Monday, September 15, 2014

Boaz Bismuth: Signs of concern in Tehran

by Boaz Bismuth

Only a few days have passed since U.S. President Barack Obama's declaration of war -- without much of a choice -- against the Islamic State (ISIS), and with every passing day the U.S. is realizing how difficult the job will be. Two important regional players will not stand at its side in Iraq and Syria: Turkey won't help, and Iran, not surprisingly, will be a bother. 

The campaign against ISIS cannot be won from the air alone. It is hard to expect the coalition's jets to be effective against the Sunni terrorists hunkered down in Mosul and Tikrit. Obama's coalition cannot accommodate too much harm to Muslim civilians. 

Even before the onset of the war, the president's advisers understood there would be few if any partners among the countries in the region eager for a ground offensive. Even the Kurds are not rushing to fight outside their autonomous region, even though they would be the primary benefactors of the war against ISIS: An independent state awaits them, perhaps right around the corner. 

And this is precisely what concerns Iran these days. Nearly a year into Hassan Rouhani's first term as president, the Iranians understand the cards have been re-dealt in the Middle East and that they suddenly also have a lot to lose.

The campaign against ISIS is bringing the United States back to the region. The Iranians were unhappy about it in 2003, and they don't like it today either. Then, incidentally, it froze their nuclear project. We can only hope that this time the Americans will use their return to terminate it once and for all. 

Additionally, Baghdad will have to reappoint Sunnis to key government positions, after they were kept out during the era of Nouri al-Maliki, who considered Iran his central ally. The Iraqi Sunnis have different plans. Moreover, the establishment of an independent Kurdish state has never appealed to Iran -- not only because such a development could spark the aspirations of the Kurdish minority living in Iran itself, but because a future Kurdish state is expected to have good relations with Israel and the United States. 

The Iranians also know Obama's coalition will put Bashar Assad's regime in Syria at greater risk. While the war could, on the one hand, solidify him as a recognized, albeit negative player in the region, it could also become an opportunity to eliminate him along with ISIS and crown someone else in his stead. 

The Iranians like the existing situation, which allows them to buy time (the target date for reaching an agreement on the nuclear issue is Nov. 24) until they can finally acquire their bomb. They know that war is a fluid proposition, and that someone along the way may find it appropriate to take out their nuclear program along with ISIS.

Boaz Bismuth


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