This is going to be the momentous week for Middle East politics when the US President Barack Obama will at last lay bare his strategy towards fighting the Islamic State. Another forty-eight hours to go. “On Wednesday, I’ll make a speech and describe what our game plan’s going to be going forward,” Obama typically told NBC’s Meet the Press last week.
Without doubt, we are witnessing the curtain-raiser of a new war that is about to begin in the Muslim world, one that may last for years and at the end of it could lead to profound changes on the political map of the Middle East as it was drawn following the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. To be sure, the core issue in Obama’s “game plan”, therefore, concerns what role the US assigns (or visualizes) for its regional allies, especially the Gulf Arabs and the ally-in-waiting — Iran.
Tehran has duly issued a denial apropos the BBC report last week to the effect that Iran’s Supreme Leader Al Khamenei has given the green signal for US-Iranian cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. But by now we’re getting used to the pantomime — US and Iran working together in Iraq but in denial mode publicly.
To be sure, the Iran we knew last year no more exists. Probably, what we thought we knew was always a chimera and this was all along the ‘real’ Iran, which we suspected existed. Anyway, Iran’s predicament in being publicly spotted as the Great Satan’s collaborator in Iraq probably will explain the reserved berth that US president Barack Obama is going to keep for that country, without assigning any name for it, within the ‘coalition of the willing’ on Iraq.
Obama listed eight Western countries and Turkey as comprising the “core coalition”, but didn’t mention any regional country from the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry described the nine countries as “coalition of the clearly willing”, which is, perhaps, an apt description.
Iran’s hesitancy in standing up and being counted publicly as the West’s partner in Iraq is a dilemma typical of the Arab countries as well. Even King Abdullah of Jordan, who would have been a safe bet to join any Western bandwagon rolling in the region, apparently rebuffed Obama’s invitation this time, when they met last Thursday.
The Gulf Arabs are nervous about the warnings by the Islamic State to lay off or face dire consequences. They are dithering, faced with the choice to be part of the US-led military action to “take out” the Caliphate that is consolidating in Iraq.
This comes out in the Arab League statement issued yesterday in Cairo following the foreign ministers meeting. Contrary to earlier expectations, the statement failed to endorse the US’ campaign against the IS, but instead drew inspiration from the UN Security Council statement passed last month calling on member states to “act to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.” (Reuters).
Iran’s predicament is particularly acute. To be seen on the same side as the US and Israel in fighting a Sunni Muslim outfit is like sipping from a poisoned chalice. The reports mention that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are flocking to the Islamic State in Iraq.
Yet, Iran is already involved in the war against the IS. Iran will find itself between the rock and a hard place once the US attacks on targets inside Syria commence, which is a matter of time only. Obama won’t bend to take permission from President Bashar Al-Assad before taking military action inside Syria. Where does that leave Tehran?
The Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, which is close to the royal family, carried a column Sunday attributed to a top establishment figure insisting that the Syrian opposition should be in the vanguard of the fight against the islamic State. But then, the catch is that the Syrian opposition “cannot turn its full attention to ISIS [Islamic State] and its affiliates without abandoning its primary mission of overthrowing the Assad regime”.
Of course, all this is unfolding against the backdrop of the next round of talks between Iran and the six world powers due to begin in New York on September 18. The Iranian officials have been cautiously optimistic about the forthcoming talks.
Meanwhile, until things clarify, Iran will continue to talk in two voices. A senior lawmaker was quoted today as saying in Tehran that the Islamic State is a creation of the US, israel and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, after a meeting in Tehran with his counterpart from Denmark (a member of the US’s “core coalition”), Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif underscored that the islamic State can be effectively countered only through international cooperation.
What lies ahead? Indeed, Obama needs to keep the Israeli lobby off his back. Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz is due to hold consultations in Washington focusing on Iran. Therefore, despite the convergence of interests with Tehran over Iraq’s security and stability, and notwithstanding the fact that the Islamic State is a common enemy, Obama cannot formally invite Iran into the “coalition of the willing.”
On the other hand, without a credible Muslim Middle East entity joining Obama’s “coalition of the willing”, the whole enterprise might end up looking like a 21st century Crusade. Thus, Obama wants Iran in, but cannot have it openly. In sum, it suits Tehran too to be seen standing outside Uncle Sam’s tent, albeit looking in. If things don’t go well, Iran always has the option to look away. For once, Iran and the Gulf Arabs are on the same page.