Iran, Israel and Isis

Spreading like a cancer

As the massacre in Gaza continues, time and time again the survivors of the conflict are heard on Middle Eastern and western media complaining about the leaders of Arab countries failing the Palestinian cause. In fact, even in comparison with previous wars, the official reaction by Arab states has been extremely poor. Protestors in many Arab capitals are blaming their own governments for making no effort to stop the bloodshed. In the first week of relentless bombing, the military-led Egypt, under former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, went as far as to blame Hamas for the Palestinian deaths. Naturally then, the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt were kept closed.

Ironically the Arab spring (and its failure) has played a negative role in this. Arab governments seem so preoccupied with their internal problems that they have failed even to give voice to the usual rhetoric of condemnation. According to Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu, “In all the other invasions and assaults on Gaza, there was at least some government that would come out and talk about how what Israel was doing was illegal and show some support. This time around, there’s been nothing. The silence is deafening.”1

Of course, the same is not true about the Arab population. There have been major demonstrations in Middle Eastern capitals, from Tunis to Sana’a. However, those in Cairo have been much smaller than in the past – probably a direct result of the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as Hamas’s close ally.

Recriminations about Arab reactions to the Gaza massacre have already started. Qatar is accusing Egypt of being an obstacle to a ceasefire at a time when all parties are in Cairo for negotiations. Meanwhile Egypt’s foreign minister accuses Qatar, Turkey and Hamas of undermining his government’s attempts to negotiate a ceasefire. Israel, on the other hand, singles out Qatar as the main provider of arms and funds to Hamas.

Non-Arab Iran has had a turbulent relationship with Hamas over the last few years, but the reconciliation initiated in January 2014 means the Iranian regime appears to be one of only two governments in the region voicing opposition to events in Gaza (Turkey being the other). However, before anyone rushes to congratulate the Islamic Republic, it is worth noting that the Shia government’s relations with Hamas were badly damaged after Hamas supported the uprising against Iran’s ally, president Bashar al-Assad, two and a half years ago. At that time Iran stopped all financial aid to Hamas, estimated to be worth around £14 million a month.

In fact, contrary to scare stories in Tel Aviv and Washington about Iran’s funding of Hamas’s war, Iranian leaders’ talk about Palestine does not match their actions. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei was scathing in his attack on Israel: “This rabid dog, this rapacious wolf, has attacked innocent people, and humanity must show a reaction. This is genocide, a catastrophe on a historical scale.”2 However, earlier in the week, Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and his foreign minister were absent from the state-sponsored pro-Palestine demonstration – probably conscious of the delicate stage of negotiations with the P5+1 powers.

Yes, there have been promises of aid, but so far Iran has delivered very little practical support and it is very doubtful that this crisis-ridden country, its economy destroyed by sanctions, will do much. It is wary of the political risks involved in sending arms – in this crucial four-month extension to negotiations over a nuclear deal it does not want to be accused of ‘aiding terrorism’ by the west.

In Washington the Republican chair of the house intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, claimed last week that the extension of nuclear talks means that Iran will now be able to send financial support to ‘militants’ in the Gaza strip, especially now that the US administration has freed $2.8 billion of oil revenue. And, for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the obstacles to a long-term deal between the US and Iran are no longer limited to Tehran’s nuclear capability. There is the alleged support for Hamas. In fact Iran’s improved relations with Hamas are likely to be temporary. Hamas has close relations with the Syrian rebels, Assad’s opponents, and Iran has no intention of giving up its support for the Syrian dictator. Of course, the reality is that the Islamic Republic’s support for Palestine has always been opportunistic.

Islamic State

However, the $64 million question throughout the Middle East is, where does the Islamic State (formerly Isis) stand on all this? In late June and early July the pro-Israeli press was full of scare stories about Isis cells in Gaza. It was alleged that mourners carrying black flags at a funeral in Gaza were Isis supporters, although, far from being an indication of support for the Islamic State, black flags are a common feature of Muslim funerals.

Hamas itself categorically denied Egyptian security claims that “terrorists” have infiltrated Sinai through Gaza tunnels. According to Hamas, there is no Islamic State presence in the Gaza strip. And in fact the jihadists’ official position is that fighting the ‘infidels’ takes precedence over fighting Israel. Responding to a question regarding the group’s position vis-à-vis the current conflict in Gaza, an Islamic State spokesman said: “The greatest answer to this question is in the Qur’an, where Allah speaks about the nearby enemy – those Muslims who have become infidels – as they are more dangerous than those who were already infidels.” There must be “priority” given to “fighting those who have become disbelievers over conquest of Jerusalem”, since “Jerusalem will not be freed until we get rid of the idolaters, such as the wealthy families and the players appointed by the colonial government who control the fate of the Islamic world.”3 This was shocking to many, coming as it did so soon after Isis’s claim to lead Muslims worldwide. Many Islamists must have expected the new caliphate to be in forefront of the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist state.

This deprioritisation prompted political attacks on the Islamic State. In response, the group’s spokesperson, Nidal Nuseiri, reiterated the need to ensure that “Bayt al-Maqdis” (Jerusalem) belongs to believers and claimed the destruction of Israel was central to the holy war Isis was waging. However, this required a “systematic approach” and a “process that will take many stages”. Some of those “stages” – building a firm base for an Islamic state in Iraq, and using it as a springboard to wage war in Syria and Lebanon – have already been achieved. But he said a number of other criteria still needed to be fulfilled before challenging Israel directly.

Among them, Nuseiri said, the US, Israel’s greatest ally, needed to be weakened politically and economically via attacks on the American mainland, as well as against US interests in Muslim countries. Additionally, the Islamic State needed to expand its borders to cover all of “greater Syria” (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and possibly Gaza). After all this had been accomplished, the new caliphate would be in a strong position to take on Israel directly. In other words, as Palestinians are massacred, the Islamic State will do nothing to help them. It will continue its efforts to ‘purify the religion’ by killing fellow Muslims, and by attacking innocent Christians in Iraq and Syria.

All this was music to the ears of conspiracy theorists in Iran and Iraq. The Iranian agency, Fars News, quoted Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency turncoat, who said: “British and American intelligence and the Mossad worked together to create the … Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant using a strategy called the ‘hornet’s nest’. The plan was devised to protect Israel from security threats by diverting attention to the newly manufactured regional enemy: Isis.”4

In the good old days of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s official news agency played a crucial role in starting false rumours, which were then repeated by government officials and the rest of the Iranian press and media as fact. Clearly the agency has returned to its old practices and this time pro-Maleki Iraq and the official press in Syria have also picked up on its ‘revelations’ about the Islamic State.

Of course, the Iranian government believes it can take the moral high ground and attack the jihadist group as part of its ‘anti-terrorism’ campaign. This allows Iran to side with the Shia government in Baghdad and the Alawite dictator in Damascus, pretending it is not just a campaign against its Sunni opponents.

No connection

Meanwhile, Israel has at last admitted what everyone already knew: there are no grounds for believing Hamas ordered the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers murdered on June 12 – the incident seized on by Tel Aviv to launch its latest war, part of the strategic campaign to eventually drive out millions of Palestinians from a ‘greater Israel’.

Now it is confirmed that the initial Israeli attack against Gaza had nothing to do with that incident: it was an attempt to sabotage the deal between Hamas and Fatah, to isolate Hamas and punish Fatah for the rapprochement. However, this plan has already failed. As early as July 10, the Israeli press was reporting missiles being launched against Israel by groups linked to Fatah. Amin Maqboul, secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, claimed that Palestinians are united against the Israeli assault, rejecting the idea that the war will result in the collapse of the agreement between Fatah and Hamas. He said: “We all know that the main Israeli goal has been to break up the national unity reconciliation. We will respond by strengthening our unity and reconciliation.”

All this has led to the Zionist press launching a campaign against Fatah. This quote from Arutz Sheva sums it up: “The ‘moderate’ Palestinian leadership has shown its true colours. It sides with the terrorists, not with Israel.”5

Notes

1. www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/world/middleeast/palestinians-find-show-of-support-lacking-from-arab-nations-amid-offensive.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0.

2. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/07/29/Khamenei-slams-rabid-dog-Israel-over-Gaza-war.html.

3. www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/182632#.U9if20N3_hc.

4. http://syrianfreepress.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/snowden-confirms-that-al-baghdadi-was-trained-by-mossad.

5. www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15327#.U9lkS_ldWpc.

Descent into regional chaos, horror and fragmentation

Last week, the leader of the Islamic state (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis) appeared in Friday prayers in Mosul addressing Muslims worldwide. At least this is what his supporters claimed after a week when the organisation had declared the territory under their control a “caliphate”.

On July 3 the Iraqi ministry of interior (not the most reliable source of information) put out a statement maintaining that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (otherwise known as Ibrahim al-Samarrai), the Islamic world’s new caliph, or Amir Almuminin (‘commander of the believers’), successor to prophet Muhammad, had been wounded in an air strike and had been transferred to Syria for medical treatment. Irrespective of whether this was the real Baghdadi or a double (as claimed by Iraqi government forces and the United States), Isis took no chances. According to Mosul residents, the city’s mobile network was closed down, presumably to stop any tracing of the movement of the Isis leader.

The same day the militant Sunni group also issued video footage showing the destruction of dozens of places of worship in Nineveh province in northern Iraq. Shia, Sunni and Christian sites were destroyed, with images placed on social media. In line with Isis’s claim that it is abolishing the arbitrary borders drawn up by Britain and France in 1916, the group symbolically blew up border posts between Syria and Iraq. On July 8 the Al Arabia news agency was reporting the circulation of a new Isis passport in the name of “the State of the Islamic Caliphate”.

The first caliphate, or succession to Islam’s prophet Muhammad, was established in the 7th century, when, according to Sunnis, Abu Bakr succeeded Muhammad as the commander of the believers. Sunni Muslims claim Abu Bakr was chosen by Muhammad in the last few days of his life – the prophet asked him to lead prayers and this indicated his choice of successor. However, according to followers of Shia Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, had been designated his successor and previous caliphs were irrelevant.

The Ottoman emperors (1451-1924) were originally secular conquerors. However, Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1481 claimed caliphal authority and his grandson, Selim I, who conquered and unified more Islamic territories, continued the title as the defender of Islam’s holiest shrines. The collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923 marked the end of the caliphate.

Over the last few centuries small fringe groups have, like Isis, declared their territory to be a caliphate and, of course, Iran’s Islamic Republic portrays itself as the true Islamic state for both Sunnis and Shias, while the Moroccan king calls himself “commander of the faithful”. The specific problem with Isis’s declaration is not just that it has left itself open to accusations of overreaching itself, but that it has put it on a collision course with al Qa’eda. The conflict between the two groups has been in the open for months and in Syria they have taken up arms against each other.

Stalemate

The government of Nouri al-Maleki has rightly been blamed for sectarianism and incompetence and it is certainly largely responsible for creating the political stalemate that paved the way for the current crisis in Iraq. Throughout his two spells as prime minister, the Iraqi leader made no serious effort to reach out to either the Sunnis or the Kurds. On the contrary, Maleki’s ‘counterinsurgency’ policies were aimed at reducing the influence of Sunnis in the state and the military – a policy that created dissatisfaction amongst the Sunni population of the northern provinces. The Iraqi army became dominated by incompetent, unpopular officers whose only quality was loyalty to the Shia prime minister.

Maleki ignored reports of corruption and torture made against his allies in the upper ranks of the military. One general close to the Iraqi premier was implicated in torture; another, already sacked in 2009 for failing to protect Baghdad from terror attacks, was put in charge of defending part of the northern territories and is believed to have been amongst the first deserters. As a result, the military was quickly sapped of morale and cohesion, and the local population lost confidence in the central government.

In the 2010 elections, the more or less non-sectarian, mainly Sunni Iraqiya coalition gained the largest number of parliamentary seats. However, Maleki used the courts to stop it from attempting to form a government. He later used delaying tactics, bringing false accusations of corruption against Sunni rivals to outmanoeuvre opposition politicians and eventually taking power himself. And now, nearly three months after the elections held on April 30 2014, the Iraqi parliament has failed to reach an agreement over nominations for the country’s top posts: president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament.

According to the Iraqi constitution, a new president should be chosen within 30 days of the election of parliamentary speakers and their deputies. Following this process, the new head of state will have two weeks to ask the political party/alliance with the most MPs to nominate a prime minister, whose responsibility it is to form a government. Maleki, who remains the prime minister-designate until August, is responsible for carrying the process through and it is his delaying tactics that are blamed for the current political chaos in Iraq – a stalemate that has paved the way for Isis’s military advances.

The Iraqi prime minister has now acquired some powerful enemies. The United States, Britain and some factions of Iran’s Islamic Republic are looking for an alternative figure. John Kerry, Tony Blair and senator John McCain all agree that Maleki needs to stand down before a unity government can take shape in Baghdad. In late June US deputy secretary of state William Burns discussed Iraq with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in Vienna. US officials claim Iran is sending out conflicting messages over whether it is prepared to support a new Shi’ite prime minister other than Maleki. Both Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Ahmed Chalabi, mentioned as possible replacements, are acceptable to Iran’s government. However, ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has publicly declared his support for Maleki and demanded the US stop interfering in Iraq’s political deliberations.

His views are supported by some commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In fact the Revolutionary Guards are heavily involved in military operations against Isis. For all the denials by Iran’s foreign ministry officials regarding the country’s military intervention in Iraq, there are a number of reports over the last couple of weeks of funerals held for Revolutionary Guards, as well as for Iranian airforce pilots, killed in Iraq and Syria.

Tribal leaders and Sunni politicians in northern Iraq have also been blamed for the crisis. Without the active cooperation or acceptance of locals, Isis would not have been able to capture so many cities. Those Sunni leaders who think they are preparing the ground for an Islamic state have clearly not thought through the implications of being part of an Isis-led ‘rogue state’, with little or no access to oil; a state where self-appointed ‘caliphs’ will interfere forcefully in every aspect of the private and social lives of Iraqi citizens in the cities under its control, irrespective of their religious and cultural background.

Kurdistan

In the midst of this political and military chaos, incompetent, corrupt and deluded Iraqi Kurdish leaders are also hoping to benefit from the situation, and are calling for Kurdish independence. Having secured temporary control of the Kirkuk oil refinery on July 1, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, told the BBC he intends to hold a referendum within months – Iraq was already “effectively partitioned”, he added. No sooner had Barzani spoken than the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, promised cooperation with any new state.

The news of Netanyahu’s support initiated postings on the internet and the social media of the historical background to Israeli-Kurdish relations, including photographs from the 1960s showing Massoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa, embracing the then Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan. In 2004 Israeli officials met with Kurdish political leaders when Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, publicly affirmed good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.1

Soon after the Israeli statement, social-imperialist groups, ranging from the Worker-communist Party of Iran to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Britain, echoed Israel’s position on the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

Iran’s response followed soon after, with a warning to its former allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not to declare independence, since Israel was plotting to divide Iraq. Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted as saying: “Undoubtedly the vigilant Iraqi people will not allow the Zionist regime and enemies of a unified Iraq to carry out their plots and realise their immature fantasies in the region.” Deputy minister for Arab and African affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the US is going for a Ukraine scenario in Iraq.

However, before anyone gets too excited about an ‘independent Kurdistan’ (limited to Kurdish territory in Iraq, of course), let me remind them that the biggest obstacle to such a plan will be economic considerations. Barzani clearly hopes to benefit from oil revenues generated from areas under his control, but the Kurdish authorities are currently in dispute with the central government and Baghdad is withholding payment of the share of the national budget allocated to the Kurdish regional government. Any serious attempts at separation will reduce the chances of the Kurdish authorities obtaining sufficient funds for economic survival. Moreover, the territory is landlocked, and the ‘independence’ plan is based on the income gained from the export of oil resources through Turkey. This will depend on the outcome of lengthy negotiations with Ankara. In other words, the new Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic survival will be in the hands of Ankara (not exactly the Kurds’ best friend) instead of Baghdad. Turkey’s support for such a state will no doubt include plans to control and silence aspirations for independence in Turkish Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, exaggerated stories about the role of KDP pishmargehs in fighting Isis in northern Iraq do not match reports from the region. Barzani’s initial order to his pishmargehs was to avoid conflict with Isis. It is the PKK and Pejhak guerrillas who have been taking the lead against Isis advances in Kurdish territory in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Barzani and his supporters should be well aware that Isis’s ambitions go far beyond defeating the Shia government in Baghdad. It is violently opposed to semi-secular Iraqi Kurdistan, where there is no state-imposed sexual segregation, where some women dare go out without a headscarf, where alcohol is openly sold and consumed …

There is also the question of Sunni Arabs living in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are fiercely nationalistic and will oppose any talk of independence. Iraqi Turkmen in and around Kirkuk are also unhappy about Barzani’s proposal and are threatening to unite against the Kurdish regional government’s attempts to fully integrate Kirkuk into the region.

No-one should take Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in the Iranian and the British left seriously when they talk of the “birth of a new Kurdish nation” in Iraq. Any unilateral attempt at declaring the current Kurdish region independent would unleash civil war.

Stability

For all the hype about Isis’s military gains in the last few weeks, we should remember that last time jihadists, in the shape of al Qa’eda forces led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, controlled a large chunk of northern Iraq, they did not keep hold of it for long, because their brutality alienated the majority of the local population and they also managed to alienate the Sunni tribes who had backed them. Reports from Iraq imply the new ‘caliph’ has not learned any lessons from the previous occasion. No wonder al Qa’eda has distanced itself from its former ally.

Having said that, clearly the unpopular Maleki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, does not believe he can stop Isis without huge support – and in the case of Iraq almost everyone is now involved: Russian jets, Iranian planes and ground forces, as well as US drones.

Although the governments in Iran and Iraq have publicly accused Saudi Arabia of funding the jihadi movement, the Saudis, together with Jordan and Morocco, are now concerned that it could endanger their own rule. In the case of Saudi Arabia there is clearly a feeling that the monster it has created is out of control. Nothing else would explain the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with talk of a possible visit by the chairman of Iran’s expediency council, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, to Riyadh.

On July 5 Rafsanjani proposed the following: “To fight extremism … a collective effort should be made by all Muslim countries, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, in order to prevent a perception that Islamic nations and governments depend on foreign powers to maintain their stability and security.”2

Once again it is clear that, far from securing ‘democracy and prosperity’, the ‘war on terror’ unleashed by Bush and Blair has created such chaos that the two most reactionary countries in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – could soon be widely seen as forces of moderation and “stability”.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. The Guardian June 21.

2. www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/07/06/370099/iran-ksa-must-unite-against-extremism.