US needs new Iran deal to correct its errors in the region

US needs new Iran deal to correct its errors in the region

US troops patrol near near Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Getty Images)

With the EU now privately warning Iran that it will likely be forced to fully withdraw from the nuclear agreement in November, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to give its formal name, will soon be well and truly dead. This should be seen as an opportunity to start afresh by both the US and EU and they should create a new agreement that will benefit not just Iran but the whole region by restricting Tehran’s meddling and support for terrorist organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It was never supposed to be like this. The Middle East has always been a place of geopolitical shifting sands. Regional players rise and fall, external empires come and go, and dreams of stability have always proven ephemeral. But Iran has always been a center of power in the region. 

This was a return to the norm. It used to be a given that Iran would hold sway over peoples, militant groups and governments aligned with Shiite Islam. 

But what is happening now is going well beyond that. Iraq — a region that has often in its history been a natural cultural and political extension into the Arab lands for a succession of Persian empires — used to be ruled by the highly antagonistic Saddam Hussein. His eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s was one of the deadliest conflicts the region has seen in centuries. But the US intervened to remove Hussein and, in his stead, elevated a Shiite-led government. However, a decade later, the government in Baghdad has effectively become a client state of Tehran.

The US supported the Sunni-led opposition in the Syrian civil war against the Shiite Alawite government of Bashar Assad — except it has not been sufficiently committed to the conflict to see its resolution to a favorable ending when it could have done. And the US has now moved aside for Russia and Iran to crush the opposition to Assad and enforce his rule. Where the Assad regime would have previously looked up to Iran as a natural ally, it now looks up to Iran as the friend to whom it owes its survival.

Tehran is finding itself in a much better position in Afghanistan than it could have ever hoped for, and it is making influential friends for the future, when the Taliban will inevitably return to power in Kabul.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Then there is the matter of Afghanistan. The conflict there is the longest and most expensive in US history. That war was started against the Taliban — a natural enemy of Iran for its hard-line ideology and intransigent anti-Shiite attitudes. In fact, Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban three years prior to the American intervention in 2001 following an incident where the group killed 10 Iranian diplomatic staff in Afghanistan. Needless to say, Iran was pleased to have one of its enemies, America, take out another and foot the bill in blood and treasure. It could hardly have hoped that the Afghan war would be such a long and bloody slog.

But now there is a twist in the story of the Afghan war. It is beginning to emerge that Iran has allied itself with the Taliban and is supporting its efforts to drive the US out of Afghanistan. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is allowing the Taliban to operate and build up on the Iranian side of the border, and it seems to be providing the group with logistical support and even personnel, as high-ranking Iranian commandos are thought to have been aiding recent Taliban operations in western Afghanistan. War makes for strange bedfellows. Either way, Tehran is finding itself in a much better position in Afghanistan than it could have ever hoped for, and it is making influential friends for the future, when the Taliban will inevitably return to power in Kabul.

The irony, of course, is that, in the nebulous thinking of the George W. Bush-era neocons, the Afghan and Iraqi wars were supposed to contain Iran and cement American influence over the region and its critical oil supplies. Instead they have done the exact opposite: They have guaranteed Iranian influence from the Mediterranean Sea to the Khyber Pass. And, in a stunning turn of events, that influence is beginning to transcend sectarian lines. Is it any wonder that America’s allies in the region are becoming more assertive and aggressive in the face of a rising Iran?

The region does not need any more conflict, but any new agreement with Iran must restrict its meddling in the region and support for terrorist groups that are themselves a principal cause for creating the conflict we wish to avoid.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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