On November 6, 2014, the Reuters news agency reported an astonishing story. In October 2014, President Obama sent a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressing that the two countries have a shared interest in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. With Republican barks of 'Nuclear Iran' filling the senate and congress, this letter to a member of Bush's hyperbolic 'Axis of Evil,' has its roots in the Syrian Conflict.
The Syrian conflict is no longer a political struggle contained within the boundaries of one state, but a regional sectarian war. The refugee crisis that has followed in the wake of the conflict is not only straining the infrastructure and resources of neighbouring countries such as Jordan, but also, exacerbating existing tensions in host communities. There is on-going fighting between the Shia Alawite-led army of Assad, supported by the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, and the broad spectrum of Sunni opposition, increasingly dominated by Islamist groups. The result is a territorial map that looks like a Jackson Pollock. However, on a broader geopolitical level the possible emergence of the 'Shia Crescent' has hardened hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Iran. King Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's infamous friendly hug just in 2007 now seems long ago.
But how has the shifting agency of global powers US and Russia affected this? Despite the favourable election of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the U.S. has traditionally supported Saudi Arabia over Iran due to its long-standing alliance with Syria. However, the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and its rapid, albeit erratic expansion has put the US between a rock and a hard place. Its options are limited: to continually oppose a potentially nuclear Iran or risk the territorial expansion of the ISIS.
The humanitarian cost of the crisis thus far has been enormous. Approximately 3 million people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict, most of them women and children, and neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis. In December 2013, the UN launched its largest appeal for a single crisis asking for £4 billion. However, the geopolitical ramifications of the conflict have been crystallized respectively in the Iranian and Saudi Arabian regional security strategies.
The first of these international actors is Iran. The country has been in favour of a centralized security approach in the Gulf, in contrast to Saudi Arabia who looks to external actors, particularly the United States, to guarantee its national and regional security. This crossover in terms of national interest plunges the entire region into a power game. Moreover, Iranian financial support to Shiite groups in Arab countries has increased tensions with Saudi Arabia, which in retaliation has lent support to Iranian ethnic minorities in a bid to destabilize the Iranian regime.
International intervention in the conflict has not been restricted to these regional powers, and the actions of the US and Russia, have transformed it in some measure, into a proxy war. Although Russia has actively promoted the opening of the second Geneva meeting in order to gain initiative on the Syrian issue; it has also started to establish a permanent fleet in the Mediterranean. Furthermore Russia has also moved its Asia pacific fleet to waters in the environs of Syria. Respectively the US has taken active steps to prepare for war, deploying the “patriot” missile defense system in Turkey and Jordan, carrying out large-scale joint military drills at the border of Jordan and Syria and increasing military support to the Syrian opposition.
However, the threat of Russian influence in the region has been far outdone by the rise of the ISIS. With as many as 1000 groups controlling 100,000 fighters, the ISIS is a self-funding, rapidly spreading threat to security in the region. Islamists and Jihadists whose tactics have caused rebel in fighting in the past, and fragmented the opposition to the Assad regime, now outnumber secular moderates. The ISIS has now taken control of huge swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria in spite of the efforts of US-led coalition airstrike beginning in September 2014. Iran is a key part of this coalition and as such the power dynamics within US- Iran negotiations over nuclear power have shifted immensely.
Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), recently claimed that the “Americans are begging us for a deal on the negotiation table.” Indeed, such confidence is widespread within Iran and without. Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iranian dissident and associate fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, stated
“Iran feels the administration needs the deal, and this belief is supported by the way the administration is acting.... Iran feels as long as the negotiation is going on, it has a green light to do whatever it wants in the region, so why should they bother to sign a deal?”
Yet, the truth is not quite as simple as this. Negotiations are still hampered by strong resistance to any compromise in both countries. Republican Senator Mark Kirk recently argued that “The Iranian terror state continues to show its true nature as it sidesteps the international sanctions regime during negotiations, and expands its threat into Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.” The deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Hossein Salami, was also reported by the state-controlled Fars New Agency (FNA) as having stated that the country now has forces in Iraq, Syria and Yemen that are 10 times larger than that of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The fear of neighbouring countries and Iran sceptics is that increased US-Iran relations will lead to a unipolar region as the deal they close will allow Iran to keep large amounts of its centrifuges running. Indeed, the Obama administration recently denied a report that said the President would agree to 80 percent of Iran’s demands in the ongoing nuclear talks. In light of Salami’s threats, the country that has most to lose by this is Israel. Israeli officials believe the deal would render Iran with the capability to reach nuclear “breakout capacity” almost imminently thus placing Israel in a very dangerous geopolitical and security position.
Will it last?
Despite the presence of the ISIS as a shared enemy, American and Iranian interests in Iraq are likely to diverge. The US, at least in principle, wants to see an inclusive democracy take root in Iraq, while Iran is focused on protecting Iraq’s Shia majority and religious shrines in a bid to bolster its position vis-a-vis the Saudis and other western-backed Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at LSE recently questioned the durability of such an alliance in his comments - “The Americans may think they have a coalescence of interests with Tehran, but that is a false hope. Iran’s policy has always been to sectarianize the conflict and back Shia chauvinism. That is the exact opposite of the outcome the Americans want – citizenship and equality for all before the Iraqi state.”
Problems in the US Coalition against ISIS?
Although the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Bahrain joined the coalition at the very outset, most observers believe their participation was more symbolic than active. Iraq has no air force to speak of and its army turned tail against forces of the ISIS; the Saudis allotted a trifling number of planes to the effort; while Bahrain doesn’t have an air force at all. The UAE has the biggest and most modern air force in the Gulf region and its suspension of bombings in early December was a major blow to Washington’s war effort. On Wednesday, 4th February 2015, US officials admitted that the UAE had suspended its air attacks in early December, directly after a Jordanian F-16 fighter aircraft was downed over the Syrian headquarters of the ISIS in Raqqa and its pilot Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh was taken prisoner. However, hopes for the unity of the coalition were rekindled on the 7th of February, when Jordan’s Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali, said that Jordan will go after the ISIS and will “wipe them out completely.” Meanwhile there have been reports that UAE is sending F-16 fighter aircrafts to Jordan to aid the airstrikes. Rather than crippling the coalition as was initially feared, the capture and tragic death of Muath al-Kasasbeh has strengthened the resolve of the coalition. This was further evidenced by the march in Amman on the 6th of February in which protestors chanted “We are all Mouath…we are all Jordan,” as well as “Death to Daesh” – an derogatory Arabic acronym for the terror group. This bolstering of the coalition has for the moment somewhat curtailed Iran's bargaining power although it still remains an essential ally for the US if the latter wishes to maintain its chances of containing the threat of the ISIS.
What the Future holds?
Covert Alliance: Open disagreement
Despite the increasing involvement of Iran in the struggle against the ISIS, the Iranian denial that its planes had conducted air raids is categorical. A senior official similarly rebutted any suggestion that it is co-operating with the US in Iraq. “Iran has never been involved in any air strikes against Daesh (ISIS) targets in Iraq. Any co-operation in such strikes with America is also out of the question for Iran.” When recently asked in an interview on whether the United States would consider cooperating militarily with Iran, US Secretary of State John Kerry coyly replied, “Let’s see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements.”
The alliance between the United States and Iran is essential in order to effectively restrict the expansion of the ISIS, however it could also potentially destabilize the region even further in the long term. Only time will tell how well this affair of convenience will last.