The Crescent on a Hot Plate
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
The scene was strange in Baghdad in early March 2007. A plane had landed in the country controlled by the “Great Satan”, carrying on board a president that comes from the mantle of the spiritual leader.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw a crowd of American armored vehicles. The head of the accompanying delegation asked Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari about the scene. He responded that the number of US troops reached 170,000. The visitor was not unaware of this reality – perhaps this was the reason for his visit.
The Iraqi authorities asked US soldiers to open the barricades and to facilitate the passage of the Iranian president’s convoy to the Green Zone, where he met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. On the way back, soldiers at a US checkpoint insisted on stopping the president’s convoy and it turned out that the troops wanted to take a souvenir photo with the visitor. Ahmadinejad smiled when Zebari told him so, but the Iraqi authorities requested that the president remain in his car for security reasons.
Ahmadinejad did not hesitate to whisper in the ear of President Jalal Talabani that the Americans were temporary visitors and the land remains after the departure of the migratory birds. The Iranian president was keen on visiting the Shiite holy sites in another message about the Iraqi fabric.
Years before the visit, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, Tehran witnessed a high-ranking Iran-Syria meeting, in which it was agreed to make every effort to thwart the US offensive. Zebari says Tehran was keen on thwarting the US military presence, which will abutted Iranian territories from Afghanistan; while Damascus was determined to defeat the US occupation and the democratic experiment in Iraq, fearing its spread in its territory.
Also prior to the visit, Tehran and Damascus also implemented a joint decision to prevent the establishment of a pro-Western government in Lebanon, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, by besieging Fouad Siniora’s government.
Tehran benefitted from two fixations by Barack Obama’s administration: the first is the military withdrawal from Iraq, and the second is an agreement with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. When Iraqi army units collapsed in front of the ISIS wave from Mosul, Tehran quickly sent weapons and ammunition to Baghdad and Erbil. It considered that the army that collapsed was the one trained by the Americans, who spent billions of dollars on it. It then exerted an extraordinary effort to sponsor the Popular Mobilization Forces that transformed into a “parallel army.”
In Lebanon, the situation has stabilized on an equation that gives Hezbollah the first and final say in big decisions. This has kept Lebanon part of the “crescent of opposition.”
Two situations must be highlighted to complete the picture. The pro-Iranian militias alone could not save the Syrian regime. The real rescue came from the Russian military intervention. Russia has become a necessary partner in shaping the Syrian future. The Iranian role in Syria was therefore affected. The Houthis could not include Yemen in the “crescent of opposition”. They were met with Yemeni and Gulf resistance and an international understanding of the decision to go to war there.
The picture changed with the arrival of Donald Trump. He executed his promise. America withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and imposed “unprecedented sanctions” on it. He went even farther and put the Revolutionary Guards on the terrorist list. Given the political, security and economic weight of the Iranian regime’s “guards,” Tehran’s current tension can be understood. Its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, even suggested that abandoning the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was one of his country’s options.
With Trump’s determination to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero and the imminent expiry of the deadline of the exemptions on the imports by some countries, it is clear that the region is heading towards a major crisis that could turn into the “mother of all crises.”
Reports leaked from Iran in recent weeks suggest that US sanctions are undeniably painful. Tehran’s experience with the European alternative to the nuclear deal has proven its insufficiency when the US uses its economic and political weight to force countries and companies to choose between the world’s superpower and Iran.
Understanding the effects of the sanctions on Iraq shows that such a policy cannot bring down a regime. However, there is a difference here that should be noted. Saddam Hussein’s regime did not have commitments in many parts of the region, nor was it funding and arming militias involved in conflicts that have become a major part of Iran’s regional presence. Moreover, the declared American goal is to force the Iranian regime to change its policies, not to cause it to fall.
Questions arise: What is Iran doing? And how can it respond? And where? Past experience showed that Iran is fully aware of the danger of engaging in direct military conflict with the US.
The current climate suggests that proxy wars will not be easy either, with a US president whose moves are hard to predict. Inciting a war with Israel, through Gaza or Lebanon, will not be enough to reshuffle the papers, and may be untenable, under the current US administration.
This does not mean that Iran doesn’t have papers. For months, there has been talk in Baghdad about pushing for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, also through the Iraqi parliament. But Iraqi officials recognize the cost of such a step. Their need for the US role goes beyond its contribution to fighting ISIS.
It is clear that the new crisis is not good news for the Houthis, nor for Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government, whose complete formation is currently stalled due to the Iranian-American tension.
Any Iranian attempt to circumvent sanctions through Baghdad would compound difficulties for the Iraqi government. The same is true of any attempt to use the Lebanese arena, which is being carefully monitored by the US.
“The mother of all crises” is not good news for Syria either. Any talk of reconstruction will be delayed if the confrontation escalates, knowing that Damascus did not decide to choose “Russian Syria” over “Iranian Syria.”
The crisis goes beyond the question of Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. It raises a question about Iran’s ability to bear the sanctions and to keep its commitments in the “Crescent” countries, which feel they are on the way to living on a hot plate waiting for a solution to the “mother of all crises.”