If you want the measure of how American policy has clumsily tailed the shifting system of alliances in the Middle East, look no further than the op-ed titled “Iraq Must Not Come Apart,” published in the New York Times by Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Once an advocate of a federal Iraq, Gelb has now changed his mind. Nothing wrong with that, except that in doing so, Gelb, one of the most influential foreign policy thinkers in America today, has arrived at a most troubling position.
America’s priority, Gelb says, is to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the barbaric jihadi organization that now controls a vast swathe of Syrian and Iraqi territory, where it has declared a caliphate ruled by its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
No serious person would dispute that ISIS, with its practice of beheading its opponents, constitutes a serious threat. In his Ramadan message to the “Umma”—the global community of Muslims—al Baghdadi called on the “soldiers of the Islamic state” to “fight, fight” against “the treacherous rulers” in the region who faithfully serve foreign “crusaders,” “atheists,” and, of course, the ultimate controlling power, “the jews” (sic).
The problem is Gelb’s prescription for countering ISIS. America, he argues, should ally itself with Iran’s ruling mullahs and the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to achieve this goal. The imperative of defeating the Sunni jihadis overrides any other considerations.
In one way, this is an extraordinary conclusion to reach. It rests on the assumption that Iran can be trusted and that the sanctions currently imposed upon Tehran will rein in the mullahs should they become, in Gelb’s phrase, “too grabby.” There is no acknowledgement that such a strategy requires ignoring Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its long history of supporting terrorism. And it demands that the same Obama administration that last year fiercely denounced Syria’s use of chemical weapons, before backing down from the threat of military action, now throw its lot in with Assad, the chief executioner!
But in another way, Gelb is merely describing a policy that is already in place—even if he himself is reluctant to admit that. As Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, in both an interview with me as well as in an essay for Mosaic magazine, the Obama administration has effectively sided with Iran in terms of the future directions of Syria and Iraq. What this overlooks, Doran says, is the fact that Syria will remain a magnet for Sunni jihadis as long as Iranian-based Assad remains in power.
An alliance with Shi’a Islamists and their regional partners would take the United States to a place far worse—if you can imagine that—than where we are now.
It’s a big mistake to think that because Iran is aligned with Nouri al Maliki, the sectarian Shi’a prime minister of Iraq, it has closed the doors to ISIS. A recent report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank, noted that Iran has had close links with the Sunni Islamists of Al Qaeda, which suggests it is not as implacably opposed to ISIS as western analysts believe. Moreover, Assad actually released key ISIS operatives from his prisons, another indication that Iran’s alliance system does not preclude cooperation with Sunni Islamists.
While some in Washington may dream of an outcome in which ISIS takes a battering as bilateral relations with the Iranians improve, it’s far more likely that Islamists of both the Shi’a and Sunni variants will come out much stronger, to the detriment of America’s traditional allies like Jordan and Israel.
Which brings me to the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas. The abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers was an appalling reminder of just how vicious Hamas is. What that gory episode doesn’t tell us, however, is where Hamas sits in the emerging Middle Eastern order.
As the Syrian civil war intensified, Hamas shifted away from Iran, its traditional sponsor. Now, however, the wind is blowing the Hamas leadership back in the direction of Tehran.
In March, as the Palestinian journalist Adnan Abu Mer reported, Iran resumed financial aid to Hamas suspended in 2012. Ali Larijani, a hardliner who heads up Iran’s Shura Council, subsequently declared that “our relationship with Hamas is good and has returned to what it was.” Recently, when Israeli jets bombed a range of Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas representative in Tehran, Khalid al-Qaddoumi, appealed for further Iranian assistance on the grounds that “the situation of Palestine is not under the focus of political circles and is no longer a priority for the region and the world’s media.” (I’m not sure either which “media” Qaddoumi is referring to.) And when Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal met with senior Iranian officials in Qatar, he praised Tehran for supporting the “axis of resistance”—this on the eve of the announcement of a Palestinian unity government involving Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement.
The notion, then, that Iran can be a friend to western interests in the Middle East is catastrophically misguided. It is far better to acknowledge the sad reality that we are running out of regional allies, and are therefore better off sticking with the partners we have, rather than finding new ones who will delight in betraying us the first chance they get.