Mr. Stevenson, an authority on Iraqi affairs, is the President of the European Iraqi Freedom Association, a respected Brussels-based NGO focusing on Iraq. Stevenson, a Conservative MEP (1999-2014) from Scotland, wasPresident of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq forthe last five years and as such has followed the Iraqi situation intimately. He has travelled to Iraq on several occasions and has dealt with a wide range of Iraqi political groups and leaders in Baghdad, Erbil, London and other capitals.
Iran News Update: What is happening in Iraq? There are conflicting views. You called it an Iraqi people’s uprising, but some say the extremists and terrorists are leading this move. How do you justify your position?
Struan Stevenson: I do not believe that a bunch of terrorists can take over half of such a large country in the course of few days, which is what happened. I believe that the recent developments in Iraq are the by-product of the sectarian policy pursued by Nouri Al-Maliki. There are certain undisputed facts that direct me to this conclusion:
•Over the past eight years, Maliki has failed to form a representative government that would encompass all sectors of Iraqi society.
•Maliki has marginalized the Sunni community, which encompasses around 10 million of the Iraqi population. Thousands have been imprisoned, tortured and killed. The Kurds have also been denied meaningful participation in the decision making process.
•Maliki has increasingly relied on the Iranian regime to stay in power, allowing Tehran to gain more influence in Iraq to the detriment of the Iraqi people.
•For more than a year the Sunnis engaged in peaceful protests, but none of their demands were met by Maliki. On the contrary Maliki intensified their suppression and attacked their peaceful gatherings violently.
•Unfortunately throughout this period, Western powers and in particular the US Government, ignored the cry of the Iraqi people and supported Maliki.
I believe we cannot analyze the current situation in Iraq, without looking at the root cause of the current crisis. As president of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq over the past five years, I have been following the situation in Iraq in detail. I have travelled there on several occasions and met with ministers, officials, leading parliamentarians from different political factions and have been in contact with a variety of Iraqi leaders and civil society. There is a genuine desire among the Iraqi people, particularly, the Sunnis, for change. Due to the sectarian policy of Maliki a large proportion of the people were denied all peaceful means that would have enabled them to achieve their goals. In 2010 the Sunnis participated in the political process, they aligned themselves with the moderate and secular Shiite group led by Ayad Alawi and won the election. But the Iranian regime interfered and denied them the opportunity to form the government. Unfortunately, at the time the US Government also supported Malilki. This was a major mistake with severe consequences.
INU: If it is not only ISIS fighting the government of Iraq, who else is on the ground?
Struan Stevenson: To my knowledge ISIS is the smaller part of those fighting on the ground, but the most vocal one. They are more sophisticated in using the internet and social media. And I must say the misguided policy of the West and in particular the US Government and the failure of the media to do their job properly has contributed to this misguided perception.
Of course ISIS exists on the ground and must be confronted. They have skilfully infiltrated the uprising in Iraq with terrorist factions from Syria. But the majority of those engaged in the fighting are not from ISIS. Indeed, the bulk of those involved in the uprising are the Iraqi tribes, the local young Sunnis and also former military officers. There is a lack of knowledge and understanding in the West of the place and role of the tribes in Iraq society. They are the most formidable sector of Iraqi society. If you go back to 2007, the US, despite having more than 140,000 soldiers on the ground, could not defeat the extremist groups. Only after reaching out to the Sunni tribeswas it able to defeat the Al Qaeda at that time. So, the tribes are playing a significant role. They have recently formed the Council of Coordination of Revolutionary Tribes, and held their first conference in Erbil. They have also publicly declared their opposition to ISIS.
There are also moderate Sunni religious figures that provide spiritual guidance to a large portion of the population. One such organisation is called the Association of Iraqi Muslim Scholars. They are not extremists. They are very respectable and have already distanced themselves from ISIS. There are also many former military officers of the Iraqi Army. They were purged after the Iraqi Army was dismantled, although they did not necessarily belong to the Baathists.
INU: What about ISIS? As you said they are there on the ground. There are reports that they are in some parts of Iraq trying to implement Sharia Law. Are you not worried about ISIS establishing a Caliphate?
Struan Stevenson: Of course I am worried. Of course we must do everything in our power to confront ISIS and to defeat it. It is an extremist and terrorist group. But I am totally against using ISIS as a pretext to support Maliki or to engage with Iran and its notorious Quds Force. We can only solve the problem if we can determine what the problem is. Facts are clear and undisputed, as I have briefly referred to them in response to the previous question. The facts tell us that a large portion of the Iraqi population hasnot only been denied their rights, but Maliki has even begun to wage genocidal war against them.
You cannot defeat ISIS so long as this fundamental problem remainsunresolved. The more you focus on ISIS and ignore the more fundamental problem, which is Maliki’s sectarian government and Iran’s meddling, the more you give the opportunity to ISIS to take advantage of the grievances of the people to enhance its position. So, ISIS is a problem but not the root of the problem. The best way to defeat ISIS is to support the moderate opposition and isolate ISIS.
INU:Some argue that Iran can play a decisive role in confronting ISIS and the threat of terrorism.There has also been a suggestion by the US to engage Iran to play such a constructive role. What is your view?
Struan Stevenson: Expecting the Iranian mullahs to play a constructive role is not only misguided but pure naivety. Of course the Iranian regime’s lobby would like to promote this idea, because it serves the interests of the mullahs in Iran.
Recent developments in Iraq have shaken the foundations of the clerical regime in Iran. They have invested so much in Maliki in Iraq, Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as part of their strategy for survival. They fear if they lose their influence in Iraq, they are bound to lose their influence in Syria and if they lose Syria that would have an impact on their relations with Hezbollah.
Moreover, the Iranian regime cannot play a constructive role in Iraq. Iran is the cause of the problem. Asking Iran to solve the problem is like asking the arsonist to put out the fire. Looking at the past several years, Iran has been supporting terrorist groups in Iraq. Iran has been fomenting sectarian conflict.
INU: The Pentagon has acknowledged that Iran is sending arms to Iraq including aircraft and that the Quds Force is training the Iraqi Army and the militias. How do you see that?
Struan Stevenson: I think this is clear hypocrisy on the part of the US Government. On one hand they designate the Quds Force as a terrorist entity and say that most American soldiers were killed in Iraq by terrorists trained and armed by the Quds Force and on the other hand some within the US Government suggest that Iran can play a constructive role in Iraq. Such a policy is dangerous. The Iranian regime is the most serious threat to global peace and security. The suggestion that we must cooperate with the central banker of international terrorism under the pretext of confronting the terrorist ISIS group defies wisdom and logic. However, to my knowledge there is strong opposition in the US Congress and among experts on foreign policy and national security against this idea.
The supply of arms to Iraq by Iran is in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The US Government is turning a blind eye to this blatant violation. This is unacceptable.
INU: What is the solution? What should the US or the international community do? Do you think that this is an internal Iraqi issue and they should deal with it?
Struan Stevenson: This is an internal Iraqi issue, but with regional and international dimensions, therefore it cannot be ignored by the international community. The US Government bears special responsibility in this regard. I believe the solution is simple, but we need world leaders with vision and courage to make the right decision. Here is what needs to be done:
As the first step Maliki needs to be removed. There is a consensus among all political groups, even among the Shiites, that he must go and the next leader cannot be from his faction. He and his faction had eight years and failed.
The main obstacle blocking the removal of Maliki, in direct confrontation with the wishes of the majority of Iraqis, is of course the Iranian regime. It is the mullahsin Tehran and the Quds Force that is propping up Maliki. Iranian officials and top IRGC commanders have publicly stated that they are prepared to support Maliki in the same way as they continue to support Assad, to maintain him in power. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to evict the Iranian regime from Iraq.
A national unity government must be formed, taking into consideration the current situation and the realities on the ground. The grievances of the Sunnis in particular and other minority groups must be heard. It is now time to engage in dialogue with the tribal leaders and other moderate opposition leaders. Without working with them, nothing will be resolved. Working with moderate opposition is also the best way to isolate ISIS and deny it any sympathy among the people who have suffered so much under Maliki. However, time is of essence, the more we wait the more radicalized the situation will become. Iran wants to repeat the Syrian scenario. We should not let it do that.
INU: As the final question, you have always been critical of the Iraqi government for its treatment of the PMOI/MEK’s members currently in Camp Liberty in Iraq. How would you see the impact of any new development on them? And what would you say to the Iranian regime’s assertion that they have “endorsed” ISIS?
Struan Stevenson: First, the current crisis makes their situation even more dangerous. There is serious fear that the Iraqi Government, at the behest of Iran or other paramilitary pro-Maliki groups who are also affiliated with the Quds Force, might take advantage of the current situation and carry out another massacre. The UN and US Government have the prime responsibility to prevent this and to protect these people. It is disgraceful that since mid-June UN monitors have left the camp due, they say, to a lack of security. If there is such a lack of security how is it possible that they can simply abandon defenseless refugees to their fate? The US pledged protection to the 3000 residents of Camp Liberty. In the past it has failed to uphold its obligations. So, I hope it will not fail again. The US Government will be considered responsible and indeed, a de facto accomplice to anything that might happen to the residents of Camp Liberty.
On the second part of your question, the MEK is the organized opposition that the Iranian regime fears most. It is an existential threat to the regime. Therefore, the mullahs would resort to any means to destroy them. This is why the mullahs’ propaganda machine has claimed that the MEK has endorsed ISIS, in an attempt to set the stage for another massacre. Therefore, I warn that no one should fall into the mullahs’ trap and be an accomplice to such a criminal act. The MEK is a democratic and ant-fundamentalist organisation that could never endorse ISIS. Indeed, MEK values in all aspects, for example on gender equality, stand in sharp contrast to this group. I openly support the MEK and to accuse them of backing ISIS is to accuse me of the same offence, which is clearly absurd.
But let me go further. The mullahs’ propaganda goes beyond MEK. The mullahs and their lobbies are engaged in a fear campaign that in many ways is similar to McCarthyism. They label anyone who recognizes the grievances of the oppressed people of Iraq as supporters of ISIS.