Friday, March 6, 2015

Iran: The Handcuffed Frenemy

With decades-old supposedly tough sanctions against Iran, how is it that Iran is able to aggressively expand their sphere of influences beyond its borders and even provide ground troops and some limited air support to back the Shiite militias against ISIS? The objective of international sanctions was to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program and political behavior modification return to the international community (a.k.a. acquiescing to western demands). More fascinating is how Iran’s influence has increased in actively increased in Iraq despite the plunge in oil prices which a far below the $135/bbl. price required to balance their budget. Overseas military operations are an extraordinarily expensive undertaking, which have bankrupted many countries, including empires, with expansionist dreams.

Despite its severe economic restrictions, the same players who placed the economic handcuffs on Iran, are the same ones benefitting from them in the fight against ISIS. And among the international group that voted for sanctions, only the US is actively engaged in Iraq to defeat ISIS. The rest of the west are merely onlookers with little commitment of any kind, the type of character you’ve known to complain, “You missed a spot,” after someone has painted their living room gratis.

Someone, somewhere is more than generously financially underwriting the Iranian effort. Which makes you wonder, not if, but to what extent there’s some tacit unwritten agreement linking Iran’s direct military support to defeating ISIS to the nuclear development discussions as witnessed by the subtle shifting of positions by both Iranian and US governments on that matter.

On the battlefield, understandably the Iraqi army does not want to be perceived as unprepared or incompetent with respect to taking back key cities such as Mosul and Tikrit. They’ve publicly eschewed the extent of Iranian and American military assistance yet privately desperately need (and heartily welcome) their manpower, air support and intelligence on the battlefield.

In these upcoming battles Iran is also risking its military prestige because of the large participation of Iranian ground troops. Thus any major setbacks would be a huge political blow and Iran would be caught in a zone of high discomfort whether to withdraw its troops and admit defeat or double down by sending more troops to the region.  The latter could foment social unrest domestically something that Iran has been able to keep a lid on for several years.

The finale to this effort does not bode well whether ISIS is dislodged and defeated or whether they remain in place. The same political and religious fissures will only deepen as disparate well-armed groups, supported by major powers, vie for influence and control in an ungovernable land.

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