Has there, suddenly, emerged an American-Iranian axis? Are the ayatollahs in Tehran working hand in glove with the Great Satan?
If you look at recent developments as regards Iraq and the so-called Islamic caliphate you might be forgiven for thinking so. The United States and Iran joined forces in calling for Nouri el-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, to step down as a precondition for real progress in getting rid of the jihadi terrorists in Mosul and the north of Iraq. There have been no protests from the Iranians as American jets carry out bombing attacks across their border.
They seem quite relaxed as the US arms the Kurdish peshmerga, who are also their neighbours. All this is in the context of the continuing American-Iranian negotiations on the future of Tehran’s nuclear programme, the deadline for which has been extended by mutual agreement in the hope of making a permanent breakthrough.
Whenever this has happened it has not been because of hypocrisy or double standards on either side. It has been because their national interests have coincided on specific issues, and co-operation has been an entirely logical consequence.
The most striking example was the Iranian response after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York. Al-Qaeda was a Sunni terrorist organisation that, if anything, loathes Shia Muslims even more than they hate Americans. The Iranians were very content to see them crushed by the United States. In Afghanistan, the Sunni Taliban were in power and giving sanctuary to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It suited the Iranians to give covert support to the American-led determination to oust the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda. That co-operation largely disappeared in subsequent years as, not surprisingly, the Iranians became uncomfortable with the US appearing to be exercising continuing control over their eastern neighbour. The threat to Iranian interests is, today, far greater from Isis and the Islamic “caliphate” than it ever was from al-Qaeda.
The jihadi terrorists now control a large part of northern Iraq, close to the Iranian border, and have declared that territory to be a new state. If they succeed, on a permanent basis, that will result in the dismemberment of Iraq – with not only a caliphate but the Iraqi Kurds no longer ruled from Baghdad. What would be left of Iraq would be a rump Shia state deprived of many of its most valuable oil fields, and struggling to survive as a meaningful political entity.
That would be a massive setback for Tehran. It is worth recalling that the single greatest beneficiary of the Bush-Blair Iraq war in 2003 were the Iranians. Without them having to fire a shot, their challenger for control of the Gulf, Saddam Hussein, was overthrown. Iraq became ruled, for the first time in a hundred years, by Iran’s Shia co-religionists and Iran became the most influential power in Iraq’s domestic politics.
That whole achievement is now a shambles, and for Iran the need to eliminate the Isis terrorists is more powerful than ever. But that is not the whole story. The “caliphate” is not limited to northern Iraq but also controls large swathes of northern Syria. The Syrian moderate, secular opponents of the Assad regime are in disarray, and the Isis terrorists are fast becoming the main serious opponents to the pro-Iranian government in Damascus.
It was not long ago that King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a Shia arc, from Iran through Iraq, across Alawite Syria to Shia Hizbollah in Lebanon. The Iranians saw themselves as the ringmaster with powerful influence in Baghdad, providing arms to Assad and pulling the strings with Hizbollah. That strategy is now collapsing. So much for the Iranians. If recent developments have been so bad for them why should Washington not be gloating? Why should they want to work with the Iranians in a manner that is designed to stall and, if possible, reverse these developments.
Again, the answer does not lie in American hypocrisy, stupidity or naivete. They are well aware of all these considerations and if they were the only relevant ones they could sit back and enjoy the spectacle. But international politics is never as simple as that . The good guys aren’t always good; and the bad guys aren’t always bad. Realpolitik requires unusual, temporary, alliances as governments try to juggle and reconcile conflicting interests. Think of the Second World War when Churchill and Roosevelt allied themselves with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler.
Churchill was not naive. For the previous 20 years he had been the most vociferous opponent of the Soviet Union and all it stood for. He was well aware that when the alliance with Stalin led to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany the Soviet Union would emerge far more powerful than before and control much of eastern Europe.
But history has not found fault in the judgment that the price was worth paying if Britain was to be freed from Nazi invasion and western Europe from Hitler’s domination. The balance of advantage and disadvantage of working with the Iranians is not nearly as difficult as it was with the Russians. Iran, unlike the Soviet Union, will never be a superpower or a global threat.
Its economy is in a mess and the future of the ayatollah’s regime is far from certain. If the co-operation of the Iranians in keeping Iraq together and defeating the jihadi terrorists would suit Tehran, the reality is that it would help the moderate Arab governments and the West even more.
An Islamic State straddling Iraq and Syria would destabilise the whole Arab world and be a base for exporting terrorism not just in the Middle East but throughout Europe and the United States. Furthermore, it would accelerate the radicalisation of a small but dangerous number of Muslims throughout the world. It is not inconceivable that Iran, one day, will be closer to the United States and to the West. That is not just because the Shah was a close ally. It is because Turkey, Iran and, of course, Israel are the real serious players in the Middle East. Egypt should be, Saudi Arabia and some others aspire to be but they have not had the political power or weight to enable them to succeed.
Iran could, one day, become a formidable, modern pluralist state. If it did it could be a considerable force for progress and stability. At present, however, it is a threat and the need for co-operation with the Iranians over the “caliphate” must not blind us to that fact.
On this occasion, my enemy’s enemy is not my friend. But to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s comment on Mikhail Gorbachev, we can, on the issue of jihadi terrorism, do business with them.
* Original Title: If we have to work with Iran to defeat the Islamic State, so be it
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