Washington DC and Iraq
We stood on a bleak hillside in eastern Iraq looking at a makeshift grave. It held a dozen Shia Arabs, according to the Kurdish troops escorting us. The dead were men, women and children murdered by fighters from the so-called Islamic State as they retreated, said the Kurds. We stepped gingerly around scraps of women’s clothing and a bone poking out through the dirt. In the town on the dusty plain below, Shi’ite militias were busy taking revenge on Sunnis, our escorts said, looting and killing. The town’s Sunni Arab population had fled to a miserable camp. Streams of sewage ran between their tents. But they wouldn’t go home, they said, until the militias left, replaced by the army.
They may be there a while. The Iraqi army is weak and the government continues to rely on Shi’ite militias paid for and ultimately directed by Iran.
So the United States, despite its considerable military resources in Iraq, did not join the current assault on Isis in the Sunni town of Tikrit. Perhaps US officials were nervous about a militia leader’s description of the offensive as ‘revenge for Speicher’, referring to the old US base where Isis lined up hundreds — perhaps as many as 1,700 — Shi’ite army recruits and shot them. At the time of writing, Tikrit has not quite fallen, but there are already disturbing reports — unverified, though all too plausible — of reprisals. One video posted on social media exerts a horrifying fascination for Sunnis, showing a man struggling to get up as he is felled with repeated blows from an axe.
Battling Isis, the US finds itself in a de facto alliance with the Shia militias, and by extension with Iran. The Iranian general commanding his country’s elite Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, stepped from the shadows for a photo op drinking tea on the front lines in Tikrit. One of the militias leading the assault, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, is directly under the command of an Iranian. Al-Haq kidnapped five -Britons in 2007, four of whom died in captivity. It killed hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq with a lethal model of roadside bomb (allegedly) crafted in Iran. The US has to swallow this bitter pill because the alternative is the collapse of the Iraqi government. The Iranians may also have a free(er) hand in Iraq because President Obama seems to want above all to conclude a deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme.
That at least is the charge from US Republicans. Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, said the President was ‘begging for an agreement with Iran at all costs’. Only ‘a moron’ would negotiate with ‘a guy who cheated you twice before’, Mr Giuliani said in a speech. Republicans in the Senate went the other way, accusing Tehran of stupidity. Forty-seven senators wrote in gloriously condescending terms to tell the Iranians they ‘might not fully understand’ the US constitution. A professor of law at Harvard wrote to the Senate to say they might not fully understand the US constitution. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, came to Congress and called (it seemed to some) for Iran to be bombed. Reza Farahan of Shahs of Sunset, a reality show about Iranian-Americans in Beverly Hills, also called for Iran to be bombed.
Escaping the atmosphere of crude partisanship, I went to see Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was US national security adviser during the Iran hostage crisis and is now high priest in the temple of foreign policy realism. Dr Brzezinski is a supporter of the President, though a sometimes critical one. In our meeting, for instance, he declared himself ‘utterly baffled’ that President Obama had announced ‘out of the blue’ that Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had to go, without having a plan to achieve that outcome. Dr Brzezinski has long advocated talks with Iran. Those talks are now close to a deal to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment, making it a ‘threshold nuclear power’ rather than an actual nuclear power. Was it a good deal?
‘The deal is better than nothing, that’s for sure,’ he said, ‘and much better than the alternative that its extreme critics crave, which clearly is an excuse for a military solution.’ Dr Brzezinski still speaks with a slight Polish accent. The words come out in whole paragraphs, syntactically perfect; you can almost hear the semicolons. He was part of a Carter administration that tried and failed to negotiate with Iran. Could we trust the Iranians now? ‘If the Iranians are capable of perceiving their own interest clearly; and if they analyse the international situation rationally, they’re clearly better off in some sort of a deal,’ he said. ‘This is a country that has lived for 3,000 years. They are in no rush to commit suicide. They have a sense of self-interest.’
He went on: ‘Beyond that, in the background, is the fact that the urban society of Iran is changing. Every visitor who goes to Iran comes back struck by it: how quasi-western Iran is, at least as much as Turkey. Isn’t it in the interest of the West to create a situation in which, perhaps before too long, the radical clergy will be replaced and the political scene will change?’
Wishful thinking? If history is a guide, Dr Brzezinski does not balk at making the ‘tough calls’. When he was at the White House, he got the dreaded 3 a.m. phone call. Thirty seconds earlier, his military aide informed him, the Russians had launched 200 missiles. Dr Brzezinski gave the aide two minutes to double check. After that he would wake the President to give the order for retaliation. In the meantime, he calmly directed America’s Strategic Air Command to proceed to take off. ‘Within 28 minutes,’ he thought, ‘my wife, children, almost everyone I know will be dead.’ The aide rang back. Computer error. False alarm. ‘Don’t forget to call our bombers back,’ said Dr Brzezinski.
Today, he has no doubt, the US has the military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities from the air: ‘After all, we prepared ourselves for a war with a much more potent antagonist than Iran. This is exactly why Israel wants to get us into that war. When I say Israel, I should really correct myself; I mean the extremist elements within Israel and particularly the prime minister.’ He continued: ‘I think Mr Netanyahu’s toying with the truth in his speech before the US congress indicates that he has his own special interests in mind — and to hell with ours.’ America’s interest, said Dr Brzezinski, lay in not ‘becoming engaged and probably bogged down in yet another conflict’ in the Middle East.
The nuclear deal being discussed this week is far from perfect, insofar as it allows Iran to enrich uranium at all. The Saudis have already declared their intention to match Iran centrifuge for centrifuge. And has Iran really given up the bomb? In recent memory, it lost hundreds of thousands of people in a war where Iraq, backed by the West, used chemical weapons. Things may look very different viewed from Tehran.
In Iraq today, the US and Iran have separate spheres of influence: the west of the country for the Americans; the east for the Iranians. At a cost in blood of the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from eastern Iraq, Iran may get a zone of security on its border. It may feel less in need of a programme to develop the ultimate deterrent — a programme that might in turn provoke an Israeli–American strike. Such an attack would have far-reaching consequences in a region, as Dr Brzezinski puts it, already ‘in the process of spontaneous combustion’. If President Obama is right, the alternative — an increasingly moderate Iran brought back into the family of nations — may be one or two rounds of negotiations away. All it would take is an outbreak of rationality in the Middle East.
Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent.