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US president Barack Obama has yet to work out exactly what America’s strategy is in confronting Islamic State (IS), and has been foolish enough to say so in public. Cue the foreseeable torrent of point-scoring from opponents.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp perceptively pointed out, however, a more sympathetic interpretation of what Obama meant in context is not “that he has no idea what he’s doing in Iraq”, but rather that:

… there is no good strategy available for fully defeating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

With all due respect to a Washington foreign policy community apparently surprised and annoyed by Obama’s reluctance to jump in with both feet with a major military intervention, his instincts are sound.

I have written in The Conversation before that the smorgasbord of unpalatable options available to Obama owes a great deal to the cataclysmically destabilising actions in the region of his predecessor, most especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I have also argued elsewhere that the president was wise to be extremely wary of wading into an interventionist role during the early stages of the Syrian civil war.

Arguments that the US could have averted IS’s rise by funnelling weapons to moderates at the right time are a comforting fantasy, predicated on an inflated estimation of the United States’ ability to shape events on the ground.

But let’s not re-litigate the past here. What can or should Obama do? And is he guilty of shilly-shallying in a situation that demands urgent action?

First, the obvious. IS’s rise is bad from the perspective of pretty much everybody except the group itself. As an ideological force it combines religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and brutality in such a strong brew that even al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be associated with its actions.

With its proclivity for mass executions, forced conversions and ethnic cleansing, IS has managed the impressive feat of being utterly friendless in a region where being the right person’s enemy is usually sufficient to make you at least one or two allies of convenience. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan put it:

It’s a phenomenal thing: Everybody hates ISIS – the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel. Nearly all Middle Eastern countries and their big-power backers (including Russia and probably China too) would like to see it crushed.

Its new tactic of gruesomely beheading kidnapped American journalists – partly as ransom-blackmail scheme, partly a pose of warped ideological bravado – has merely confirmed its status as the ne plus ultra of international pariahs. This should augur well for bringing about its ultimate defeat. The chief obstacle lies in the fact that while all these governments may not want to see IS triumphant, the incompatibilities between what they do want are sufficiently stark as to render concerted action tricky.

The decisions about limited US intervention that Obama has had to make thus far have been, if not so easy as to be automatic, then at least not among the most challenging he has ever had to make.

When northern Iraq’s Kurds, arguably the United States’ most solid and reliable allies in the region for the last two decades, needed support from the air to repel a sudden IS advance into their domain, retake a key dam and facilitate the escape of thousands of fleeing Yazidi civilians trapped on a mountain, it was an unwelcome re-entangling of the United States in intra-Iraqi conflict. But it was so obviously the right thing to do that in the end it presented little in the way of a dilemma.

US air forces have dropped arms and other supplies to Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
EPA/US Air Force

How – and whether – to go about the vastly larger task of breaking IS control over the territory it still commands is a far more difficult question. In Syria, where IS is firmly established as the dominant anti-government rebel force, there is no way that the United States can strike at it without tacitly aiding the cause of Bashar al-Assad. The UN has accused the regime of war crimes and Obama has explicitly demanded Assad should leave office.

Yet according to Obama’s top military adviser, there may be no way to really knock IS from its perch in either country without acting within Syria.

Even if we limit the question to action that might be taken within Iraq, while it may be clear that the US should be willing to act to defend its staunch Kurdish allies, it is far from clear that it can uncomplicatedly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Iraqi national government.

That government, whose closest international ally is Iran and whose brazenly sectarian Shia orientation – at least until Nouri al-Maliki’s toppling as prime minister in August – his replacement is yet to be tested – did more than anyone to feed the profound sense of disenfranchisement among the Sunni population that provided IS with the fertile soil in which its roots are now deeply embedded.

Even if Obama were to set aside all his rational and temperamental reservations about re-deploying US military resources more fully in Iraq, there is no reason to believe – as The Economist’s Matt Steinglass has pointed out – that the US knows any better now than it did in 2003 how to successfully navigate the essential next stage. That is to construct an Iraqi state with the pluralistic culture and institutions required to address the underlying source of disillusion and violent resistance on the part of Iraq’s Sunnis.

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who has spent much time on the ground in the region today and over the past decade, may have offered the key insight. He suggests that the US is the last actor still clinging to the idea of “Iraq” as a viable political entity long after the “Iraqis” themselves, of all religious and ethnic stripes, have moved on.

If the US is to make it a priority to undermine – and ultimately destroy – IS as a political force, it will be a tough mission. It will require patient and skilful coalition-building, and a willingness to significantly compromise America’s ideals on other fronts.

Throughout such an effort, Obama will have to contend with a general population at home that is sick and tired of wars. Americans are disinclined to shed blood for anything short of a true emergency.

He will also face constant sniping from political opponents whose primary mode of engagement with foreign policy has become the issuing of vacuous paeans to strength, leadership and “urgency” – all of which Obama is asserted to have in insufficient quantity – rather than constructive engagement with the unhappy trade-offs America’s actually existing options demand.

If Obama is to take all this on, it would be useful to know not just whom the US would be seeking to kill and what bad things they have done, but towards what realistic, achievable end-state it would be fighting. That is the great unanswered question of US involvement in both Iraq and Syria today.

Being increasingly aware of this, it is no wonder Obama still considers his strategy a work in progress. Unencumbered by such awareness, his bellicose critics embody the facile faith in the utility of military force that did so much to generate America’s present Middle Eastern sorrows.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s new report on policy towards Iran contains no surprises – startling new departures aren’t in the nature of such documents – but does help crystallise a couple of important features of the present posture of the Western coalition’s posture towards Iran. The first is that the committee declared unambiguously that it is fully on board with efforts to restore UK-Iranian diplomatic relations to normality, or at least the status quo ante that passed for normality in UK-Iranian relations, after the fallout from the 2011 attack on the British embassy in Tehran.

That attack led to a period of recrimination and diplomatic distance between the countries and the report gently chides the foreign secretary for having waited as long as he has reopen the embassy, the decision to do which was announced just this June. This suggests that the British government continues to face nothing resembling the challenges that its American counterpart must contend with when it comes to persuading legislators of the wisdom of detente with Tehran.

The second thing the report served to clarify was that parliament broadly backs the judgement call made by the British, American and other “G5 +1” governments in 2013 when they struck a provisional deal on somewhat loosened sanctions in exchange for intensified talks to resolve the stand-off over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. That judgement was that we cannot be certain of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s willingness or ability to deliver a deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. But the alternatives are sufficiently poor that the present course was worth a try, and we must hope fervently that it can be made to work.

Rouhani, a relative moderate, was elected by a convincing margin in 2013 with a clear mandate to try and alleviate Iran’s increasingly crippling sanctions burden by cutting some sort of deal with the West. He has shown every sign since his election of being in earnest in trying to see that mandate through. This is not simple – if it were, one imagines it would not have continued to vex the finest diplomatic minds of both sides for so long.

The past ten years have witnessed a marked rise in Iran’s stature, or at least its prominence and ability to make its will felt, in the diplomacy and statecraft of the region. It has played an ever-more explicit and instrumental role in the conflicts and governance of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and has seemed to don the mantle of informal leadership of Shi’ites across the region at a time when the Sunni-Shi’ite cleavage shows signs of becoming the most relevant of the many divides around which the region’s peoples divide.

Simultaneously, this period has seen the Iranian leadership come to view development of a nuclear weapons capability, or something close to it, not just as a symbol of national status and technological mastery, but also as a necessary ultimate guarantor of its security against external assault as it ups the ante in the high-stakes regional power game in which it is now a player with aspirations to win big.

Some 35 years after its Islamic Revolution, Iran’s clerical regime regards threats, both external and internal, to its lock on power as being at bay for the time being but nevertheless real and serious. The political and strategic benefits of apparent progress towards a nuclear capability speak to both of those concerns of the governing elite: by shoring up the prestige of the regime’s security apparatus at home, through demonstrating technological prowess and independence in the face of foreign pressure, while also deterring aggression from abroad. So long, that is, as the tension the programme creates with the US and Israel doesn’t prove, paradoxically, to be the trigger for a war that brings about Iran’s destruction.

The price of these benefits for Iran has been international isolation and economic sanctions that have gradually intensified their stranglehold over its fragile economy. It is this economic pain which, the parliamentary report agrees, helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. The hope now is that the brief respite granted during this year’s renewed negotiations will have whetted the appetite for a more permanent reprieve, even at the expense of significant concessions.

Judging Rouhani

This is where Rouhani comes in, with two major questions hanging over the present negotiations with his government. The first concerns intent: is he truly a moderate figure who can be trusted to pursue in good faith a compromise realistically acceptable to the G5+1? On this, the committee is in line with the Obama administration in maintaining an open mind, trending towards hopefulness, but being disposed to reserve ultimate judgement until concrete actions follow Rouhani’s hitherto mostly reassuring words.

The potential for a deal would seem to exist if both sides are serious in wanting one, and its terms are not difficult to discern. To achieve it, Iran will have to accept that accepting actual nuclear weapons in its possession is out of the question from the Western perspective and that to pursue them is to risk calamitous war. If it accepts that principle, it will also have to tolerate the significant incursions upon its sovereignty that will be required to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and others to verify that its programmes remain halted short of actively building a weapon. In the context of Iranian politics and history, these would be big concessions, but if anyone liable to occupy the office of president in today’s Iran would be willing to go this far for a deal, Rouhani appears to fit the bill.

For the West, on the other hand, securing a deal will mean accepting that Iran will be permitted to possess a significant capability in the realm of nuclear technology, which would provide it with the capacity to build a bomb within under a year. The pivotal point for negotiation is therefore what mechanisms can be put in place to give the US confidence that it would have forewarning in good time if Iran decided to “break out” by taking that step.

Such a compromise, imperfect as it is, would be no small political feat for Western leaders to pull off. Powerful constituencies in their own countries, as well as Western-aligned states in the region such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, currently regard anything less than unilateral climbdown by Iran as unacceptable. Having taken a realistic look at what would truly be involved in the unpalatable alternative of a military engagement of unknowable cost, duration and consequence, however, responsible leaders may nevertheless be disposed to use their political capital to face critics down.

The second question hanging over Rouhani’s government is that of whether, assuming he does have sincere enthusiasm for a deal, he can truly deliver his country. Iran is not a pluralistic democracy, but neither is it a monolith: the president represents only one part of its political architecture, and not the most important. Above and behind him stands the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in whom the ultimate power to decide resides. Supreme though he may notionally be, he must in turn consider how the steps he takes will be regarded by religious, military and paramilitary hard-liners.

The fact that the president is the one identified publicly with Iran’s conduct of the present negotiations leaves Khamenei the space to reserve ultimate commitment on his own part until the last possible moment. Should the details of a serious deal end up on the table, it will be for him to then back or disavow (and thereby kill) it based upon his calculation of the balance of risk to his position and that of the regime to which he has devoted his life.

Such are the dynamics in play. In holding out hope that these will come together to produce the outcome they wish for, while remaining acutely aware of the scope for an unhappier endgame, the British parliament – like the White House and the rest of us – must wait, in some suspense, and see. However uncomfortable such waiting may be, there is some limited consolation in the fact that the alternatives are too grim to contemplate. This makes the decision to err on the side of patience and hope an easier one.

The Conversation

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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