By Ramzy Baroud
When the United States government declared its war on Afghanistan in October 2001, thus taking the first step in its so-called “war on terror,” following the devastating attacks of Sept. 11 earlier that year, Iran jumped on board.
Then Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, dubbed a reformist, provided substantial assistance in the US effort aimed at defeating the Taleban, an ardent enemy of Iran and Afghan Shia. Indeed, the Taleban’s aggressive policies included an anti-Shiite drive, which resulted in a massive refugee problem. Tens of thousands of Afghan Shiites sought refuge in Iran.
Khatami’s “friendly” gesture toward the anti-terror crusade lead by George W. Bush was not by any means an Iranian departure from a supposed policy of non-intervention in the region. Iran is a country with porous borders, political and strategic interests, serious and legitimate fears, but also unquestionable ambitions.
Iran’s intervention in Afghanistan never ceased since then, and is likely to continue, especially following the US withdrawal, whenever it takes place. Iran’s earlier role in Afghanistan ranged from the arrest of Al-Qaeda suspects, sought by Washington, to training Afghan soldiers, to direct intervention in the country’s politics so as to ensure that the country’s politics are aligned to meet Iranian expectations.
None of this should come as a surprise. Iran has been under massive scrutiny since the Iranian revolution in 1979. But regardless of the thinking behind Iran’s current regional ambitions, one cannot pretend that Iran is an innocent force in the Middle East, solely aimed at self-preservation.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran immediately moved to rearrange the country’s politics to suit its interests. It poured massive funds and a limitless arsenal to aid its allies, Shiite political parties and notorious militias. Expectedly, Iran wanted to ensure that the American debacle in Iraq deepens, so Tehran doesn’t become the next US war destination. To do so, however, Iran, jointly, although indirectly with the Americans, savaged the once strongest Arab country.
The Shiite government and its numerous militias killed, butchered, abused and humiliated Sunnis, especially tribes, which were seen as particularity influential following the destruction of the Baath regime and other centers of supposed Sunni seats of power.
That reductionist understanding of Iraqi society was both championed by Washington and Tehran. The horrible consequences of that understanding raised an unprecedented animosity toward Iran throughout much of the region. However, the key role played by Hezbollah, a mainly Shiite party and fighting force, in ending the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 2000, and driving the Israelis out once more in 2006, balanced out the damage inflicted by Iran’s destructive role in Iraq. Hezbollah’s ability to keep Israel at bay was more than enough to challenge the sectarian argument.
Things changed however with the arrival of the so-called Arab Spring. Iran and its regional enemies perceived the upheaval in the Arab world as a serious threat. It was a great game par excellence, which is now on full display in Yemen, and of course, Syria and elsewhere.
While one may argue that ultimately the ongoing wars in the Middle East are not rooted in any sectarian tendencies, but the outcome of a political power play that span decades, there is no denial that the sectarian component of the war is now a defining one.
During the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), the US stood on the side of Iraq, providing logistical and military support. Iran has no trust of the US or respect for its foreign policy. But Tehran also understands that the US, despite its waning influence, will remain an important party in the Middle East, and therefore has tailored its policies with that understanding in mind. Iran cooperates with the US when its suits both parties interests, as they did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) or Daesh.
From Tehran’s viewpoint, its regional expansion can be partly seen as a defense mechanism: A powerful and influential Iran would decrease the chances of a US-Israeli aggression. Just recently, the European Union top diplomat called on Iran to “play a major, major but positive, role on Syria in particular, to encourage the regime to … (support) a Syrian-led transition.”
For Iran, such statements are political leverage, which to a degree, indicate the success of its strategy in Syria, one that involved major military support of the Assad government, and direct military intervention. It’s irrefutable that Iran’s role in Syria has been following the same sectarian lines that it followed, and continues to adhere to in Iraq. Iran’s responsibility in the rise of Sunni militarism in the first place must also not be denied.
While Iran is sustaining several fronts in its current role in the Middle East great game, it hopes to translate its palpable regional ascendency into political capital, one that the Iranian government wants to translate to a final nuclear deal before June 30. That deal could spare Iran further conflict with the West, or at least lessen the fervor of war championed by rightwing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.
Current media and political discourses attempting to rationalize the multiple conflicts in the Middle East region tend to invest in one singular reading, which tends to demonize one party and completely spare others. While the role of regional actors that lead to the formation of Daesh is known and openly discussed, Iran cannot be spared the blame.
Iran is part and parcel of ongoing conflicts, has contributed to some, reacted to others; it labored to defeat US ambitions, but also cooperated with Washington when their interests intersected. It is as sectarian as the rest, and abashedly so.