America, Iran and Iraq: Partners, not friends

Kerry-Zarif handshakeStability is an illusion that nations advertise to comfort citizens. Countries either sink along a gravitational pull beyond the control of governments, or ascend into a virtuous spiral. The pace is often slow, and sometimes invisible, but society is never static.

In the first 15 years of the 21st century, a linear, contiguous land mass from the Atlantic shores of Africa to the Pacific shore of Japan has become a slope. The western wing is slipping into quagmire, while the eastern expanse, starting from India, is inching up. This may not be an even fact. There are exceptions, some significant. But this is the broad truth.

Israel is not so much an exception as stand-alone territory. Witness, for instance, real estate prices in Tel Aviv. You might be buying an apartment in serene Europe rather than a city within artillery distance of the world’s toughest neighbourhood. Israel’s geo-politics has changed thanks to the surrounding politics. Israel remains on the front lines — that could hardly change — but it has become a subsidiary presence on a wrecked region rife with multiple wars. Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu might choose to raise the rhetoric, but Israel, sensibly, has become a watchful bystander, best protecting its security by remaining aloof. Israel does not have to weaken its foes. They are doing a pretty good job of weakening themselves.

The seams of conflict around Israel no longer follow national borders, most of which are simply straight lines dictated by colonial masters during the long years of disintegration that marked the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Tension lines are demographic rather than geographic, compounded by ideologies that respond to much older rivalry.

Many Sunni Muslim nations, both Arab and non-Arab, have slipped into civil war through their inability to create a nation state that meets the basic necessity, pursuing the good of the people through the will of the people, through credible political and legal mechanisms. In some areas, the degeneration seems almost beyond repair. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a radical instance of a patchwork entity cobbled together from the rubble of history and fragments of mistakes. Regional and world powers that once armed and financed this radical menace in the hope that it would destroy their enemies have understood that it is equally injurious to its benefactors.

Danger has at least this merit: it promotes alliances once dismissed as unthinkable. Surely the most interesting has been the tacit agreement between Washington and Tehran over ISIS. They come from different perspectives, and with different post-war scenarios that might breed their own round of troubles, but for the moment they are distant partners searching for a way to legitimise their limited agreement. The recapture of Tikrit is, in effect, a joint operation, with American support from the air, while Iran’s Al Quds officers and troops lead the Iraqi counteroffensive on the ground.

The imminent nuclear deal between America and Iran is being impelled both by larger considerations as well as the immediate experience of the strategic benefits of cooperation. There is always the possibility of a slip between the Iranian cup and the American lip, but members of the UN Security Council have already begun to confer on lifting sanctions against Iran if the nuclear deal goes through.

In the best-case prospect, America and Iran can together begin to calm the violent quagmire in Iraq. Neither can do it alone; Iran has the boots that Pentagon has lost, if only temporarily. Neither nation, equally, underestimates the urgency, for the ISIS infection can spread with consequences that would make Al Qaeda look like a flea bite. We are not talking of terrorists sending suicide missions; we are staring at armies ready to occupy, in the name of jihad, the spreading vacuum created by failing governance in the Arab hinterland and beyond. Any temporary discomfort to parallel interests is a relatively small price to pay for this larger goal. The cost of chaos, with ISIS as its magnetic centre, will be difficult to measure. This is not a project that is going to be completed in the remaining part of President Barack Obama’s term, but if he cannot make a start, his successor will not be able to either.

The rift between America and Iran in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the same year, upturned the interconnected balance of interests that survived three Arab-Israel wars in West Asia, intricate turmoil in Lebanon, the multi-faceted battles for Palestine and ensured a Shia-Sunni calm that was a fascinating sub-plot in the lengthy drama. The Soviets have gone, their Union is dead, but consequences linger. We cannot be certain that even an America-Iran nuclear deal will lead to substantive rapprochement, but it is reasonable to suggest that things cannot be worse than what they are.

There is a basic rule of international life: never abandon the good in search of the ideal. For the moment, this is good enough.


—MJ Akbar is the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.

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