Isn’t it Ironic? Iran, Iraq and the United States
So in case you haven’t heard, much of western Iraq is currently being overrun by ISIS. No, not the influential post-metal band, the radical Islamist group who are apparently so hardcore, even Al Qaeda stopped inviting them to their slumber parties.
For more background, check out this helpful list of facts from Vox on what’s at stake in the current conflict.
The situation has escalated to the point where ISIS has boasted its summary execution of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. To anyone living in the region, or anyone who lives where planes fly, the prospect of a radical jihadist group worse than Al Qaeda should be terrifying.
But being a radical Sunni group, this puts a number of complicated forces in play. The United States, with the albatross of the 2003 intervention around its neck, is now caught between the interests of its “ally” Saudi Arabia and its old “enemy” in Iran. I put ally in quotes because, as The Daily Beast reports,
in the years they were getting started, a key component of ISIS’s support came from wealthy individuals in the Arab Gulf States of Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Sometimes the support came with the tacit nod of approval from those regimes; often, it took advantage of poor money laundering protections in those states, according to officials, experts, and leaders of the Syrian opposition, which is fighting ISIS as well as the regime.
And I put enemy in quotes as its well-known that the Iranian authorities assisted the west with the initial invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban government. It’s also possible that, in private, many of the authorities in Tehran are glad that the United States removed its arch-nemesis Saddam Hussein from power and helped bring a Shiite prime minister to power.
Still, relations between the United States and Iran are contentious, something which goes back to western support for the Shah, the 1979 hostage crisis, the US government looking the other way while Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and a myriad of other factors.
However, the situation in Iraq provides a unique opening for cooperation between the two countries. President Obama, has ruled out direct military intervention by the United States (granted, he “says” a lot of things). But with a carrier group in the area and significant intelligence resources, the US can still play a major role in assisting the Iraqi leadership. Whether or not we should be involved at all is an open question, as it resurrects old arguments about the 2003 intervention. Meanwhile, it’s rumored that Iran has sent two battalions of revolutionary guard troops into Iraq, something the Iranian authorities have dismissed. However, The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Iranian Prime Minister, Hassan Rouhani and an unnamed government official have signaled their willingness to work with the United States to fight against ISIS. This also dovetails with news that Iran and the west may be reaching an agreement on the country’s nuclear program.
Consider this for a moment: if the United States decided to embrace this willingness to work against the Islamists in Iraq, might this open up a diplomatic window on nuclear arms, sanctions and other matters of contention? Sure, this may sound overly conciliatory to a well-known supporter of the brutal and murderous regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and many of the same authorities who crushed the 2009 “Green Revolution.” I’m not saying that I personally would support an unconditional rapprochement in this way. But as an observer, its interesting to watch how the relations between rival states move from one event to the next. In a weird and ironic sort of way, the very intervention that Iran claims to have been against in 2003 has allowed them a chance to increase their military, economic and diplomatic influence in the region and defend what they see as sacred areas of Shiite heritage. Though many in Iran are obviously wary of The United States, events may have reached a moment that Machiavelli mentions in chapter 21 of The Prince (emphasis my own):
it is to be noted that a prince ought to take care never to make an alliance with one more powerful than himself for the purpose of attacking others, unless necessity compels him, as is said above; because if he conquers you are at his discretion, and princes ought to avoid as much as possible being at the discretion of any one. The Venetians joined with France against the Duke of Milan, and this alliance, which caused their ruin, could have been avoided. But when it cannot be avoided, as happened to the Florentines when the Pope and Spain sent armies to attack Lombardy, then in such a case, for the above reasons, the prince ought to favour one of the parties.
For the United States, the failure of our occupation to create a viable, stable Iraq with its own self-sufficient and reliable military may have led to the very thing that allows us to mend some of our relations with Iran.
Sounds crazy doesn’t it? But if one takes a long view, its clear that such ironies are not unusual, as Engels pointed out when addressing the possibility of a revolution in Russia in the late 19th century:
Supposing these people imagine they can seize power, what does it matter? Provided they make the hole which will shatter the dyke, the flood itself will soon rob them of their illusions. But if by chance these illusions resulted in giving them a superior force of will, why complain of that? People who boasted that they had made a revolution have always seen the next day that they had no idea what they were doing, that the revolution made did not in the least resemble the one they would have liked to make. That is what Hegel calls the irony of history, an irony which few historic personalities escape. Look at Bismarck, the revolutionary against his will, and Gladstone who has ended in quarrelling with his adored Tsar.
At the same time, the rise of fanatical militants like ISIS should send a message that any aspiration among western leaders to control events in the Middle East should be treated with caution, as they may not know what horrors will be unleashed their own flood is unleashed.