UN Security Council’s vote on a draft resolution concerning the crisis in Syria, as well as the Russian, at the UN Headquarters in New York, April 12, 2017
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the USA for the foreseeable future face a common threat to their respective national security. That threat is called here ‘the Greater West Asian Crisis’ that stretches from Turkey in the west, through Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen and the Caucuses to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east. This ‘Greater West Asian Crisis’ consists of a series of interlocking regional crises emerging from a combination of domestic political, ethnic, and/or sectarian cleavages and from regional geo-political rivalries between local state actors in which the USA, Russia, and to a lesser extent China, powers not immediately bordering these countries, play important, but not decisive roles. In other words, three dynamics interlock and form a Gordian Knot named the Greater West Asian Crisis: (1) tactical and strategic trends of these non-regional powers; (2) tactical and strategic trends of this region’s state actors; and (3) political and socio-economic trends within the region’s polities. Moreover, as a result of these domestic and regional geo-political conditions violent non-state actors (VNSA), such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban, amongst others, have emerged, adding a volatile, dangerous element to this Greater West Asian Crisis and to its ability to spread instability into areas bordering it, such as Europe, the republics of Central Asia, Russia and the USA. The crises facing this Greater West Asia are individually well-known –Palestine-Israel, Turkey-Kurdish issue, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iranian-Saudi geo-political tension, Yemen, Afghanistan and VNSA – and need no discussion here. They are perhaps individually manageable to varying degrees and perhaps even solvable. However, as this short article proposes, in light of the interlocking nature of these crises one or two triggers could spark all of them simultaneously and thus plunge Iran, Russia, and the USA into a vortex of ethnic, sectarian, and inter-state conflicts accompanied by the expansion of VNSA that could easily surpass the destruction, intractability and consequences of the Syrian conflict. It is argued here that these triggers could be deep political instability and consequent state breakdown in Pakistan and/or Iraq.
This article argues that at the present time the military emasculation of ISIS and other VNSA and a negotiated settlement regulating Syria’s political future are the immediate priorities for Iran, Russia, and the USA. However, these three powers need to pay more analytical and contingency planning to the crises gaining momentum in Iraq and Pakistan, two countries situated at opposing sides of the geographical conception of a Greater West Asia. They cannot afford to be caught off guard as they were in regard to the emergence and power of ISIS in Syria.
The unique geo-political and political positions of Iran, Russia, and the USA in this Greater West Asia provide them with both the opportunity and responsibility to manage these two looming crises. Placed between Iraq and Pakistan, Iran can exercise political influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran, the largest polity in the region, has strong state structures in comparison with its immediate neighbors while it is not plagued by the deep and destabilizing ethnic and sectarian fault lines seen in Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria. Russia, as a great regional power, with vital national security interests at stake along its southern borders in the Caucasus and Central Asia, enjoys variable levels of political influence backed by a willingness to use force when necessary, unlike the geo-politically weak European Union and even leading European powers, such as France and the UK. The USA, despite changes in the dynamics of global politics, is, in the recent words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, ‘…the only superpower. We accept this…’ and thus continues to play a decisive role in the region. Despite the geo-political and ideological tensions between Washington, Moscow, and Tehran, the managing of these two looming crises requires forms of implicit and explicit co-operation and co-ordination between them based on a tactical flexibility that regulates the intensity of their trilateral interactions in regard to Iraq and Pakistan. If even limited steps are not taken in this direction the fallout from political instability and state breakdown in Iraq and/or Pakistan will exercise a very negative influence on the situation throughout Greater West Asia and ultimately Russia, Europe and the USA.
The challenge posed by Pakistan has two main aspects. One aspect is Pakistan’s security and world view that is singularly focused on India and by extension the Kashmir issue. This worldview has dictated Pakistan’s policy in regard to Afghanistan and Afghan Taliban which are considered by Islamabad to be pillars in its security and geo-political approach to India. On the one hand, an Afghanistan firmly located in a Pakistani sphere of influence provides Islamabad with additional military and geo-political leverage in its struggle with India. On the other hand, a stable relationship between Kabul and New Delhi is seen as a direct threat to Pakistan’s standing and security in the region. It should be remembered that relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the latter’s founding in 1947 have been relatively hostile and tension-ridden. Afghanistan has never recognized the Durand Line drawn by the British in 1893 that situated Pashtun lands, such as Peshawar, within the British-controlled Raj, and thus still lays claim to parts of northern Pakistan. Thus, since the late 1940s India and Afghanistan were brought together by mutual hostility toward Pakistan.
This singular focus by the Pakistani elite on India, as well as fear of Pashtun irredentism, explains Islamabad’s support of the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s during whose rule Pakistani influence in the country reached its peak, and reluctance since 2001 to deal decisively with the Afghan Taliban within the borders of Pakistan. After the US overthrow of the Taliban Pakistan has resorted to asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan, viewing the Afghan Taliban as a cost-effective and easily-deniable means of controlling events in that country. Of course this conflict is also shaped by issues internal to Afghanistan that are shaped by challenges facing any multi-national state. In particular, the divide between the more rural and less educated Pashtuns of the Eshaqzai tribe and the more urbane and educated Durrani Pashtun tribes interlocks with the Pakistani factor. Karzai and the current president Ghani come from this tribe. The Duranni, in order to solidify their position, have sought to empower the country’s other ethnic groups, namely Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Pakistan sees these moves as the institutionalization of the end of their influence in the country. Thus, it is more reluctant to move against its last remaining conduit for influence, the Afghan Taliban. However, political instability that Pakistani-backed Taliban creates inside the Afghanistan, along with the type of religious ideology its espouses, represents a threat to Iran, India, the republics of Central Asia and ultimately Russia. It is worth remembering that in the 1990s Russia and Iran aided the Northern Alliance in its struggle against the Pakistani-backed Taliban. In the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September the US finally joined the cause against the Taliban and Pakistani foreign policy in the region.
The Bush and then Obama presidencies became increasingly frustrated with the inability and/or reluctance of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment to break with the Afghan Taliban. Throughout the 2000s elements within this establishment gave sanctuary and support to the leadership and regular members of the Afghan Taliban. Both the US and Afghan governments have long blamed Taliban sanctuaries in Baluchistan, especially in its capital Quetta, as the main cause for the resilience and expansion of the Taliban insurgency. Islamabad’s reluctance to break with the Afghan Taliban is rooted in its use of such militant groups to achieve tactical and strategic foreign policy goals in the region. In sum, the Afghan Taliban was and remains a tool of Pakistani foreign policy, despite the threats of such a militant group to the stability of its neighbors. Consequently, Afghan elite and popular opinion in regard to Pakistan has become very hostile, while relations between the two countries remain tension-ridden and hostile. As late as 13 June 2016 border clashes in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar between the two countries once again took place with killed and wounded on both sides.
In 2012 the USA came out openly against Pakistan’s activities in Afghanistan and, in a sign of its rising frustration with Islamabad, announced its support for Indian training of the Afghani armed forces. At the end of May 2016, US launched a drone strike in Pakistani Baluchistan killing Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan militant Taliban. The drone strike was also a sign of the deteriorating situation within Pakistan and of lingering questions about Pakistan’s willingness to deal with Taliban. While recently the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment had been aiding the CIA in its drone campaign against Al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban in the northwestern tribal areas, it had rejected Washington’s repeated requests to carry out drone strikes in Baluchistan against Afghan Taliban.
It is unclear what Pakistan wants in Afghanistan at this time. If, in reality as some claim, it seeks through use of the Taliban to create managed chaos in Afghanistan as a way of maintaining its influence, then sooner or later Russia, Iran and the United States will face security threats coming from both countries. The ability of Pakistan to manage chaos in Afghanistan is doubtful. After all, it is unable to deal effectively with those militant groups operating within Pakistan who are threats to the Pakistani state. If, however, the security worldview of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment has indeed changed—as yet there is no convincing evidence reflecting this—then the inability of the Pakistani state to deal with both Afghan and Pakistan Taliban is a worrying sign of a failing state that could easily evolve into an exporter of instability and militant groups in the region and even beyond.
Thus, the second aspect of the challenge is the ongoing weakening of the Pakistani state which is increasingly unable to control and/or liquidate the myriad militant groups within Pakistan. These groups not only represent a threat to the Pakistani state and society, but also to the country’s neighbors. ‘As anti-state violent insurgencies and terrorism go, the Pakistani case is anomalous in that the existential militant threat it is facing today originated, to a large extent, through support of, not despite, the Pakistani state’ given the use of militant groups as a tool of foreign policy by the Pakistani state since the early 1980s. These groups have been traditionally divided into four groups: anti-Pakistani state, anti-US/NATO/Russia, anti-Indian, and sectarian, with particular venom for Shi’ism and then Christianity. The more well-known of these groups are: Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan; Harakatul Jihad-e Islami; Lashkar-e Jhangvi; Muqami Tehrik-e Taliban; Punjabi Taliban; Lashkar-e Taiba; Jaish-e Mohammad; Al-Badr; and Harakatul Mujahideen-e al Alami. The sectarian ones include Jundallah Sepah-e Sahaba Pakistan; Sunni Tehrik; Sepah-e Mohammad; Tehrik-e Jafria, Lashkar-e Jhangvi. Jundallah, the terrorist militant organization based in Pakistani Baluchistan that emerged in 2003, specifically targets the Islamic Republic of Iran and is engaged in terrorist activities in Iranian Baluchistan. Since 2010 it has been linking up with other militant religious groups inside Pakistan and abroad. Vitally, all of these groups adhere to the reactionary, orthodox Deobandi Wahabbist ideology as justification for its violence against fellow Muslims, adherents to Shi’ism in particular, and the United State, NATO states, and Russia. Additionally, since the late 2000s there is an increasing tendency of these groups to overlap politically and ideologically and co-operate and co-ordinate their activities agendas. These groups view their militant mission as part of a Sunni global movement struggling against imperialist great powers, such as the USA and Russia, heretical Shias and threatening non-Muslim states, such as India and fighting for the spread of their interpretation of Islam (Deobandi-Wahabbist ideology) to other Muslim countries. This in particular is a threat to both Iran and Russia.
Today not one Pakistani region has not been and is not subject to this rising militancy. Three problems face the Pakistani state and thus Iran, Russia and the USA, and Iran: (1) Pakistan’s weak operational capacity within the country in dealing with radical militant groups, both homegrown and foreign, such as al-Qaeda, and controlling its own borders; (2) institutional weakness and overlapping jurisdictions that are severely detrimental to the formation and execution of cohesive and unified anti-militant policies; (3) the Pakistani elite’s inability and unwillingness to revise its security and international worldview that is focused on India and ideas of Islam that could lead to the weakening and exclusion of militant extremism in the country and Afghan Taliban. After all, Pakistan’s current and growing problems with militancy, both on a regional and global level, within its own country is rooted in more than three decades of failed national and international political and security policies; and (4) growing popular political, social, and economic dissatisfaction, itself also a consequence of a failing state, that feeds these militant groups. In sum, there is little doubt that for the foreseeable future Pakistan will not only be under threat itself, but its territory will continue to be used against regional and global targets.
The other looming crisis is post-ISIS Iraq. The modern state of Iraq has faced the challenge of creating a national identity capable of generating popular loyalty to the state. So far the project of creating such an identity and corresponding governing and power structures has failed. Ethnic, religious, tribal and/or local identities continue to be hegemonic, even into the post-Saddam period. Two serious cleavages continue to exist, the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide and the Arab-Kurdish ethnic divide. They are long-standing and commonly known. The government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister (2006-2014) exacerbated tensions between these groups by choosing to follow exclusionary rather than inclusionary power politics that alienated Sunnis and the Kurds. He thus played a key role in the inability of the Iraqi state to deal with the emergence and spread of ISIS. Since 2014 the threat of a ISIS victory compounded by the violence and brutality that characterizes its rule has regulated temporarily these two cleavages into the background as the Iraqi state, along with the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities, attempts to eradicate the immediate threat posed by ISIS. However, once this threat has been effectively contained (the elimination of ISIS will take time and be contingent on future political developments in Iraq) of the crisis of post-ISIS Iraq could emerge from the background and plunge West Asia into a more dangerous and devastating crisis.
The long-standing and politically dangerous cleavages of Sunni-Shia and Arab-Kurd are compounded by the growing fissures within the Shia and Kurdish political communities that have the great possibility of breaking out in post-ISIS Iraq. The KRG president, Massud Barzani floated once again in July 2014 the idea of a referendum on Kurdish independence in the aftermath of the emergence of ISIS and its victories and subsequent Kurdish territorial expansion. The most important of these territorial gains was the city of Kirkuk. This city has sizeable Arab and Turkmen populations that are not prepared to live within a Kurdish dominated state. He then abandoned the idea by November 2014 in light of ISIS victories and advances toward Erbil, the capital of KRG. At the beginning of February 2016 he once again announced his intention to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. In the middle of June 2016 this plan was repeated by his son, Masrour Barzani, the head of the KRG’s National Security Council. He stressed that the high level of distrust and acrimony between the main ethnic and religious groups constituting Iraq prevents them from living ‘under one roof…Federation hasn’t worked….’
The push by the Barzani family seems to be an attempt to lengthen the political life of Massud Barzani. He created a constitutional crisis in August 2015 when he announced he would not abandon his post as president as required by the constitution. This crisis deepened in October 2015 when the five main Kurdish parties, the KDP, PUK, Gorran Movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and Kurdistan Islamic Group held a ninth round of negotiations that failed to come to any agreement over the presidency. The problem was that the KDP, Barzani’s party, continues to insist on Barzani remaining in office. The current parliamentary make-up has created the conditions for this paralysis. The PUK and these other parties hold 42 seats, while the KDP has 38. On 11 October 2015 the speaker of the KRG parliament, Yusef Mohammad Sadiq, was not allowed to enter the capital. Since that time the parliament has been suspended. Two days later the KRG prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, the nephew of the president, removed four members of his cabinet who were from the Gorran movement and replaced them with KDP figures.
Simultaneously, the KRG is facing a growing and deepening economic crisis. Structural problems, poor planning and vast corruption have sapped the economic life of the KRG. Moreover, over the last two years government and civil service salaries have been reduced by up to 70% while the Barzani administration remains months behind in paying such salaries. This issue alone has created both a political and economic crisis for the KRG since in Iraqi Kurdistan 1.5 million people out of a population of some 5 million hold some form of civil service or government job. It is also estimated that some 400,000-500,000 of these positions are ghost jobs where people show up just to pick up the paycheck. Demonstrations focused on these pay reductions and state non-paymanets of these salaries have dogged the KRG. In September 2015 KDP offices in Sulaimani City and Halabja provinces were attacked. In October 2015 thousands of people demonstrated in Sulaimani City and several other cities against the KRG and specifically the KDP. They were demanding payment of their salaries and the resignation of Barzani. Local KDP buildings were also burned to the ground. It seems that Masoud Barzani is seeking to ensure his political survival ‘by diverting attention away from domestic political and economic problems to a historically popular cause.’ Consequently, in the foreground of this economic crisis the Iraqi Kurdish political community and specifically the KRG face a deepening and polarizing political divide.
These repeated calls by Barzani will also inflame regional geo-political crises. Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Russia, Iran and the US are against the partition of Iraq fearing the consequences such a move would have for tensions and struggles within present-day Iraq and for the issue of Kurdish secessionist sentiments amongst the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iran. Moreover, the region’s major players will not tolerate easily the idea of a Kurdish-Israeli alliance-after all only Israel supports the idea of Kurdish independence. If Barzani, taking advantage of the weak Iraqi state and ISIS-created chaos, attempts to hold a referendum and declare independence, not only will the Iraqi state face a crisis from which it might not be able to recover, but also local state actors will be forced to act to contain the chaos emerging from the weakening Iraqi state and to deal with the Kurdish issue. Under such circumstances Saudi-Iranian geo-political tensions, Israeli geo-politics, Turkey’s problems with the Kurdish issue, and the issue of Syria, amongst other issues, could come into play with unpredictable consequences.
Simultaneously, there is growing possibility, although small in comparison to that faced by the KRG, of a split within Iraq’s Shia political community. 2015 saw growing popular protests in Baghdad and other Shia-dominated cities which represented the first large-scale popular attack on the modus operandi of the Iraqi political system. They also expressed a tension ‘and an internal Shia division on two levels: first, on the relationship between the grassroots community and the Shia political elite and its associated centres of power, and second, on the relationship between these centres of power, resources, and influence, and the government’s political ideology and foreign relations.’ In short, rising economic and social discontent mixed with the belief that the political class, dominated by fellow Shia groups, is interested only in protecting and expanding their economic, political, and power interests is slowly creating the preconditions for some form of political-social explosion that could have devastating consequences. On a different level there is a seeming growing divide within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a large umbrella force under which are situated many militias and military groups who have been active in the struggle against ISIS. The rising tensions are focused on the political shape and direction of post-ISIS Iraq. That which is worrying for some political figures, such as the prime minister and even Muqtada Sadr, is the possibility that one of these two blocs or groups within the PMF will use this growing popular economic and political discontent and its protests in order to achieve their own political and ideological goals.
Iran, USA, Russia: Unlikely Tactical Partners?
In Iraq transition to durable inclusionary state and power structures will require the participation third-parties that can take a myriad of forms ranging from low-key facilitation to direct intervention when needed. Iran and the USA with a strong Russian presence can play this vital role. Without third-party participation the bitterness and distrust between the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds could combine with the vested interests of spoilers that are hostile to settlement or seek excessive political and economic power to destroy any chance of reconciliation and establishment of inclusionary state and power structures.
The growing precariousness of the sectarian and ethnic situation in Iraq and the necessity to act preemptively needs to be recognized by these three countries. A key is to avoid the danger of incrementalism which is a common method in conflict resolution. It focuses on a ‘step-by-step progress toward a final settlement that emphasizes gradual confidence building between the parties in conflict through a phased, sequenced process that tackles the relatively minor and less-contentious issues first.’ However, the danger is that incrementalism can also excessively prolong the process and avoid tacking the most important issues. As the process drags on pressure from below and high politics can pull the parties back into conflict. Given the current and worsening situation in Iraq, Iran, the USA, and Russia as third-parties with the will to knock heads together when necessary need to ensure that the Iraqi parties in conflict resolve on a fast track the main issues associated with the establishment of inclusionary state and power structures for a unified Iraq. Time is not necessarily on the side of those trying to bring peace and stability to the country. The implementation of any agreed plan can take place over a period of time, but the forming of such a plan must be fast-tracked in order to prevent the slip into chaos that it now seemingly threatening.
The challenge facing Iran, Russia, and the USA in Pakistan is equally daunting, but differs in its essence. On the one hand, they will need to convince Pakistan through a mixture of incentives and pressure to abandon its support of Afghan Taliban and its policy of using such groups as a tool of foreign policy. This challenge is complicated given its link to the hostility between India and Pakistan and the unresolved issue of Kashmir. Another complicating factor is Saudi Arabia which views Pakistan as an important element in its geo-political and ideological confrontation with Iran. But, elite opinion in the USA and Russia to varying degrees is in opposition to Saudi activities in this region given their clear threat to US and Russian national interests. On the other hand, it is questionable whether Iran, Russia, and USA, collectively or individually, can address the causes of Pakistan’s failing state. The Pakistani elite needs to take the decision to deal with its failing state that creates the conditions for the emergence and strengthening of militant groups, fails to control and eliminate them, and exercises little control over its own borders through which militant groups are acting and threatening the security of Pakistan’s neighbors. Vitally, it should not be forgotten that many of these militant groups are not in opposition to the Pakistani state. In the meanwhile, Iran, Russia, and the USA, individually and collectively, when possible, need to co-operate tactically to limit the threats to the region and beyond that continue to emerge from Pakistan. If not, instability and chaos could very well spread through Central Asia to the borders of Russia, across the border into Iran, and even into China’s Xinjiang province that is populated by the Uyghurs.
As stated at the beginning of this short piece, despite the geo-political and ideological tensions between Washington, Moscow, and Tehran, the managing of these two looming crises requires forms of implicit and explicit co-operation and co-ordination between them based on a tactical flexibility that regulates the intensity of their trilateral interactions in regard to Iraq and Pakistan. If even limited steps are not taken in this direction the fallout from political instability and state breakdown in Iraq and/or Pakistan will exercise a very negative influence on the situation throughout Greater West Asia and ultimately Russia, Europe and the USA.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.
Zhand Shakibi, a visiting professor at University of Tehran, is the associate professor at New York University.
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