This issue may not have been clear on the radar of US policymakers or the American public, but it is has been rather well-recognized by Israel and by many Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region. Naturally, it has also been emphasized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran and other staunch critics of the regime in Tehran.
On Friday, the NCRI reported upon a speech given at a conference in Latvia by Struan Stevenson, the president of the Europe Iraq Freedom Association, in which he warned that Iran is as dangerous to the Middle East and to global security as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, even though the latter has been the dominating emphasis of Middle East policy by the US and some of its allies.
The Obama administration has reportedly undertaken a policy of helping Iran to become a “very successful regional power” in hopes that doing so would help Iran to eliminate the Sunni extremist threat. But Stevenson argued that the two groups are merely two sides of the extremist coin – one Sunni and the other Shiite.
Stevenson specifically pointed to the ongoing offensive against ISIL in the Iraqi city of Tikrit – an offensive reportedly only about one-third comprised of Iraqi security forces, with Shiite militias and Iranian proxy forces making up the rest. “[The United States has] effectively become Iran’s allies in the war against the Islamic State,” Stevenson said, referring to planned airstrikes in support of the Iran-backed offensive. “This is a very dangerous and misguided strategy, which even if successful, will simply enable the Iranian regime and its brutal militias to replace ISIS, effectively taking over Iraq in the process.”
This commentary directly reflects the worries expressed by the government of Saudi Arabia, which hosted US Secretary of State John Kerry this week as he attempted to assuage Arab fears about partnership between the US and Iran. “Iran is taking over Iran,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated plainly in a press conference.
According to the International Business Times, Kerry told the Saudis that the US would not neglect Iran’s destabilizing activities in surrounding countries, even though those activities would not affect ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and the economic sanctions against it. But some critics of the Obama administration are certainly skeptical of this claim, which is arguably undermined by the US’s participation in the Tirkit offensive in spite of reports that it is being managed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who has long been listed as a terrorist by the US.
More broadly speaking, criticisms of the Obama administration on this issue suggest that the US executive has an unrealistic perception of what it stands to gain through collaboration with Iran. The Christian Science Monitor quotes General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq may serve US interests and “will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”
But in reality this has already been the result, as evidence by the growth of Shiite militias in Iraq, including some that were responsible for up to half of the US combat deaths during the Iraq war. Iran’s influence has been blamed for the Shiite consolidation of power under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which lead to rebellion by Sunni groups and helped to contribute to the sectarian nature of the current conflict, and the rise of ISIL.
Another US military officer, General Lloyd Austin, the head of US Central Command, raised the possibility of US weapons falling into the hands of Shiite militias after being delivered to Baghdad. But although Austin implied that this is a theoretical problem to be dealt with at some point in the future, it too has already been shown to be a consequence of Iranian influence. In recent weeks, photos and video have appeared online showing Shiite militias in possession of US weapons and equipment including at least one M-1 Abrams tank.