SHAFAQNA – Prof. John Tirman Executive Director and a Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies is optimistic that Iran and the US can find a solution to the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program and then cooperate on other mutual concerns.
Prof. Tirman made the statement in an exclusive interview with ‘Iran Review’ on the sidelines of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly during which President Hassan Rouhani made a key proposal to the world nations to form a global coalition against violence and extremism. The 1st International Conference on WAVE was held in Tehran on December 9-10, 2014.
Iran Review conducted a series of interviews with a number of prominent guests attending the conference among whom was Prof. Tirman.
Following are the excerpts of the interview which revolved around terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, the global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the future of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the six world powers:
Q: As my first question, what do you think are the reasons for the rise of the terrorist cult Islamic State in the Middle East and the fact that they are waging a bloody war against the governments and peoples of Iraq and Syria, threatening the security and peace in the entire region?
A: Well, it’s a phenomenon that has resulted from many different influences including most prominently the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and there are lots of other causes, but there is a confluence of these factors that has led to a very difficult situation, particularly for the people who are in those areas where they are waging wars. Unfortunately, it appears as though this could go on for a while; it’s not a small outburst of, you know, a small group. It’s a fairly significant scale; fighters possibly in tens of thousands, well-equipped, well-financed, with a kind of liberationist ideology. That is to say, they do have an ideology that whether or not one finds it consistent with Islam or some other kind of ideology, gives them some purpose and that’s also very dangerous. So, it’s something to be taken quite seriously.
Q: So, you believe that the occupation of Iraq by the United States and its international allies has been one of the reasons contributing to the rise and growth of ISIS?
A: Yeah, I think what happened was a long, drawn-out and complicated process, but if one goes back to the period of what we call “Desert Storm” in the 1991 war to push Iraq out of Kuwait, the most important and lasting policy decision for that war is the sanctions. And there were very severe sanctions that the West and the UN imposed on Iraq, with a very explicit goal of trying to weaken Saddam Hussein. And the sanctions did weaken him; they did not weaken him to the point that he was ousted by his own people, which was the hope of those behind the sanctions, but it did weaken him in the following way, that is his authoritarian role, his ability to govern in the fullest sense had been undermined. And he made a series of decisions, political decisions of governance within Iraq from 1991, at the end of operation Desert Storm, until the occupation and invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, twelve years long time, he made decisions that so-called de-centered power, as Toby Dodge a prominent British historian of Iraq states, de-centered power in Iraq and gave a great deal of power to tribal sheikhs and generally loosened the bonds of authority and identity in Iraq.
Well, this later came to be a fateful decision, because when the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq in 2003, the state no longer properly existed in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was vanquished; he was eventually executed, and the army collapsed, that party collapsed and so on. And what happens when you have dozens of small insurgencies and violent actors, however you regard their resistance to the United States, the factors that existed and they made mischief and they promoted real civil war between Sunni and Shiite; and that’s the dynamic that has persisted to this day, almost twelve years after the United States invaded Iraq. So, you see a process that’s almost twenty-four years in the making and actually going back almost twenty-five years out of the imposition of sanctions in which authority was undermined, a sense of, you know, who is in charge, who is providing the next meal, who is going to protect us from invaders, who is going to fix the water pipe, who is going to pump the oil; so, all these things a state normally does in Iraq were undermined by sanctions and war.
And ISIS is the perverse result of that process which, you know, was attributed not only to the United States but we have also other countries; say, Britain was involved, France was involved, some other Middle Eastern countries were involved, not Iran, not Israel but several other countries in the region and of course Saddam Hussein himself who was ultimately responsible for governance here. So, in a way it was an unfolding and unraveling not only of state but of society itself; high mortalities of young men; many people died, many people displaced, five million displaced, probably seven hundred thousand dead. And this is what you see.
Q: Right. Do you think it’s possible really and practically to form a coalition against such groups like ISIS or create an international coalition between those nations that really want freedom and security in the region to fight it? Are you optimistic about the coalition that the United States has established with some of its NATO allies and some of the Arab members of the Persian Gulf? Do you think it’s really possible to form such a coalition? Does it work at all?
A: Well, so far it’s held together somewhat tentatively but it doesn’t appear to be a very robust coalition. You can see that not only in the lack of participation by members of these states that were supposed to be members of the coalition, but in the actual operation. So, for example in the defense of Kobani, the Kurdish town in Syria – the town in the border of Turkey – the Turks were reluctant to participate in the operation because they did not want to empower the Kurds, because they have what they consider to be a Kurdish problem. And that somehow symbolizes the difficulty of having a coalition. In the view of Washington, you have not only the problem of ISIS but you have an ongoing crisis in Syria and opposition by the United States to Assad continuing in power. Then you have the panoply of resistance; opposition fighters in Syria which includes ISIS, and the United States is supporting other resistance fighters some of whom then ally with ISIS, supply them with arms and so on. So, even that situation alone is exceptionally complex.
Then, you know, looking at the relationship to Iraq, you have a relatively weak state in Iraq although sometimes maybe it’s going to turn around, but you have a state that has not been able to muster an army able to take on ISIS, defend the territory and so on. There are many signs of difficulty in holding together a coalition. The other element which is very problematic of course is that some of the Persian Gulf monarchies have been supporting ISIS according to reports; they may not be supporting them officially and they may not be supporting them right now, but certainly were supporting those kinds of groups in Syria in the last year or two. And that complicates the sectarian crisis as well. So, under those circumstances, it’s very difficult to maintain a coalition. United States isn’t willing to put troops into Iraq or Syria, a decision with which I agree, but again it makes it difficult to lead a coalition if one isn’t able or willing to commit the amount of force needed to make headway against these ISIS fighters.
So, you know, your question is a good one; it’s difficult to see how the coalition would be maintained and successful under these circumstances. The key is going to be whether or not the government in Iraq can put an army in the field that is willing to fight and competent to fight.