جمعه, 02 تیر 1396 |

US Policy Towards Iran Played Big Role in Rise of Sunni Extremism

Throughout the recent handwringing about how the US and other Westerncountries failed to foresee the emergence of ISIS, one factor has beentotally ignored, either intentionally or inadvertently: the impact ofWashington’s hostility towards Iran, especially its persistent tendency totreat any anti-Iranian movement or idea in the Middle East as either goodor the lesser evil compared to dealing with Tehran.

This attitude has beencoupled with a consistent unwillingness to support positive forces forchange and reform in Iran; indeed, actually undermining them by insistingon their meeting preconditions that the West knows can’t be met due toIran’s internal political dynamics. Significantly, this Western andespecially American attitude predated any dispute over Iran’s nuclearprogram.

The first Western mistake followed the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the deathof Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the coming to power of Ayatollah AkbarHashemi Rafsanjani in 1989. Instead of taking advantage of Iran’svulnerability at the time, as well as Rafsanjani’s efforts both to moveIran towards moderation and openness domestically and internationally andto reach out to the West to help him achieve these goals, the UnitedStates chose to put all of its eggs into Saddam Hussein’s basket andadamantly refused to acknowledge his many transgressions—against Iraq’sneighbors and own people—until his fateful 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Nevertheless, with great difficulty—due to leftist opposition—Rafsanjanimanaged to secure Iran’s neutrality in the Persian Gulf War, a fact thatfacilitated US military operations. He also secured the release of thelast of the Western hostages held in Lebanon. Yet, instead of encouragingthe moderate political trends in Iran, the US under President George H. W.

Bush embarked on a policy of containing Iran (soon to be replaced by theClinton administration’s “dual containment” policy, which was thenfollowed in 1996 by Congress’ enactment of the first oil sanctions againstIran at a time when Rafsanjani was actively encouraging American oilcompanies, notably Conoco, to invest). This policy of containment wasfirst announced during a trip to Central Asia in 1992 by then-Secretary ofState James Baker who declared containing Iran’s influence in the regionwould constitute a major goal of US policy.

Guided by this objective, the US subsequently bought into Pakistan’sargument that the Taliban would constitute a credible barrier to Iran’sinfluence in Afghanistan and, through it, in Central Asia as well. HenceWashington did not object to Pakistan’s arming and promoting the Taliban,a step that eventually led to the fall of the Afghan government ofBurhaneddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masood, two leaders who supported aversion of Islam far more moderate than that of the Taliban. It isforgotten today that the Afghan civil war began with attacks by thePakistan-based and more radical Islamists, first through GulbuddinHekmatyar, and, when Islamabad judged him to be too difficult to control,through the Taliban.

Even after the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dares Salaam, followed by the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion ofAfghanistan, which Iran directly and actively supported, Washingtoncontinued to rely on Pakistan as its key regional partner. Despite massiveUS aid, Islamabad actively—if covertly—undermined US strategy inAfghanistan while it scorned Iran’s offers to help stabilize the country.

Just as Washington ignored or rebuffed Rafsanjani’s efforts to moderateIran’s domestic and international policies, it similarly declined to helphis successor, President Mohammad Khatami, who promoted a tolerant andreformist Islam and a less confrontational approach to relations with theWest and Iran’s neighbors. Thus, holding out for the best—namely, asecular, pro-western government in Tehran—the US lost the relatively good.And when Iran actively helped the US both to oust the Taliban andfacilitate the transition that followed, it was rewarded by PresidentGeorge W. Bush with membership in the “axis of evil,” paving the way fornew and ever more punitive sanctions.

After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Tehran quietly put forward an offerfor a comprehensive deal with the US not only to cooperate on efforts tostabilize Washington’s latest conquest, but also to address alloutstanding issues between the two countries, from acceptance of Israeland Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance groups toIran’s nuclear program. The Bush administration did not even bother torespond. Moreover, fearful that Iran might become the unintendedbeneficiary of the Ba’ath regime’s removal, Washington essentially stoodby as its regional Sunni allies worked to undermine the fledgling Shia-ledgovernment in Baghdad not only by denying it aid and formal diplomaticrecognition, but also, in the case of some Gulf states, encouraging andsupporting the burgeoning Sunni insurgency, including al-Qaeda in Iraq(AQI), which did not hesitate to attack US personnel, as well as theirShia brethren. Ironically if predictably, Washington’s policy of ignoringSunni extremists forced Iraq’s Shia government to move closer to Iran.

Of course, the unanticipated insurgency and the increasing sectarianviolence that it fostered also derailed hopes by the Bushadministration—especially its neoconservative faction—that itssuccess”in Iraq would lead to “regime change”—either through destabilization or anactual attack—as well. At the same time, however, the administrationbought into the idea that the increasingly sectarian nature of theconflict could also be used to curb Iran’s influence, notably by forging ade facto alliance between Israel and the Sunni-led states against Tehranand what Jordan’s King Abdullah ominously called the “Shia Crescent.” Ofcourse, not only did Washington’s acceptance and even promotion of thisidea contribute to rising sectarian tensions and extremism throughout theregion, but it also failed to produce any progress toward resolving theIsraeli-Palestinian conflict. Once again, rather than working with Iran tostabilize Iraq, which would have required exerting real pressure on itsSunni allies that were supporting the insurgency, containing Iran’sinfluence remained Washington’s overriding priority.

It was in this context that the so-called Arab Spring blossomed and, withit, renewed hopes in Washington to reshape the Middle East, if not byachieving “regime change” in Iran, then at least by weakening its regionalinfluence, particularly in the Levant. Even as the Obamaadministrationpublicly depicted the movement as the dawn of open and democraticsocieties, its closest regional partners—to which Washington had so oftenand so counter-productively deferred in Iraq—saw it as a way to redressthe region’s strategic balance that had been upset by the 2003 invasionand the empowerment of Iraq’s Shia majority.

As the movement progressed from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and the(thwarted) pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, it eventually reached Syriaand the minority Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s mostimportant regional ally. While the Gulf states and Turkey led the chargeagainst the regime, the US and much of the West were not far behind.Predictably, however, in its desire to see Assad overthrown and Iranweakened, the US and its allies largely ignored the steadily growinginfluence of groups such as al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra,and similar foreign-backed Sunni extremist groups whose violence towardSyrian Shias, Alawites, Alevis, and Christians has been exceeded only byAQI’s successor, the Islamic State (ISIS).

Thus, for the past 25 years or more, the West—especially the UnitedStates—has made containing Iran its overriding priority in the Gulf andhas too often seen the Wahhabi/Salafi version of Islam and its violentoffshoots as an effective counterweight to Iranian influence. In doing so,it has unintentionally helped create monsters like Saddam Hussein, OsamaBin Laden, Mullah Omar, and now Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This critique by no means absolves Iran, Syria, Shia militias, or Iraq’sShia-led government of their own mistakes and crimes. They have their ownnot insignificant share of responsibility in creating the region’s currentproblems and conflicts. And they have to do their part if the region’sproblems are to be resolved. But as great powers that claim the world’smoral and political leadership with the power to intervene at will inother countries, the US and otherWestern countries must be judged byhigher standards.At the very least, they need to offer a coherent andpositive vision of a functioning Middle East and South Asia.

This requires going beyond the platitudes about wanting to advancedemocracy and human rights.

While the Western powers do not have a clear vision of what kind of MiddleEast they want and even less how to achieve it, ISIS, al-Qaeda, andal-Nusra have their own regional plans, based on ethnic and sectariancleansing as we have already seen in both Syria and Iraq.

In short, until the US and the West admit at least to themselves that theyhave made mistakes in the region in the last few decades, particularly intheir efforts to isolate and weaken Iran, and learn from those mistakesand change course, their efforts at defeating extremism and stabilizingthe region are bound to fail.

The West cannot get all that it desires in the region, because politicalengineering has its limits. But if it embarks on a strategy of conflictresolution—fostering regional cooperation, instead of fighting it; andpromoting compromise instead of complete capitulation by Iran or any otherlocal power—its interests and those of the region will be better served.Until such a strategy is adopted and seriously implemented, however, everyday that passes will make it that much harder to end the violence in theMiddle East and encourage compromise and reconciliation. The same isequally true for the regional players. By pursuing maximalist goals theywill all end up losers.


About the Author:

Shireen T. Hunter is a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University'sSchool of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Rootsof Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21stCentury (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming September 2014).