Is Washington bungling the opportunity for a U.S.-Iranian entente, thereby opening the door to Russian-Iranian leadership of the fight against Sunni extremism and the resultant consolidation of Iranian emergence on the Mideast stage as an anti-U.S. player?
By late September, Iran was working hard at the U.N. to reach a nuclear accord with the U.S. in order to open the door to Washington’s anti-ISIS coalition. Obama subsequently chose to adopt an insulting public stance, probably with a nervous eye on the highly vocal U.S. war party but conceivably as part of a back-room agreement with Rouhani that holding hands openly would embarrass them both. In any event, at the end of the month Rouhani embarrassed Obama in a much more substantive way by pointing out that the U.S. air campaign, minus a boots-on-the-ground commitment, was mostly “theater,” a point the U.S. war party would have appreciated. With pride and domestic political opponents in the way on both sides, the upshot was that despite the obvious utility to both the U.S. and Iran of cooperation against ISIS, the two sides once again bungled a great opportunity. Tehran has reportedly ordered its renown Quds Force, that worked so hard to prevent consolidation of the neo-con invasion of Iraq, “not to target American troops inside Iraq.” While this may be due to a desire for anti-ISIS cooperation, as argued by Eli Lake, it is explicable simply in long-range, strategic terms: the tenuous U.S. military position in Iraq today is hard to interpret as a threat to Iran, which got pretty much what it wanted with the U.S. withdrawal. So the door to a settlement of the long spat between Tehran and Washington remains open and the need for both sides to walk through that door together remains obvious, but it is not happening, much to the delight of both Salafi and Zionist extremists.
With Washington still unwilling to acknowledge Iran as a legitimate regional power and the ISIS threat still rising, the predictable seems to be happening: Russian-Iranian military cooperation against ISIS. Moscow, effectively frozen out of the Mideast since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sees military cooperation with Tehran as a way to gain access to the Mideast that the West can hardly criticize, a way to remind Washington that it must treat Russia as a world power (including even in Ukraine!), and a reasonable approach to dealing with ISIS. Tehran reminds Washington that it has other options, should Washington refuse to cooperate.
The reported Russian-Iranian cooperation includes the training of Iranians in the operation of MI-35m helicopters already being supplied to Iraq. Designed for both troop transport and combat, these helicopters would both help the anti-ISIS war effort and, with Iranian crews, consolidate Iran’s regional position. While Moscow has not confirmed these reports, it does acknowledge providing arms to both Iraq and Syria. Since Rouhani’s condescending “theater” remark a month ago, Obama’s military tactics may have become somewhat more effective, but the weakness of the U.S. position in the war with ISIS now raging across the center of the Mideast is opening the door to a shift in regional power relationships that could turn out very much to the disadvantage of the U.S.
From the U.S. perspective, it is not really so much the fact of Russian support for Iran’s emergence on the Mideast stage as the context: Russian-Iranian-U.S. cooperation against Salafi extremism would create a very different Mideast from Russian-Iranian victory over ISIS in defiance of a marginalized and ineffective U.S.
To defend its interests in the Mideast effectively, the U.S. of course needs numerous things, e.g., the wisdom to identify its real interests, but above all it needs freedom of movement, something it can only have to the degree that it can establish working relationships with a range of regional actors. To the degree that Russia becomes Iran’s patron against the U.S., the U.S. will be cornered in a most likely subordinate relationship with the Israeli and Saudi right and will thus find itself frequently working against its own long-term interests. The current crack in the edifice of Turkish-U.S. strategic relations has already undermined the potential for effective U.S. Mideast policy.
The urgency for the U.S. of finding an effective Mideast policy is further raised by the slow but ominous decline in Lebanese stability. Fighting in the narrow inhabited back streets of Tripoli on Oct. 25 with helicopters and armored vehicles that left 14 dead has already imperiled the safety of civilians and can only inflame sectarian tensions. With the Lebanese Army taking increasingly violent steps against ISIS-provoked violence, a return to Lebanese civil war, the apparent aim of Sunni radicals, is becoming increasingly likely and should be viewed by Washington strategists as a near-term possibility at least as serious as the fate of Kobani. Lebanon once was part of Syria, and Syrian refugees now constitute an astonishing one-third of the Lebanese population.
A month ago it was not hard to imagine a U.S.-Turkish-Iranian entente against ISIS, with mutual military interests propped up by mutual economic interests and the U.S. benefiting over the long term by seeing moderate Turkey pull Iran in a moderate direction. However, U.S. unwillingness to accept Iran’s emergence as an independent regional power, Turkish hostility to full citizenship for Kurds and perhaps the emergence of a Kurdish state, and Iranian distrust of the U.S. after three decades of hostility combined to scuttle that ship before it was launched. A very different alternative is now emerging in which Russia leads, Turkey sulks, and the U.S. finds itself marginalized. Washington needs to consider this possibility before it becomes reality.
Should Lebanon collapse into civil war in the context of a Russian-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian military alliance (excluding the U.S.) as the only answer to ISIS, both Saudi and Israeli interference further destabilizing the Mideast would only be expected, with the resulting debacle constituting a genuine nightmare for U.S. national interests.