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Region | Iraqi, Syrian Developments Threaten Iran's Geopolitical Sway

by PAUL MUTTER

25 Jul 2012 21:11Comments
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Gains that followed Saddam Hussein's overthrow at risk of being reversed.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.

[ analysis ] On Monday, a series of bombings and shootings were directed at both military and civilian targets across Iraq; reportedly carried out by al-Qaeda affiliates, they killed at least a hundred Iraqis and wounded several hundred more. The day before, according to Syrian activists cited by Foreign Policy, the army had "regained control of two districts of Damascus..., Mezzeh and Barzeh, and executed dozens of people suspected of aiding the opposition."

With Iraq's parliament still deeply divided over Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's recent actions and the Syrian regime badly shaken by the assassination of several top officials in Damascus close to President Bashar al-Assad, Iran finds itself in a complex diplomatic situation for which it has few effective tools. Tehran fears Syria's collapse above all else -- believing that Assad's end will serve as a springboard for an attack on Iran by the United States and Israel -- but it must also contend with problems in Iraq that would undermine all it worked for from the 1980s on against Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime.

The bloody attacks in Iraq for which representatives of the "Islamic State of Iraq" -- the militant umbrella group that al-Qaeda reportedly dominates -- tend to claim responsibility often target sites of religious and political significance to Shia Iraqis. They also target government outposts, civil servants, utilities infrastructure and, most devastatingly for the civilian population, marketplaces -- especially on the eve of Shia holidays or meetings among Iraqi parliamentarians trying to broker a compromise between the Shia prime minister and the predominantly Sunni/secularist opposition parties. Although originally dominated by foreign jihadists, the Islamic State of Iraq is now thought by the U.S. military to have shrunk in numbers and consist mainly of Sunni Iraqis looking to spoil national reconciliation efforts.

Although al-Qaeda in Iraq claims association with the core al-Qaeda group in Pakistan and its "jihad" against the West, its efforts are mainly targeted against the Iraqi state. As Reuters' William Maclean noted earlier this month, "Some of the al Qaeda affiliates have joined forces with other paramilitary groups whose separatist, sectarian or economic interests overlap with theirs."

The inability of the Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian governments to address these problems is complicating the situation for all of them. According to risk analysts interviewed by Business Monitor International, "It is believed that 60-80% of violence in Iraq is perpetrated by criminal groups, including robbery and kidnappings of middle- to upper-class Iraqis." Criminality and corruption in Iraq greatly aid and abet the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq. There are intimations that many of these terrorist bombings in marketplaces and houses of worship are being carried out with the complicity of the security forces, either in the form of corrupt al-Qaeda sympathizers or, most controversially, Shia hardliners.

The al-Qaeda affiliates also benefit from arms smuggling along the border, which has reversed, with guns being smuggled back into Syria since 2011. An Iraqi reporter offered the following account of the trade in March:

Mohammed indicates to me what the various smugglers are carrying. Some are carrying cigarette boxes, others are bringing cartons of alcohol that they get from the Syrian side. Livestock also comes across the border. And, he adds, all of those things are cheap in Syria compared to Mosul, where a lot of these black market goods end up being sold.

Smuggling has become a major industry in small border villages such as the ones where Hamid and his colleagues in crime live. And it seems that the Iraqi authorities know this. Recently smuggling weapons into Syria has become particularly profitable. As Abdul-Rahim al-Shammari, head of the provincial council's security committee, says: "the smuggling of arms is increasingly profitable and it's a growing business. Over the last few months the prices for guns have doubled, and then re-doubled."

As this trade builds, a growing number of Syrian and U.S. voices are calling for more direct military assistance to the rebels.

Iraqi officials deny that arms smuggling is widespread, though they themselves had filed official protests with the Syrian government over the alleged transfer of Syrian arms into Iraq along the same routes in the 2000s. Iran's state-run Press TV has responded to this news by asserting that Israel is orchestrating all of the arms sales. The Islamic State of Iraq has claimed that it is not at all involved in these transfers, though other media statements attributed to its members contradict that assertion. Nir Rosen, who reported extensively in the region during the initial months of the Syrian Civil War, noted that Sunni jihadist networks were abuzz with propaganda directing them to fight a "historic battle" in Syria, though the actual level of jihadist infiltration may be overstated.

Despite its earlier interest in seeing Iraqi proxies fight the United States and each other, Iran now faces a losing situation on both sides of the border. Destabilization of Iraq by the freer movement of guns and money to and from Syria undermines the Maliki government Tehran does not want to see collapse. And destabilization of Syria by more radical, predominantly Sunni groups invites Western and Saudi intervention -- which means there will be fewer chances of the militarily victorious opposition accommodating the present regime. But as Farideh Farhi argues, Iran does not have a "Syria strategy": "In the coming months expect Iran's response to be more reactive than proactive despite proclamations and posturing that suggest otherwise," she writes, noting that the Iranian response has essentially echoed the Russian line.

In contrast to its distanced and delayed response to the Syrian crisis, Tehran has been more proactive in using diplomacy to try to preserve Maliki's position. The regime is said to be putting pressure on both Muqtada al-Sadr, the former Shia militia leader backed by Tehran who entered the government in 2010, and the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, to not "give up" on Maliki -- even though Talabani sought a vote of no confidence against the Iraqi PM. According to the Associated Press, a public fatwa issued in June that was aimed at barring Shia ties to "secular [Iraqi] politicians" was meant to stiffen Sadr's resolve to remain in the coalition with Maliki despite the two men's distaste for one another and Sadr's repeated threats to quit the coalition. Although Maliki is far more beholden to the United States than Sadr is, Tehran is understood to have decided by 2010 that courting Maliki and pressing Sadr to follow suit was the best way to maintain its influence in Baghdad.

Shortly before Sadr's visit to Tehran, Fars News Agency reported that the Iraqi military had cornered a certain "Ali Hoseynnezhad," who then "confessed" that the militant Iranian anti-regime group MKO had ordered its operatives to work alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq and Ba'athist revanchists to overthrow Maliki. Though the account cannot be verified -- this "Ali Hoseynnezhad" appears only in the pro-government account, despite being described by Fars as one of Masoud Rajavi's longtime aides -- it can hardly comfort MKO's American backers, who regard it as a legitimate opposition movement and source of intelligence on Iran's (alleged) nuclear weapons program. Indeed, when Iraqi security forces forced their way into Camp Ashraf, the group's main base in northern Iraq, in 2009 and 2011, fighting broke out, with each party claiming that the other had initiated the violence.

With respect to Syria, the Iraqi government is conflicted. In terms of arms smuggling, there is an Iranian-Iraqi consensus. Though official collusion at local and regional levels makes the arm trade possible, at the same time, the Wall Street Journal reports that some Sunni tribes on the border do not wish to revive the cross-border links that helped sectarian violence tear Iraq apart after 2003. Baghdad has no interest in arming the "Free Syrian Army," and this squares away with Iranian interests as well. If Western aid is to reach the rebels, it will not do so through Iraq; Turkey is far more likely to serve as a staging ground for such efforts.

Analyst Maria Fantappie argues that despite Maliki's souring political fortunes, in Anbar province, "the limited spillover of the Syrian crisis within Iraq's Sunni populated areas bordering Syria proves that, in spite of the domestic chaos, Nouri al Maliki is in solid control of the country." At least on the western border, there is a conflation of Iraqi interests -- both Sunni and Shia -- that has kept things relatively quiet.

But at the national level there is now the matter of Assad's alleged perfidy to address. The Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, recently defected and, in a lurid accounting to the Telegraph, claimed that al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters were being employed by the regime to carry out false flag attacks in Damascus aimed at delegitimizing the predominantly Sunni opposition militias. Then, infuriating the Iraqis, he also claimed that he had personally been organizing the dispatch of al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq to fight the Americans, regardless of what they might also do to Iraqis. Nawaf's claim of al-Qaeda false flag attacks, as well as the reports earlier this year in the Syrian and U.S. media that blamed Iraqi jihadists for terrorist attacks in Damascus, are all still deeply contested.

According to the Financial Times, these operatives retreated back into Syria after 2008 as they lost ground to U.S.-backed Sunni fighters who sought to win back Anbar province from the international jihadists. Iraqi officials' remarks on these jihadists' suspected entry into Syria have been been construed as a Baghdad offer of diplomatic support for the Assad government: earlier this month, Iraq's delegate voted against an Arab League resolution calling for Assad to step down. Assad has rejected all such calls and claims -- as does the Iranian state media -- that there is an international American-Israeli-Gulf Arab conspiracy against Syria that is making use of al-Qaeda to unmake the state.

The matter of Syria and Iraq's official border crossings illustrates the challenges Maliki faces regarding Syria. While the Iraqi government professes its commitment to interdicting smugglers, its border guards have also kept the crossings closed to refugees (despite, as some have noted, Assad's decision to open his side to Iraqi refugees following the U.S. invasion).

However, in light of the Syrian rebels' seizure of three border crossings between Syria and Iraq in the past few days -- and the killing last week of several top Syrian officials in Damascus -- Baghdad may be rethinking its Syria policy, as it has now opened "all" crossings to refugees despite (as yet unverified) reports of massacres by the "Free Syrian Army" carried out in full view of Iraqi border guards. Iraq has also begun evacuating over 100,000 Iraqi nationals in Syria.

Though Iran would like to prevent Assad's fall and Maliki's ouster, its regime is militarily weak and reliant on Moscow to carry most of the fiscal and diplomatic burden in Syria. The United States has also ruled out Iranian participation in international forums concerning Syria and recently acknowledged that it is blocking what aid Tehran has sought to dispatch to Assad. In a telling example of how the United States can still muscle Maliki, the CIA claims that it tracked Syrian cargo planes flying over Iraq to Iran and pressured the Iraqis to close their airspace to these flights.

The regional realignment brought about by the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 indirectly strengthened Iran's position in the Arab world, but with the disorder caused by the Arab Spring yielding a civil war in Syria and the widening pitfalls in the Iraqi political landscape, Iran will be hard-pressed to maintain its recent gains. At present, Iranian influence is not so much enduring as a result of anything that Tehran has done, but surviving in the absence of a coherent Western and Arab response to Syria's civil war and a stable political system in Iraq.

Photos by Iran's Fars News Agency: Majles leader Ali Larijani receives Syrian officials in Tehran.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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