In the end, Osama bin Laden may achieve the goal that inspired the 9/11 attacks. And, strangely, one of the best ways to thwart that dream is for the United States to anger some of its friends and cooperate with its enemies—in particular, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The successful march toward Baghdad by a Sunni fundamentalist group in Iraq—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS)—has been inevitable, as is its threat to any prospects of peace in the Middle East. Now, the centuries-old tribal warfare between the two most prominent sects of Islam—Sunni and Shiite—has been inflamed once again, with the fundamentalist group exposing the weakness and incompetence of what its followers see as just another impure government established by the West.
What so many Americans, including their leaders in government, have long failed to understand is that this was what bin Laden and Al-Qaeda wanted all along. The intent of the bloody attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was to lure the U.S. and its allies into attacking the Middle East. Bin Laden was quite open about that. Such a war, he believed, would unify Muslims and then lead to an enormous victory that would drive the West to withdraw from all of the Middle East. From there, bin Laden wanted to set off a Sunni revolution that would topple secular, Western-supported governments in the Arab world and confront Shiites, whom he deeply opposed. In fact, ISIL has proclaimed that the current confrontation isn’t a war between Iraq’s government and Islamists but a Sunnis vs. Shiites conflict.
For those who didn’t understand prior to the American invasion of Iraq about this boiling cauldron of tribal hate that has played so important a role in Middle Eastern security, the evidence grew stronger throughout the war. Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations have killed untold thousands of Shiites in the past 11 years—in particular in Iraq. In fact, in 2007 groups in Kuwait that pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda issued a fatwa—a legal pronouncement by a religious scholar—against the Shiite government in Iran.
From the beginning, this has been the irreparable flaw in the American strategy to topple the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. He was a brutal and murderous dictator, but as a secular Sunni who ruled with an iron, bloody fist, Hussein was able to crush the fundamentalist threat. But once the Sunni government was driven from power and the Iraqi military disbanded by the Americans, its members joined forces with the more threatening Islamists among its tribal brethren.
The American plan was for Iraq to be ruled by a cooperative government between the majority sect, the Shiites, and the minority Sunnis. But this idea of cooperative leadership between the Hatfields and the McCoys was always destined to collapse—hundreds of years of war were not going to be set aside just because the West demanded it.
The Sunnis who attempted to join the new political order were soon marginalized. Their almost token representation intensified bubbling Sunni anger about perceived discrimination and inequality. Making it all the worse has been the leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has made every effort to destroy any credible leadership among the Sunnis attempting to join the government.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that works on conflict resolution, al-Maliki has cast out prominent Sunni leaders on the basis of their connections to Saddam’s Bath Party and has disproportionately deployed government security forces in the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad and Sunni governorates. The primary political movement of the Sunnis—Al-Iraqiya—fell apart as al-Maliki strove to consolidate his and the Shiites’ power. A major sign of Sunni impotence in Iraq came in late 2012 with the arrest of the bodyguards for a prominent member of Al-Iraqiya. Sunnis launched an extraordinary, peaceful protest movement, only to see a response of further repression.
The result? An intensifying support among Sunnis for the only remaining option—insurgency. The signs of a growing possibility of civil war became more evident in the summer of last year, as the number of car bombings swelled across the country.
Of course, the Iraqi security forces were supposed to have been able to protect the country by now. Instead, they have melted away in the face of the oncoming march of ISIL. In part, that is also al-Maliki’s fault. He ended the on-the-ground training of his forces by U.S. military advisers too soon—and over American objections. And this poorly trained, undisciplined group was fully aware that the far stronger, far better Syrian military struggled and experienced significant losses in the early confrontations against ISIL and other jihadists in that country.
But the issues that are driving the explosion of violence in Iraq also contain the seeds of a solution—or the prospect of an even more intense conflagration. The fundamentalist Shiite regime of Iran would, from the opening days of an ISIL regime governing Iraq, be confronted by a country on its border led by Sunnis bent on the destruction of the Tehran government. An all-out religious war—this time between nations—might well be considered inevitable by the Shiites in Iran.
In other words, Iran has the biggest stake of any nation in the outcome of the struggle in Iraq. Al-Maliki—as a fellow Shiite—has a strong alliance with Tehran. So do the two most prominent Kurdish militias in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq. And the Iranian military is nothing like the slapdash Iraqi security forces—the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are so well trained and armed they could easily crush ISIL.
And Iran is already on the march. American officials say that two battalions of the Revolutionary Guards’ most elite special operations group—the Quds Force—have already crossed the border and are fighting alongside Iraqi soldiers. Militarily, ISIL could not survive such an onslaught.
But here is where the Americans could play a role. If politicians once again fail to understand the dynamics taking place and fall back on the traditional opposition to Iran, they will be simultaneously opposing the Shiites and the Sunnis. While the cable news talking heads might not get that, the Iraqis certainly will.
Here is the danger: The Iranians will certainly rout ISIL, but such a victory by a Shiite force—particularly if it results in the killing of innocent Sunnis—would likely drive more Sunnis to support ISIL and the other fundamentalists. This is, after all, a direct conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites, which has been joined by a powerful Shiite nation. Iraqi Sunnis already believe that the al-Maliki government is too close to Iran. That problem will only intensify.
The answer? The U.S. must engage in complex diplomacy, recognizing that it shares a strategic interest with Iran’s Shiites while also confronting Iraq’s Shiites over their marginalization of the Sunnis in government. If Sunnis have no influence in governance—and if Iran is allowed to have a long-term presence in Iraq—the perception that this is purely a conflict between the two tribes will undoubtedly take hold.
Al-Maliki must go, and in his place a leader more committed to the nation, rather than to his faction, must take over. The Shiites in Iraq must be persuaded that power sharing is about their own survival, and the Americans are the only ones in a position to help make that happen. Crisis can be averted. But it will not be easy.