When the United States government declared its war on Afghanistan in October 2001, thus taking the first step in its so-called "war on terror," following the devastating attacks of September 11 earlier that year, Iran jumped on board.
Then Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, dubbed a reformist, provided substantial assistance in the US effort aimed at defeating the Taliban, an ardent enemy of Iran and Afghan Shia. Indeed, the Taliban’s aggressive policies included an anti-Shia drive, which resulted in a massive refugee problem. Tens of thousands of Afghan Shia sought refuge in Iran.
Khatami’s "friendly" gesture towards the anti-terror crusade lead by George W. Bush was not by any means an Iranian departure from a supposed policy of nonintervention in the region. Iran is a country with porous borders, political and strategic interests, serious and legitimate fears, but also unquestionable ambitions.
Iran’s intervention in Afghanistan never ceased since then, and is likely to continue, especially following the US withdrawal, whenever it takes place. Iran’s earlier role in Afghanistan ranged from the arrest of al-Qaeda suspects, sought by Washington, to training Afghan soldiers, to direct intervention in the country’s politics so as to ensure that the country’s politics are aligned to meet Iranian expectations.
None of this should come as a surprise. Iran has been under massive scrutiny since the Iranian revolution in 1979. It has been threatened, sanctioned, punished, and for nearly a decade fought a massive war with Iraq. Nearly half a million soldiers, and an estimated equal number of civilians perished in the "long war" when Iraq and Iran, using World War II tactics, sparred over territories, waterways access, resources, regional dominance and more. Both parties used conventional and non-conventional weapons to win the ugly conflict. Neither did.
But regardless of the thinking behind Iran’s current regional ambitions, one cannot pretend that Iran is an innocent force in the Middle East, solely aimed at self-preservation. This reading is as incorrect as that, championed by Israel and its remaining neoconservative friends in Washington, which see Iran as a threat that must be eradicated for the Middle East to achieve peace and stability.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran immediately moved to rearrange the country’s politics to suit its interests. It poured massive funds and a limitless arsenal to aid its allies, Shia political parties and notorious militias. Expectedly, Iran wanted to ensure that the American debacle in Iraq deepens, so Tehran doesn’t become the next US war destination. To do so, however, Iran, jointly, although indirectly with the Americans, savaged the once strongest Arab country.
The Shia government and its numerous militias killed, butchered, abused and humiliated Sunnis, especially tribes, which were seen as particularity influential following the destruction of the Baath regime and other centers of supposed Sunni seats of power.
That reductionist understanding of Iraqi society was both championed by Washington and Tehran. The horrible consequences of that understanding raised an unprecedented animosity towards Iran, and, expectedly towards Shia in general throughout much of the region.
However, the key role played by Hezbollah, a mainly Shia party and fighting force, in ending the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 2000, and driving the Israelis out once more in 2006, balanced out the damage inflicted by Iran’s destructive role in Iraq. Hezbollah’s ability to keep Israel at bay was more than enough to challenge the sectarian argument.
Things changed however with the arrival of the so-called Arab Spring. Iran and its regional enemies, in the Gulf, and later Turkey, perceived the upheaval in the Arab world as a serious threat, but also an opportunity.
While one may argue that ultimately the ongoing wars in the Middle East are not rooted in any sectarian tendencies, but the outcome of a political power play that span decades, there is no denial that the sectarian component of the war is now a defining one, and that Iran, like the Gulf, Turkey, Israel, the US and their Western allies, are all implicated.
They may all claim some rational dialectic through which to justify or explain their involvement, but few can claim innocence in the suffering of millions of people.
During the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), the US stood on the side of Iraq, providing logistical and military support. Iran has no trust of the US or respect for its foreign policy. But Tehran also understands that the US, despite its waning influence, will remain an important party in the Middle East, and therefore has tailored its policies with that understanding in mind. Iran cooperates with the US when its suits both parties interests, as they did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).
From Tehran’s viewpoint, its regional expansion can be partly seen as a defense mechanism: a powerful and influential Iran would decrease the chances of a US-Israeli aggression. Just recently, the European Union top diplomat called on Iran to “play a major, major but positive, role on Syria in particular, to encourage the regime to … (support) a Syrian-led transition.”
For Iran, such statements are political leverage which, to a degree, indicate the success of its strategy in Syria, one that involved major military support of the Assad government, and direct military intervention. It’s irrefutable that Iran’s role in Syria has been following the same sectarian lines that it followed, and continues to adhere to in Iraq. While Iran’s fight against the brutes of IS is undeniable, Iran’s responsibility in the rise of Sunni militarism in the first place must also not be denied.
While Iran is sustaining several fronts in its current role in the Middle East great game, it hopes to translate its palpable regional ascendancy into political capital, one that the Iranian government wants to translate to a final nuclear deal before June 30. That deal could spare Iran further conflict with the West, or at least lessen the fervor of war championed by rightwing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.
Current media and political discourses attempting to rationalize the multiple conflicts in the Middle East region tend to invest in one singular reading, which tends to demonize one party and completely spare others. While the role of regional actors in supporting extremists in Syria and Iraq, which lead to the formation of IS is known and openly discussed, Iran cannot be spared the blame.
Iran is part and parcel of ongoing conflicts, has contributed to some, reacted to others; it labored to defeat US ambitions, but also cooperated with Washington when their interests intersected. It is as sectarian as the rest, and abashedly so.
This is not an attempt at implicating Iran, but an attempt at an honest reading into a war involving many parties, whose hands are equally bloody.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is a media consultant, an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).