While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the potential deal between the P5+1 and Iran concerning the latter nuclear program[i], events that have been unfolding since February 2015 within the Near East and Iraqi areas are likely to have an equally deep and long-lasting effect on the region’s balance of power[ii]. Since the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the war prosecuted by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and the Houthi power grab in Yemen in 2014, the Shiite-Sunni power play in the Middle East has reached new levels.
However, it may be decisions taken in Washington DC that will come to be regarded as the game changing factor in the decade old chess game between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Iran. Indeed, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to push the idea that “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy”[iii] during his latest address at the United States’ congress, it appears that the administration of President Barack Obama is less inclined to perceive the Iranian regime and its regional proxies as enemies. In fact, several branches of the US administrative authorities are taking indirect steps that are increasingly making of Iran a covert partner rather than an overt adversary. Three events demonstrate this evolution of the relations between Washington and Teheran based on the assumption that the core threat to US interests in the Middle East is generated and propagated by militant Sunni extremist threat.
As the Syrian conflict entered its fifth year, Secretary of State John Kerry caused a media frenzy by stating on March 15th [iv] that the US recognized the necessity to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in international negotiations to find a political solution to the war. Kerry’s assertions underscored the evolving US policy toward Syria as the current administration admits that, given the situation on the ground, initial objectives of a regime change may be superseded by the need to curtail extremist groups based in Syria, groups that could wage attacks against the United States or its allies. This changing position on the Syrian conflict is likely to reinforce Teheran’s strategic gamble consisting of putting its military and political chips on the side of the Syrian president and further draw apart the US and Sunni powers in the region that have no interest in having a legitimized al-Assad remain in power. As the US gradually moves toward accepting a potential role played by al-Assad to end the war, the strategic divergence between Teheran and Washington gradually diminishes as both parties identify the threat posed by Syrian and international Sunni extremist as a core issue borne out of the conflict.
The second aspect of the changing relation between the two states is found in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and more precisely in the Tikrit area. In early February 2015[v], US officials and Washington based Middle East experts raised concerns over the growing role played by Iran and its proxies in the pro-government drive against IS north of Baghdad. These statements over the assertiveness of Iranian forces in the region are in line with the initial decision taken by the US and Teheran, asserting not to directly cooperate within the international coalition that began targeting IS in Iraq in August 2014. However, it is with the support of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) led by General Qasem Soleimani[vi] that the Iraqi government troops and Shiite-led Popular Mobilization units are currently achieving strategic successes in the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit. The situation in the birthplace of Saddam Hussein exemplifies the underlying shift in US policy in regards to Iran’s role in Iraq. While statements are made by both administration officials and US-based analysts concerning the need to curtail the Islamic Republic’s influence in Iraq, the US Air Force carried out airstrikes against IS positions in the Tikrit area providing indirect support to Iranian troops and proxies. This best serves to underline the set of priorities of the US administration: eradicate IS even if this means providing the opportunity space for Iranian influence to proliferate. While not a direct US foreign policy choice, the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq is a by-product of decisions taken by the White House in its current fight against IS.
The third and last aspect of the evolving relation comes from a shift in the US intelligence community assessment of the global terrorist threat, released on February 26th [vii]. For the first time since 2010, the document did not specifically point out Iran and Hezbollah in its terrorist section as respectively a state and a non-state actor posing a direct and growing terrorist threat to US interests. This should not be interpreted as a general re-assessment of the Iranian threat as the document elaborates on the threat posed by the Islamic Republic in several other fields such as cyber security and WMD proliferation. However, the choice of not mentioning the two actors in the terrorist section and to focus primarily on the threat posed by Sunni extremist groups marks an evolution in strategic thinking. In the 2014[viii] version of the aforementioned document Iran and Hezbollah were singled-out as forces of nuisance and part of the axis fighting against Israel and supporting al-Assad. The message of the 2015 assessment is that Iranian operations in Syria and Iraq are vastly aimed at degrading an enemy of the US thus limiting the risk they directly pose to Washington’s interests. This evolution weakens Prime Minister Netanyahu’s previously mentioned statement concerning the relation between enemies.
The fight against IS is likely to be a long lasting endeavor that is and will stretch beyond the Iraqi and Syrian borders and the potential deal over the Iranian nuclear program is not going to solve deep rooted tensions between Washington and Teheran. However, the current evolution of the relations between the two countries in light of their relatively shared interests in the Near East and Iraq are expected to have strong effects on the positioning of US partners in the region. As Prime Minister Netanyahu is anticipated to form a new right-wing coalition government following his recent electoral success[ix], his domestic political promises are likely to increasingly clash with US political rapprochement with Teheran. It does point toward a more independent Israeli defense policy. This may come at odds with Washington, more than it did in the past decades, and this is because of a growing mistrust among the Israeli ruling class about Washington’s long-term goals in the region.
A similar assessment can be provided for the Saudi royal family that sees in the Iranian agenda a direct threat to its internal stability. The question that will need to be answered in the coming months regards the role Riyadh may choose to adopt in light of potential political negotiations in Syria and the situation of the Sunni community in Iraq. While not overtly challenging US initiatives, it is increasingly likely that the Saudi leadership will try to act as a spoiler in regard to any advance that would solidify Iran’s position in the region. Thus, while Iranian operations in Syria and Iraq may to some extent serve the US goals of degrading and ultimately defeating IS, the ongoing evolving relations between the two nations is likely to generate a new set of political and strategic issues that may affect the US position in the region after the 2016 elections.
[i] Reuters, “Iran, U.S. line up technical options as push for deal intensifies”, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/17/us-iran-nuclear-usa-idUSKBN0MD0VF20150317
[ii] Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg, “Mideast’s Balance of Power Tips Toward Iran”, March 16th 2015, http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-03-16/mideast-s-balance-of-power-tips-toward-iran
[iii] Real Clear Politics Video, “Netanyahu on ISIS & Iran: The Enemy of Your Enemy is Your Enemy”, March 3rd 2015, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/03/03/netanyahu_on_isis__iran_the_enemy_of_your_enemy_is_your_enemy.html
[iv] Al Jazeera, “ Kerry Says US Willing to Negotiate with Syria’s Assad “, March 16th 2015
[v] Barbara Slavin, Al Monitor, « Shiite Militias mixed blessing in Iraq, Syria » February 9th 2015 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/shiite-militias-mixed-blessing-iraq-syria.html#
[vi] BBC, « Tikrit : Iran Key in Fight to Wrest City from IS », March 3rd 2015 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31705600
[vii] James R. Clapper, « Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community », Senate Armed Services Committee, February 26th 2015 http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Unclassified_2015_ATA_SFR_-_SASC_FINAL.pdf
[viii] James R. Cappler, « Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community », Senate Armed Services Committee,” January 29th 2014, http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Intelligence%20Reports/2014%20WWTA%20%20SFR_SSCI_29_Jan.pdf
[ix] Reuters, “Netanyahu Claims Victory in Israel Election After Hard Right Shift”, March 17th 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/17/us-israel-election-idUSKBN0MC2G620150317
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