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Confronting Terrorism and Instability in the Middle East: The Common National Interests of Iran and the United States

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OBAMA ROUHANI
AP

The terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over several Iraqi cities, including Mosul, the country's second most important city, and has been moving toward Baghdad, Iraq's capital. Unfortunately, most people pay little attention to the root causes of terrorism in the Middle East. To understand why ISIS has been able to accomplish what it has, many factors must be taken into consideration:

  1. The partition of the Middle East along ethnic and religious lines by colonial powers in the early years of the 20th century.
  2. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, which gave rise to the still-unresolved Palestine problem, and Israel's occupation of the West Bank, which many believe may lead to an apartheid state. I believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of all the problems in that region.
  3. Western powers' support for corrupt, dictatorial secular regimes, paving the way for Islamist groups as the only alternative available to the people.
  4. The creation of the Afghan mujahedeen by the United States and its regional allies, namely Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which, after the Cold War, gave rise to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The creators are now harvesting the fruits of their efforts.
  5. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States, the intervention of the U.S. and NATO in Libya, and Western powers' financial and military backing of the Syrian opposition, which transformed a struggle between democratic groups and the secular dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad into a sectarian war against democracy and development.
  6. The existence of different interpretations of Islamic teachings. Some consider the Quran to be a manifesto for peace, while others interpret it as an order for war, making God the eternally bloodthirsty commander-in-chief of an eternal war. The United Nations has reported that a number of civilians and military personnel have been executed by ISIS. Human Rights Watch has expressed concerned over war crimes committed by ISIS. Both the UN and HRW have repeatedly declared that Islamist terrorists have committed war crimes in Syria. Another report indicates that 1,700 civilians have been murdered by ISIS, that an Iraqi officer has been beheaded, and that ISIS has bragged about using the head as a "soccer ball." UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has declared the executions by ISIS to be "war crimes."
  7. The transformation of the Arab Spring into a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis by dictatorial regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in order to escape the establishment of democratic regimes and respect for human rights in those nations.
  8. The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ISIS war in Iraq is essentially a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the region, as the latter is opposed to empowering the Shiites. For example, even though 70 percent of the population of Bahrain is Shiite, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in that country to prevent the Arab Spring from succeeding there. There is widespread discrimination against Shiites in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and the latter's dictatorial regime is also opposed to elected Shiite-but-secular government in Baghdad, because it is Iran's ally. The fact that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is incompetent, or the fact that Maliki himself is a divisive figure, does not imply that the democratic elections in Iraq should be ignored. The ridiculous aspect of this is that Saudi Arabia, a reactionary, dictatorial regime, is calling for new elections in Iraq, and this is while, as Robert Fisk of the Independent argued, the sectarian war in the Middle East and the extremist Sunni groups are all funded by Saudi Arabia.

There is no doubt that the most important factor in the creation of the present bloody chaos in Iraq is that country's invasion by the U.S. and Britain in 2003. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton, a hawk in U.S. foreign policy, admits that although she acted with good intentions when she supported the 2002 Senate resolution authorizing the war in Iraq, she now believes that she committed a grave mistake. In fact, the U.S. knew exactly what would happen if it invaded Iraq. As early as 1994, Dick Cheney had predicted:

Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim, fought over for eight years. In the north you've got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It's a quagmire.

As Sen. Rand Paul (R - Kentucky) put it:

There is chaos in the Middle East, and I think that's because we created a vacuum. Before the Iraq War, I think there was something of a standoff between Sunni and Shiite for maybe 1,000 years, off and on. Now we have a chaotic situation; we have a vacuum. And I think one of the reasons why ISIS has been emboldened is because we've been arming their allies. We have been allied with ISIS in Syria.

Another grave mistake by the U.S. was its dissolution of the Iraqi army. Iraq currently has a military of only a little over 270,000 personnel, practically without any air force. Its army has only 336 old tanks and 100 helicopters. The U.S. has yet to deliver the F-16 fighters that it has sold to Iraq. And Peter Bergen, a director at the New American Foundation, has called Iraq "one of George W. Bush's most toxic legacies."

But perhaps the most unfortunate comment was made by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a comment that clearly demonstrates U.S. officials' attitude toward that region. Gates claimed that the countries of the Middle East and North Africa can be held together only by authoritarian regimes; otherwise they would disintegrate, he says.

The U.S. response to the 2013 military coup in Egypt that toppled the democratically elected regime of President Mohamed Morsi is a manifestation of Gates' attitude. The U.S. has not taken any significant action against the regime of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was just "elected" as president. The Egyptian military, which has ruled that nation since 1952, has pushed Egypt back to the Hosni Mubarak era in order to preserve its economic and political power and privileges. It murdered thousands of people last year in the aftermath of the coup, which Human Rights Watch called "the worst crime in Egypt's contemporary history."

Libya is in complete chaos, and General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, who staged a coup in May, claims, like General Sisi in Egypt, that he is acting to save his country. The U.S. response is another manifestation of Gates' declaration. General Haftar is believed by many to have close relations with the CIA.

Syria has practically been partitioned into three regions, controlled by the Kurds, the Assad government, and the rebels, respectively.

And ISIS, in collaboration with Saddam Hussein's supporters, is taking control of the Sunni region in Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurds have set up their own quasi-state, have their own army of 100,000 troops, and have been exporting oil from the region under their control. In fact, they have begun selling oil to Israel. After the recent ISIS attacks, the oil-rich Kirkuk region was taken over by the Kurds. After the ISIS offensive, the Kurdish forces entered three Iraqi provinces that are not part of the Kurdish area. According to Article 140 of Iraq's Constitution, drafted during the U.S. occupation of that country, if any region outside Iraqi Kurdistan wishes to join it, it has to be through a referendum. Even if the current war ends, Kurdish forces will not easily leave the territory that they have just occupied. In fact, Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan, told the BBC that it would be very hard for Iraq to return to the situation that existed before the Sunni militants took control of Mosul. The New York Times reported on June 19 that the longtime dream of the Kurds is materializing, given the chaos in Iraq. It quoted a Kurdish military officer saying that since the takeover of Mosul by ISIS, "a new era, a new situation" has begun for the Kurds.

The formation of "Greater Kurdistan," consisting of the Kurdish regions in Iraq, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, is an old plan and is supported by Israel. In the 1970s Israel, together with the regime of the shah of Iran, helped the Iraqi Kurds. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Israel continued working with Iraqi Kurds. Its goal has been twofold. One is supporting the secessionist forces among Iranian Kurds, while the second goal is having intelligence outposts in Iraqi Kurdistan to monitor Iran.

On June 20, in an interview with MSNBC, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, attributed the present chaos in Iraq to the U.S. invasion of that nation in 2003 and declared that the day the U.S. began its invasion was the day Iraq's territorial integrity was forgotten, and that Iraq has practically been partitioned into three regions: Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish. On the same program Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the U.S. should not corner itself by trying to support Iraq's territorial integrity or the Maliki government. According to Haass, the U.S. has certain interests in that region that it should pursue, and he said that events on the ground have surpassed the question of Iraq's territorial integrity. This notion seems to have become so prevalent that in its latest issue, Time declared the end of Iraq, believing that it will disintegrate into Kurdistan, Shiitistan, and Sunnistan.

And ISIS has lofty plans for its own "state," which would include Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, with Jordan being the next target. To materialize such illusions, ISIS may wage some of the bloodiest wars in the region if it is not stopped.

If the United States opposes the disintegration of the Middle East into small, unstable "states," if it is opposed to terrorism, and if it wishes to end chaos, bloodshed and instability in the Middle East, it has to work with Iran. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), an ardent foe of Iran, has proposed working with Iran to stem the tide of ISIS in Iraq.

Both countries have common interests in the region. The current war in Iraq threatens the national security of both nations. Of course, neither country should send troops to Iraq, but they can still work together to address the present grave danger. The U.S. is well aware that the financing of the Islamist extremists comes from the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf, its allies. It must exert pressure on them to stop the flow of money to the extremists.

The Middle East has been turned into a region of several failed or almost-failed states, and if the United States and Iran do not work together constructively, terrorism and instability will continue there for years to come. Confronting terrorism requires serious international cooperation, in particular the U.S. and Iran working together. The U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to what its allies in the Persian Gulf are doing and then be surprised by terrorist attacks like the September 11 attacks. The terrorists are from the nations that are supposedly the U.S.'s allies, not from Iran.

The Middle East needs a grand plan that guarantees the national security of all its countries. Free elections must be the basis for any group to come to power, and there must be no discrimination against anyone, regardless of their ethnic or religious origin. Partition of the region along ethnic or religious lines will lead to more bloodshed. This was the grave mistake that the colonial powers of France, Britain and Italy made at the beginning of the 20th century, and through its interventions in the Middle East, the U.S. has exacerbated the negative results of that historical mistake, as has the Islamic Republic of Iran by supporting the Shiite groups. The Middle East needs true peace that recognizes everyone's rights, a secular peace that is based on humanity and human rights, not ethnic and religious considerations. In addition, the present borders must be guaranteed by the UN. The Palestinian people must have their own viable state, and the region must be cleansed of any weapons of mass destruction.

If these are achieved, then Robert Gates will be proven wrong, and the Middle East will experience peace and democracy.

This blog post was translated by Ali N. Babaei.