Sunday, March 1, 2015

Iran compromises in Iraq, but won't in Syria

[Originally posted at NOW]

Tehran’s overtures to rivals in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon will not be emulated in Syria, say analysts.

On Thursday, Iraq’s controversial Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki relented to weeks of domestic and international pressure and stepped down from office, making way for the first new Iraqi premier in eight years, Haider al-Abadi.

The departure of Maliki – the leader of the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, whose rule has long been unpopular with Iraq’s sizeable Sunni minority; a fact widely seen as instrumental in facilitating the takeover by Sunni extremists of most of northwestern Iraq in June – was interpreted by many analysts as a concession by Iran, Maliki’s longtime patron and ally whose influence on Iraqi politics is considerable.

“The replacement of Maliki is evidence that the Iranian project is facing setbacks in Iraq,” Lebanese analyst Mustafa Fahs told NOW.

Moreover, less than a week previously, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri made a surprise return to Beirut after a three-year absence. A member of Hariri’s Future Movement, MP Bassem al-Shab, told NOW the return came at “[a time] of Iranian flexibility” vis-à-vis its Lebanese opponents, suggesting Tehran had made a series of tacit compromises in an effort to defuse the Sunni-Shiite hostility currently straining both Lebanon and Iraq.

Any hopes, however, that Iran might take similar conciliatory steps in Syria are ill-founded, according to analysts, who told NOW the Islamic Republic was all but certain to continue backing the Bashar al-Assad regime.

“Syria remains a very high stake issue for Iran,” said Dr. Murhaf Jouejati, Professor of Middle East Studies at the US National Defense University. “I think Iran will persist in its support of the Assad regime, regardless of what happens in Iraq. The departure of Mr. Maliki became a necessity for Iran, but I don’t think this will impact at all on its policy in Syria.”

One reason for the difference lies in the degree of pressure on Iran to change course, which was intense in the case of Iraq but is less so in Syria, according to analysts.

“The Iranians accepted the ousting of Maliki, that’s true, but I don’t feel they did it willingly or because of a Saudi [Arabian] request,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “It was more about American pressure, Iraqi pressure, [Iraqi Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani’s pressure. And it took them a long time till they accepted reality and let Maliki go.”

By contrast, far from making concessions in Syria, Khashoggi told NOW he believed the Iranians would in fact seek to exploit the ongoing jihadist atrocities in northern Iraq to reinforce their and Assad’s claims to have been battling a “terrorist” insurgency in Syria during the last three years, thereby gaining support from an international community increasingly alarmed by the rapid rise of Sunni jihadist groups such as the al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State (IS).

“The Iranians and [Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and others will probably be talking now about how they have been right all along, how Islamic extremists are the problem, not Bashar,” said Khashoggi.

“And I’m sure some will be asking the question: is it time for the Saudis and Iranians and Americans to cooperate together?”

Sure enough, in an op-ed Sunday, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued the “international community” should partner “even with Iran” in its political and military action against the “shared threat” posed by the IS. The notion, said Khashoggi, was agreeable “in principle,” but would have to be coupled with an Iranian foreign policy more palatable to non-Shiite Arabs across the region to successfully contain Sunni jihadism in the longer run.

“The fall of IS should not allow the Iranians to resume their sectarian [policies] again, [their] dream of creating a wilayat al-faqih [pan-Islamic state governed by Shiite theologians] spreading from Iraq to Lebanon,” Khashoggi told NOW. To that end, he advocates enabling Saudi Arabia and Turkey to spearhead the international campaign against the IS, in tandem with the West.

“We should get rid of IS, but we should not allow the Iranians to benefit from that.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

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