’s proxies.
Many opportunities were missed in Syria: the secular military defectors watch from the sidelines in Turkey and the CIA’s covert program did little to alter the balance of power. But there are Contrary to much “good guys” left, and they are known to the U.S., which has “worked with them for years.” The “no moderates” line was a political, not military, decision by the Obama administration to justify treating Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence.
When the CIA announced an overnight tripling of the number of Islamic State fighters to 31,000 in September 2014, what it really announced was nominal allegiance after the I.S. had conquered western Iraq, large tracts of central Iraq, and all of eastern Syria. As a Kurdish militiaman explained of western Iraq, “There are not a lot of real Islamic State fighters here. … All Sunnis are now called ‘Islamic State’ but they’re not.” Power has a logic of its own, as does sectarianism. Sunnis who hate and fear the I.S. will sooner side with I.S. than Iran if those are the only two alternatives.
Most of these “new” I.S. fighters can be pulled back into the mainstream—in Syria of the rebellion, in Iraq of the Sunni tribal institutions and local armed forces—if the mainstream is seen to have the support to protect the population from both the I.S. and Iran. In Syria, this logic holds in countering groups like Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham: it would be foolish at this point to encourage the more nationalist rebels to go to war with the Salafi militants—the only winner would be Iran—but the people who are with Nusra and Ahrar for resource reasons can be pulled away if moderate groups are seen as powerful enough to fight the Assad regime, and at a later date, when only the small core of ideologues remain, Nusra and Ahrar could be directly targeted.
To be clear, even if these steps were taken, and they are the bare minimum needed to accomplish anything approaching U.S. stated objectives, this is still a strategy that takes place over a period of years not months. The heart of such a strategy is to buy time to build up the moderate Sunnis, placing them and not Assad (as is presently the case) under the protection of American power. The U.S. can then help the Sunnis root out their own extremists, giving them the protection from attack by Iran’s Shi’ite extremists, and when the Sunni moderates are strong enough, a move can be made to end the Assad regime.
Syria presented a terrific opportunity for the West to isolate and weaken Iran, removing from it its only Arab ally and the lifeline to its proxies, and to help establish a humane government in a country long without one. The hands-off approach in Syria has led to suffering on horrific scale, nearly destroyed the moderates, allowed the rise of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and made Iran’s Resistance Axis “more integrated and capable” all across the region. A more active role to support moderate Syrian Sunnis in their efforts to defend themselves in a two-front war against Assad and I.S., and to ground the Syrian air force, would sharply reduce the killing in the short-term, and the removal of Assad can begin the process of recovery in Syria, draining away the incentives—namely Iranian influence—that have pushed people into joining Salafi jihadist groups.
In Iraq, the crucial policy-change needed is to cease funnelling supplies through Baghdad. Obama’s “insistence” on treating Iraq as a sovereign State, allowing the central government to distribute American supplies, has meant that the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs are hostage to Iran—the precise state of affairs that sparked the Sunni uprising, which the I.S. has made itself the vanguard of, in the first place. The Iraqi Kurds maintain a tense and deteriorating relationship with the Shi’a-led Baghdad government and the Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militias that represent its armed forces. Before the outbreak of open Kurdish-Iranian hostilities—and perhaps even preventing them, by ensuring that Iran knows it would not succeed in repressing the Kurds—the U.S. should begin sending supplies direct to Erbil.
The collapse of the security situation and the opening for the I.S. to pose as the Iraqi Sunnis’ defender was brought about by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dismantling the Awakening forces. The re-establishment of a local “National Guard” in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq is essential to the anti-I.S. fight. Encouragingly, a bill to “in principle” set up a National Guard passed the Iraqi Cabinet last week, 19 votes to 13. The opposition came overwhelmingly from Iran-aligned Shi’a Islamists, and the control of the Interior Ministry by Iran’s oldest Iraqi proxy, the Badr Corp, allows questions over whether this bill will ever be implemented. Without the Iraqi Sunni Arabs having an independent armed force to defend themselves against the I.S. and Iran, they will continue to accept the I.S., which, whatever else it does, weakens the central government that has persecuted them. There has already been a tribal revolt against the I.S. in Iraq by the Albu Nimr, which the West ignored it, leading to its suppression and hundreds of deaths. The problems identified of working with the tribes in Syria are present in Iraq, but less serious because the networks and the memory of leading a successful Sahwa are in place, however desiccated, and could be reactivated.
Rooting Iran out of the Shi’a-majority areas out of Iraq would require a level of U.S. commitment that is not currently politically palatable. There is a case for continuing to supply Baghdad to try to blunt some of Iran’s influence over that government; there is also a case for cutting off Baghdad entirely and having no part in the crimes now being perpetrated by its military and paramilitary forces under Iranian guidance and with Baghdad’s complicity.
Iraq will either now remain (formally) unitary with significant autonomy for Sunni Arabs in the centre and west and the Kurds in the north, or it will be partitioned: the West should take no side in this. The West’s interests are in destroying the Islamic State and degrading Iran’s influence over Iraq: if the policies necessary for that incentivise partition, so be it.
There are forces on the ground, therefore, to be deputised as proxies to fight the Islamic State, namely the Iraq Kurds, (more problematically) the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian rebels, and the Sunni Arab tribes in the eastern Syria/western Iraq area. With weapons and training they can do the bulk of the fighting, but they cannot do this solely with American airpower. The Obama administration should cease its political insistence on no “boots on the ground”. Scholars have estimated the number of U.S. forces needed at between 10,000 and 25,000. Defeating the I.S. is an intelligence-heavy operation, and without U.S. forces on the ground, gathering intelligence and acting on it in time—such as coordinating airstrikes—the strategy will fail. Targeting the I.S.’s leadership is crucial to degrading its operational capacity, and there is no force on earth better at targeted killings of terrorists than the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
As can be seen, however, all of this involves co-operation with moderate Sunni forces, not Assad’s sectarian killer squads, not the Iraqi government’s impaired military infiltrated by Shi’ite militias, and not the Khomeini’ist tributaries of Iran that buttress and control these forces. Anti-Sunni sectarian and Iranian-backed forces are of no use in combatting the I.S. because to get moderate Sunnis to turn on the I.S. requires the Sunnis feeling secure in the aftermath; the Sunnis rebelled in the first place because of sectarian, Iran-backed domination and at the present time the I.S. is preventing a renewal of this repression. An alliance with Iran and its proxies will not convince the Sunnis to dismantle what many of them perceive as the sole barrier between them and Iranian tyranny or worse. An alliance with Iran is the surest way to increase the I.S.’s recruitment and longevity.
Correcting the broader policy
If Assad can be removed, the most obvious positive knock-on effect is cutting the Hizballah down to size in Lebanon, removing one State supporter and removing the conduit by which its masters in Tehran keep it supplied. Hizballah would then have to make its way in a Lebanon where the majority of the population was very angry at it for its long rule of force. The signal that America’s retreat was over would also be helpful in Afghanistan where the West’s heading for the exit sets at risk all that has been achieved—and there have been real achievements. There have been some encouraging signs that the Obama administration has learned from Iraq and is reconsidering its plans to totally abandon Afghanistan. Iran’s influence in Afghanistan is comparatively weak and can be kept that way if the population has a real, i.e. American, alternative. The options for Yemen are—as ever—grim, but the same imperatives as Syria and Iraq should operate: not allowing the formation of an American-supported, Iranian-underwritten sectarian central government and armed forces that gives the Sunnis nowhere to go if they separate themselves from the Salafi jihadists.
In the meanwhile, the collapsing price of oil gives a chance to both move Western populations away from a structural dependence on Middle Eastern oil and to apply further pressure to Iran. The sanctions on Iran have been weakened, and in ways that are difficult to reverse—but not impossible. Rather than hoping that sanctions relief and an industrial-scale nuclear program, plus large spheres of influence in the region, will placate Tehran’s desire for an overt nuclear weapons capacity, the U.S. should work to apply devastating economic pain to Iran, to face Iran’s rulers with a choice between surrendering their nuclear weapons or their regime, which will include restoring a credible threat of military force, something that America has not only ceded after the “red line” disaster on Assad’s chemical weapons but which Obama administration officials have boasted of neutralising in the case if Israel.
Presidents cannot be experts on every region and they are steeped in data from around the world. By necessity, as explained by Michael Doran, the ideas of Presidents are simple—though not simplistic. Presidents have a broad orientation of which direction they want to go in, and accept that along the way there will be many ups and downs. It’s a bet, in other words, which is why it is invulnerable to specific, factual refutation; the expectation is that this is merely a bad patch, but if the U.S. ploughs-on then the good will emerge in the fullness of time.
But no good can come from the U.S. underwriting an Iranian Empire from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean. The experiment in aligning with Iran against (Sunni) terrorism and in favour of regional order has led to more terrorism and more disorder, and the longer the alignment goes on the greater will be the killing and chaos. The present path of ever-greater concessions to Iran’s imperial ambitions in the region, with a de facto acceptance of its status as a latent nuclear power, is a severe threat to Western interests in non-proliferation, countering Islamism, and supporting stability and human rights in the Middle East that should be immediately reversed.