And here comes Iran
You know what they say: “Coming events cast their shadows first,” so we already knew this was coming. Even though it was not announced with trumpets, by bombing Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Iraq on Dec. 3, Iran has joined the anti-ISIL coalition.
This has totally been a game-changer, transforming the entire equation, but what does this mean for Turkey?
Let’s remember first: Iran had joined the game long before the United States started its airstrikes in August. For a long while, Iran had been supplying military aid to Baghdad and fighting with ISIL on the ground via the Shiite militia under its control.
Moreover, last week it was reported that U.S. President Barack Obama sent his fourth letter to Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to push for a united front against ISIL. Al Jazeera also broadcasted video footage last week showing an Iranian jet in Iraqi skies. And now this week, we have the first official confirmation that Iran’s Air Force is involved in the anti-ISIL fight.
Even though Iran has neither denied nor accepted this news, U.S. officials confirmed it right away.
Right after this big news, American media reported that U.S. officials had been aware of Iranian flights beforehand and that they don’t expect the bombing to end before the anti-ISIL fight ends.
Thereby, Iran has become the fourth country helping the U.S. bomb ISIL targets in Iraq, following the U.K., France and Canada. Even if Washington states that Iran is not a partner, Tehran is actually the most active member of the coalition today. And even if not a strategic partner, it is certainly a tactical partner of the U.S. in the region. In addition, although its airstrikes have been taking place near the Iraq-Iran border, it is in a different part of Iraq from where the U.S. operates; the U.S. is indirectly cooperating with Iran. At the end of the day, the two countries are fighting against the same enemy, in the same territory and on the same front.
So why is the U.S. getting increasingly closer with Iran? Especially despite the opposing stance of its regional allies, namely Israel and Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who feel threatened by Iran. First of all, Iran is today the U.S.’ main partner in Iraq. Furthermore, it has vast influence over Baghdad.
President Obama also doesn’t want to put the ongoing diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program at risk, since an agreement would serve as the major foreign policy achievement of his second term. In addition, the U.S. is also concerned that the Shiite militia under Iran’s control might turn on the American troops on the ground. And last but not least, today Iran emerges as a center of stability in the region.
Then how would this development affect Turkey? First of all, Iran’s role has become existential in Iraq. Hence the U.S. cannot override its rules easily. There is no need to mention that Tehran has announced several times that it wouldn’t let Bashar al-Assad fall. Therefore, Ankara’s primary objective, al-Assad’s ousting, seems much less achievable now.
Moreover, this might also push Turkey to become more engaged in the coalition since it is in a regional rivalry with Iran. It would also seriously increase the pressure on Turkey to commit more strongly to the coalition. The American media, as well as high-level U.S. officials who have visited Turkey recently, have already given an indication of this pressure.
Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have also made this request publicly. Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Masoud Barzani, said during my interview with him that Ankara, Erbil, Baghdad and Tehran have to cooperate against ISIL. Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari had also said in my interview with him that Baghdad asked and is waiting for aid from Turkey.
In short, a new equilibrium is being built in the region. The U.S. is trying to counter-balance its relations with its traditional regional allies, namely the Gulf countries, Israel and Turkey, with Iran. And this is reflected increasingly in its Iraqi and Syrian policies.
So, this is the new game. Will Turkey play this game by its new rules or the old ones? We’ll see. Yet, you must know the only way you can win a game.