12:00 AM, July 07, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Strange bedfellows: US-Iran cooperate on crisis in Iraq

Strange bedfellows: US-Iran cooperate on crisis in Iraq

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

WHEN national interests are at stake, states are not hesitant to cooperate with adversaries, and this has been amply illustrated by the recent joint diplomatic efforts between Washington and Tehran over the chaos in Iraq. It represents a dramatic turnaround for the two opponents whose relations, frozen for several decades, have only begun to thaw over the past year.
The US and Iranian officials reportedly held talks on June 16 in Vienna over the advance of Islamist insurgents in Iraq on the sidelines of separate negotiations about Iran's nuclear programme.
“We are open to engaging the Iranians,” said a senior State Department official, who characterised the discussions as brief. “These engagements will not include military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq's future over the heads of the Iraqi people,” the US official said, on condition of anonymity.
Since June 9, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/Syria (ISIS) is capitalising on a wave of Sunni discontent with the Shiite-dominated governments that have ruled Iraq since Hussein's ouster in 2003. The group aims to set up a Caliphate in a continuous stretch of territory from Sunni-dominated Anbar province in Iraq to Raqqa province in northeast Syria. After capturing Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, it had advanced south along the Tigris River toward Baghdad but in recent days their march has been halted by the Iraqi army.
After the US invasion in 2003, the Sunni-administered secular Iraq has turned into a Shi'a-dominated Iraq which has come under the influence of Iran as most of the current rulers of Iraq took refuge in Iran during the regime of Saddam Hussain. Thus, most importantly, the dynamics of the region has changed and the power of Iran has increased in the region. Syria, Iraq and Iran have been described as “Shi'ite Crescent” by the Sunni Arab World led by Saudi Arabia.
The sectarian warfare between Shi'as and Sunnis has gone unabated in Iraq because of the reluctance of Maliki to share power with Sunnis. Even the Sunni vice president had to flee from Iraq when he was being arrested on reportedly politically motivated crimes.
Meanwhile, faced with the threat of Sunni extremists in Iraq, Iran sprang into action to aid its besieged Arab ally. It reportedly deployed Revolutionary Guards units to Iraq, Iranian security officials said. At least three battalions of the Quds Forces, the overseas branch of the Guards, were dispatched, the security officials said. Moreover, Iran has reportedly sent drones and arms to Iraq to prop up Baghdad.
On June 24, when the US Secretary of State John Kerry requested the Kurdish regional government to back Baghdad to support the formation of a new national government, the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani reportedly said that Kurds were not willing to support tyrannical rule from Baghdad. Recently he announced that it could hold a referendum to declare an independent Kurdistan on the northern and northeastern borders of Iraq.
Under Iraq's political system, the prime minister is a Shiite, the speaker of the parliament a Sunni and the president a Kurd. All three blocs have said that they want to know who the other will nominate before naming its own candidate. Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the Iraqi Parliament's first session, jeopardising efforts at putting together a unity government to stop Iraq from breaking up.
Meanwhile, Iraq's highest Shia authority Ayatollah Sistani, avoided criticising Maliki directly, but called for new and 'effective' government. Increasingly, Maliki's former allies believe he cannot lead an inclusive government that can draw minority Sunnis away from support for the fighters as they head toward the capital, Baghdad.  
Embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defied a wave of opposition to his Shiite-led government and declared he would not go. In a statement read on Iraqi state TV, a day after the autonomous Kurds in the north virtually bid goodbye to Iraq, Maliki said he would remain faithful to voters who chose his State of Law Shiite coalition in elections that were held in April.
“The voters have shown that the premiership is for the State of Law. Therefore, on no account will I relinquish it,” said Maliki, who is trying for a third term. Maliki's defiance came even after his greatest political foe, former parliament chief Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, withdrew his candidacy for another term, saying he was doing so in hopes Maliki would do the same. The premier has blamed Sunni Saudi Arabia for backing jihadi fighters.
The Obama administration has signaled that it wants a new government in Iraq without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, convinced that the Shiite leader is unable to reconcile with the nation's Sunni minority and stabilise a volatile political landscape. A growing number of US Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are reportedly pressing the White House to pull out its support for Maliki.
Any US military action in support of Maliki in Iraq will be seen as cooperating with Iran and it could also alienate Washington's allies in Sunni-dominated countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. Furthermore, US allies in Israel and the Middle East are also concerned that any cooperation between Washington and Tehran on Iraq could compromise the negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme.

The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.


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