Shadow Government

Tehran's Offer to Fight al Qaeda Is Like the Arsonist Offering to Put Out the Fire

Aleppo is ablaze in Syria; Fallujah falls in Iraq; and Ramadi is raped. Yet Iran, the arsonist, offers to participate in Geneva II talks about Syria's security and provide arms to Iraq against al Qaeda.

The idea that Tehran and Washington face common enemies and hence should be friends overlooks Iran's facilitation of those adversaries. Due to Tehran, fighting occurs between the secular Free Syrian Army and the Islamist affiliate of al Qaeda in Aleppo, as battles occur between Bashar al-Assad's forces and Syrian oppositionists.

Tehran opposes the core of the June 2012 Geneva I communiqué. Article 9a: "The establishment of a transitional governing body … shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent," which means Assad must go. Opposing Geneva I makes Iran ill-suited for the Geneva II talks, which begin Jan. 22. Tehran's posture: Its "honor" precludes participation as less than a full partner. Good: no participation.

Tehran ferries arms across Iraqi airspace to Damascus; Iranian-armed and -trained Hezbollah from Lebanon saves the Assad regime. By aligning with Assad, his Alawite supporters, and Iran while fighting Sunni rebels, Hezbollah is at the center of a Shiite versus Sunni sectarian conflict. Quds Force paramilitary units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps reinforce and command Hezbollah allies and the Syrian army against the rebels.

Consider Iran's collusion with Baghdad across the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Such cooperation provides a window for al Qaeda in Iraq after being defeated by U.S. forces a decade ago. Although Tehran claims it wants to help Bagdad battle al Qaeda "terrorists" in its Sunni-dominated western Anbar province -- the arsonist offering to put out the fire -- much violence erupting in Sunni provinces is because of Tehran's support for and promotion of sectarian policies pursued by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has become increasingly reliant on Iran as he seeks a third term in office.

Tehran's negative influence and Washington's desire to exit from Iraq undermined achievement of a status of forces agreement between Baghdad and Washington that ensures a residual combat presence of U.S. troops, Hence, Tehran set up proxy groups to marginalize and suppress Sunni political rivals.

The upheavals in Fallujah and Ramadi are not just the work of an al Qaeda affiliate. Local tribal militias, some of which I interviewed in 2008, said the recent fighters belonged to the Shiite Badr Brigade (established and trained by Iran two decades ago) and had been sent to Fallujah to set the stage for Iraqi military intervention.

A Sunni organization characterized the fighting as against Iran and said the group is expanding outside Anbar to join with Sunni tribes in other provinces to battle Iraq's Shiite-led government and against "Iranian occupation."

While many in the U.S. Congress do not favor arms sales to Iraq, Barack Obama's administration agreed to sell 75 Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to assist Baghdad in counterterrorism activities without concessions on how it treats Sunni opponents and Iranian dissidents in Iraq.

But Congress has delayed shipment of Apache helicopters because Baghdad may use the weapons on domestic enemies, including Sunni tribes fighting al Qaeda and Iranian proxies. Congress is also very concerned about Baghdad's mistreatment of Iranian dissidents in Iraq.

Baghdad's complicity with Tehran results in murder, hostage-taking, and missile attacks against the Iranian dissidents. There have been three attacks by Iraqi security forces or proxies on Camp Ashraf: July 2009, April 2011, and September 2013. In the last one, 52 Ashraf residents were killed, and seven remain as hostages. There have been four rocket attacks against Camp Liberty: in February, April, June, and December 2013.

Washington's failure to hold Maliki accountable for these attacks emboldened Baghdad and Tehran. According to resistance intelligence, Iranian Quds Force officers arrived in Iraq with heat-seeking missiles to plan more attacks on Sunni neighborhoods in the capital and on vulnerable Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty.

Iran proposes to stabilize Syria after Tehran destabilizes Syria; Iran offers arms to defend Iraq from al Qaeda after Tehran enables its affiliate to prosper in Iraq; Iraqi security attacks those whom it promises to secure. There is something rotten in such narratives.

What to do: Keep Iran out of the Geneva II talks on Syria; publicize Tehran's role in facilitating al Qaeda in Iraq; and delay arms sales to Iraq until Maliki compromises with Sunnis and ceases to repress Iranian dissidents. Finally, even without U.S. boots on the ground, it is incorrect to say, "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis," because it is also America's fight.

Photo: Sadam el-Mehmedy/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Rethinking Intervention and the Ability to Create Knockoff Americas

With Iraq coming apart and American sacrifices in Fallujah and Ramadi seeming to have been in vain, it is worth asking the larger question of whether the United States sufficiently understood the Arab Middle East enough to put troops on the ground there and, more important for the future, whether it should ever do so again. The answer to the question about the past is clearly "no." Whatever we may have thought of Saddam Hussein, we had no real idea of the implications of occupying a state that was artificial from birth. Our desire to foster good governance in Iraq presupposed that good governance was even possible in a state whose citizens did not want to live alongside one another, unless they were forced to. Indeed, few such states have remained stable over the long run: Witness the seemingly never-ending wars in central Africa, whose constituent states are, like Iraq, the product of bureaucrats drawing maps that suited their own country's needs, not those of the people on the ground that those maps delineated.

Perhaps it is time Washington realized that it cannot mold other states in its own image. If America is truly exceptional, then, by definition, other states cannot be made into knockoff Americas. It is indeed ironic that President Barack Obama, who denies American exceptionalism, seems less inclined to intervene in other states than those for whom that exceptionalism is an article of faith. His motivations may be entirely misplaced, but his instincts may not be.

To argue that America should be far more cautious about intervening abroad is not to say that it should never intervene. The willingness to intervene in support of a beleaguered ally is a sine qua non for maintaining alliances. Without a credible willingness to do so, America will find it has no allies. But it was one thing to intervene on behalf of Kuwait when Iraq actually had invaded that small country, and quite another to invade Iraq when it not only had not taken any action against its neighbors, but had not even a mounted a credible threat to do so.

Again, it is one thing to attack a putative aggressor from the air or sea, as was the case with Libya in 1986 and again a quarter-century later, or, for that matter, in the 1990s, with the no-fly zones over Iraq, and quite another to deploy troops on the ground. It is the latter that provokes the greatest outrage among the largest number of people in the targeted country, in part because it is so much easier to insert troops into a country than to withdraw them. Put simply, while advocates of nation-building argue that most people want to live in a free society, it is even more the case that most people don't want foreigners telling them how to live, especially if those foreigners wear uniforms and carry guns down their streets and alleys.

It is easy in retrospect to regret the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom, especially since it is arguable that Iraq is hardly free today. Still, the case for intervention at that time looked far more compelling than it does today, and caution is always recommended when applying hindsight to any situation. Nevertheless, it is undeniable (except for the most partisan administration supporters whose job it is to make silk purses out of sow's ears) that America's standing in the Middle East is nothing short of a disaster. Iraq is falling apart. Syria is falling apart. Libya is falling apart. Lebanon, ever fragile, may once again revert to civil war. Egypt has gone through multiple convulsions. American intervention in Iraq was not the sole or proximate cause of all these developments, but it surely was a contributory cause. Another American intervention in the region would only make matters worse.

Whatever one's view of whether America should or should not have invaded Iraq in 2003, there is no excuse for not learning the lesson of Iraq that should be clear to all today. It is a lesson first enunciated in a different Asian context by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and ignored ever since: The United States should not become enmeshed in a land war in Asia. What made sense in the late 1940s makes sense in the contemporary Middle East for the same reason: Ancient peoples, with ancient hatreds, will not pay much heed to well-intentioned Americans who come to tell them what to do with their polities; and sadly, all too often, they will shoot at them as well.

Photo: WISAM SAMI/AFP/Getty Images