By Riad Kahwaji*
Despite extensive efforts by the Obama administration to assure its Arab allies that their long-term strategic partnership will remain strong and will not be affected by the signing of a nuclear deal with Iran, a very skeptical mood prevails in the traditionally pro-Western Arab capitals. “The U.S. has sold us to Iran and it is now executing an agenda aimed at helping Tehran assert its influence in the region,” said one Arab official. The official reiterated views expressed by many of his counterparts in the region. “Look how Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are spearheading the Iraqi army attack against Tikrit under the eyes of the Americans who have troops deployed in the country and are providing air cover to forces advancing against Daesh,” he added. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria and is today under attack by an International and Arab Alliance providing air power to the Iraqi forces.
Fears expressed earlier by the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, that the Iranian involvement in the fighting in Iraq could turn the war on terrorism into a sectarian war is proving truer by the day. Media reports out of Tikrit are talking about dozens of billboards and banners of Iranian leaders like Ayatullah Khoumaini and Ali Khaminei were put up at all the main gates of Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold. The IRGC has reportedly even deployed Iranian-made multiple rocket launchers around the city. An Iraqi Shiite Memeber of Parliament Ahmed Al Assadi told the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on March 18 that Iran was providing the Iraqi Shiite militias with all the weapons they need, which is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that bar Iran from exporting arms. There are growing fears of atrocities and massacres that could be committed by the Shiite militias operating under the IRGC against the Sunni residents of Tikrit. The Iraqi House Speaker and other members of Parliament have repeatedly called over the past few weeks for independent investigations into reported massacres and sectarian cleansing committed by the Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Sunni towns and villages that were occupied by ISIS. Failure of the international community to investigate these reported acts of genocide and the continued role of the PMU alongside the IRGC are making the United States look complicit with Iran in a war against the Arabs in a conflict that is quickly turning into a large-scale sectarian war.
Iran is seen by the Arab Gulf States to be implementing a well-planned move to encircle them from the north and the south. While the IRGC are leading the offensive against ISIS in the north, Iran has unleashed its allies in Yemen, the Houthis, to take over the country and extend Tehran’s influence all the way to the Red Sea. “The U.S. has not done anything more than simple, useless condemnations against the Iranian-backed Houthis in their occupation of most of the country,” an Arab Gulf official said. He added that if the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) did not react quickly two years ago against Bahraini Iranian-backed activists, “Bahrain could have also fallen under Tehran’s control with American consent.”
America’s ambiguous policy in Syria has all but given more ammunition to the Arab skeptics who accuse the U.S. of conspiring with Iran. The recent statement by Secretary of State John Kerry on the inevitable need to hold talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad to end the Syrian conflict has greatly damaged the U.S. image and reputation. Many Arab officials and media outlets took turns in condemning Kerry’s statement and accusing Washington of using the Syrian issue as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with Iran. Kerry’s statement came a day before his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister to discuss the anticipated nuclear deal.
Many Arab officials appear to have lost hope in President Barack Obama’s administration changing course on Iran. They believe Washington is using the war on ISIS as a means to bring Iran closer to the West by showing that they have a common enemy called “Sunni extremist groups.” Arab analysts and commentators are raising a lot of questions about the way thousands of Al-Qaeda members were let out of jails in Iraq (in 2013) and Syria (in 2011) and allowed to establish ISIS and then Syrian and Iraqi troops pulled out of vast areas (in Raqa and several Iraqi provinces in May-June 2014) that allowed the formation of ISIS state. “The main beneficiaries from the rise of ISIS were Iran and the Syrian regime because the war on the group helped Iran improve its relations with Washington and helped the Syrian regime undermine the revolution and consolidate its place in a future settlement to the Syrian conflict,” the Arab official said, echoing similar views expressed by some Arab media outlets.
The secret letter sent last year from Obama to Khamenie that was reported in November 2014 by the Wall Street Journal presented a clear view of Washington’s policy towards Iran: Exchange Iranian nuclear concessions for U.S. assistance to Iran in the war on terrorism (ISIS). What Iran wants through the current wars on Sunni extremist groups like ISIS is to create a geographic depth and areas of influence for itself in the Arab world. The events in Iraq, Syria and Yemen indicate that Iran is on a massive offensive under the cover of a U.S.-led war on terrorism to gain strategic depth that has extended its areas of control all the way to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This is a conclusion shared by several Arab officials. “We have no choice but to watch Washington hand over the region to Iran,” one official said. “It will be a very long 21 months before a new U.S. administration is in place and hopefully it will do something to stop this chaos that if unchecked will only lead to a very radicalized and angry Sunni world of over one billion people,” he added.
Intensified anti-American sentiments which are now shared by traditional allies of the U.S. will simplify ISIS and Al Qaeda efforts in exporting their ideologies via cyberspace and new media. This will subsequently place U.S. interests in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world in extreme danger over the next few years. Washington must immediately put an end to Iran’s expansionist scheme in the region and prevent at all cost the current war on terrorism from sliding into an all-out sectarian war. The current international alliance fighting ISIS is on the verge of losing its Arab component, which will complicate the whole scene and only serve fundamentalist powers, Sunni and Shiite alike. A deal with Iran must increase stability regionally and internationally and not set the stage for a much more serious conflict at a global scale.
*Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA