Our Friends the Iranians?
The Middle East remains the most dangerous of global flashpoints. The Syrian civil war goes on, with Turkey, a NATO member, supporting the Assad regime. Every other NATO member disagrees, though some prefer one or another of the opposition forces and some in the West are beginning to see President Assad as the best counter to the permanent ruination of Syria. No NATO member supports the Islamic State (ISIS), its brutality such that all remain horrified as its tentacles spread into Iraq and toward the Saudi Arabian border.
Then there is Al Qaeda which has fought ISIS for the role of lead player in terror. Al Qaeda claimed credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack, but ISIS said it had planned the Paris kosher supermarket killings. If the attacks are signs of cooperation between bitter enemies this can only promise more chaos.
More important, however, is that Iran has deployed substantial numbers of its Revolutionary Guard’s elite Al Qods brigades into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. In the last ten days, ISIS claimed to have wiped out an Al Qods forward command group, including its commanding general, north of Baghdad. Isis embellished its account by claiming to have killed 555 Iranian officers in the last four months of 2014.
The next day, January 14, Debka, the Israeli defence and intelligence website, stated flatly that General Qassem Soleimani, the Al Qods commander-in-chief and hitherto the prime inspirer of anti-Western devilment in the area, had been gravely wounded by an ISIS suicide squad in Iraq. The Iranians promptly denied this claim, but Soleimani has not been seen in public recently.
Then on January 18, an Israeli helicopter strike in Syrian territory in the Golan Heights killed 5 Hizbollah officers and six Iranian officers, one a general. Shiite Iran is the sponsor of the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and has supported its efforts to support Assad in Syria with cash and weapons. The Israelis bitterly oppose Hezbollah which wants to destroy it and, although Jerusalem’s relations with President Obama’s Washington are presently testy, the US (or, at least, its Congress) steadfastly supports Israel with arms and money.
Complicating matters further is that the Western allies, including the United States, Britain, France and Canada, have aircraft bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, (the Canadians however limiting themselves to bombing in Iraq). The West and Iran are cooperating against ISIS. Simultaneously, the West, not including Canada, is beginning to relax the sanctions against Tehran imposed because of its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, thanks to an interim agreement reached in late 2014 and coming into effect this month.
Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed, but not much can be stranger than this. Led by the Americans, hitherto the Great Satan to the Iranian leaders, the ties between the West and Iran are becoming tighter, each side reacting to the horrors of Islamist fundamentalism throughout the region. The Iranians have been hurt by sanctions, and they are being wracked even more by the falling price of oil. Easing curbs on trade and Iranian banks may mitigate the effects of the oil collapse.
That oil price collapse has been caused by the Saudi Arabian government’s refusal to cut production. The Sunni Saudis are desperately afraid of Shia Iran, but their repressive regime also fears ISIS, itself a Sunni organization, which recently struck a Saudi border post, causing casualties. ISIS aims to create a Caliphate to lead the global Muslim community, and Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, must be in its hands if the Caliphate is ever to be truly credible. Of course, Saudi princes and financiers for years have backed the most militant Sunni terrorists, including ISIS. In the Middle East, you can’t tell the players without an up-to-date program, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Maybe.
Curiously, Canada is playing both sides here. The Harper government unilaterally cut diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012 and has expressed its unhappiness with the interim nuclear deal. Foreign minister John Baird’s anti-Iran rhetoric remains loud—and, as there are some 200,000 Iranians concentrated in suburban constituencies in Toronto and Vancouver, most of them families that fled the clerical government’s repressive policies, his position is likely driven by electoral calculations. But at the same time, the RCAF’s CF-18 aircraft operating against ISIS in Iraq are de facto cooperating with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s efforts to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces. Ottawa shouts and postures against Tehran while bombing to support its anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq.
But then, almost every player in the Middle East seems to be backing two or more horses in every race. The field is crowded and no one can win, certainly not the locals who will continue to be torn to shreds by fundamentalist militants and their enemies abroad.
J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.