As Iraq asks the United States for military strikes against Sunni militants, we look at the role of Iran in the growing crisis. On Wednesday, the Iraqi government formally asked the United States to carry out airstrikes on the militants, who have seized a large swath of the country over the past week. According to a report in The Independent of London, the Obama administration has told senior Iraqi officials that it would intervene militarily only if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki left office. Maliki, who is Shiite, has been widely criticized for deepening Iraq’s sectarian divide. Many analysts say the crisis in Iraq and Syria is developing into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Maliki’s government accusing the Saudis of backing the Sunni militants. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia issued an apparent warning to Iran by saying outside powers should not intervene in the conflict. This came after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran "will not hesitate" to protect Shiite holy sites in Iraq threatened by Sunni militants. The Obama administration has said it remains opens to cooperation with Iran on stopping the militants’ advance, an issue briefly discussed between the two sides on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna. Will and Tehran work together to shore up the Iraqi regime? We are joined by Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the crisis in Iraq, where Sunni militants have seized a large swath of the country over the past week. On Wednesday, the Iraqi government formally asked the United States to carry out airstrikes on the militants. According to a report in The Independent of London, the Obama administration has told senior Iraqi officials that it would intervene militarily only if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki left office. Maliki, who is a Shiite, has been widely criticized for deepening Iraq’s sectarian divide. According to The Wall Street Journal, a number of Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are also pressing for Maliki to leave office.
AMY GOODMAN: Many analysts say the crisis in Iraq and Syria is developing into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Maliki’s government has accused the Saudis of backing the Sunni militants in Iraq. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia issued an apparent warning to Iran by saying outside powers should not intervene in the conflict in Iraq. Earlier in the day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran "will not hesitate" to protect Shiite holy sites in Iraq threatened by Sunni militants. Rouhani’s comments come as the Obama administration said it remains opens to cooperation with Iran on stopping the militants’ advance. U.S. and Iranian officials briefly discussed Iraq this week on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna.
To talk more about this, we’re joined by Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Reza. Talk about the role of Iran right now in what’s happening in Iraq.
REZA MARASHI: Well, when the Bush administration made the decision to invade Iraq 11 years ago, it created a power vacuum. And the power vacuum inevitably was filled by the majority religious sect, Shia, inside of Iraq, at the expense of the minority Sunni, who was put in power by colonial powers, the U.K. primarily. And obviously that rubbed some people the wrong way.
Now, the kicker in all of this is that the problem isn’t Shia versus Sunni. It’s not religion versus religion. These religions have been able to get along for quite some time. Religion is being used by politicians as a power grab and a way to try to take advantage of the politics and the economics. And this is where we stand right now. And until these sides all learn to get along and play nice with one another, the problem’s only going to get worse, not better.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the situation here of the Obama administration, on the one hand, continuing to portray Iran as a key opponent on the world stage, yet at the same time needing now to cooperate with Iran on the issue of what to do with the deepening crisis in Iraq?
REZA MARASHI: That’s a great question. For both Washington and Tehran, old habits are hard to break. For over three decades, both sides have been painting the other as the enemy, the source of all that is wrong, the source of all problems in the Middle East. And what that’s actually ended up doing is exacerbating the conflict between the two sides and within the region at large, to the point where now it’s blowing up in their face, and they’re having to see if they can unlearn long-standing bad habits in an effort to try and work together, or at least communicate directly, so that they can figure out how to solve this shared problem when interests overlap.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Jay Carney, in his last news conference as White House spokesperson, said the Obama administration is open to more talks with Iran on stopping the insurgency in Iraq.
PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I can tell you that we are open to engaging the Iranians, just as we are engaging other regional players, on the threat posed by ISIL in Iraq. As you know, the issue did come up briefly between Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Iran on the margins of the P5+1 in Vienna on Monday. There may be future discussions at lower levels, Major, though we do not expect the issue to be raised again during this round of P5+1 nuclear discussions in Vienna.
AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi, explain.
REZA MARASHI: I think they are going about this exactly the right way. You need to dip your toe in the water before you jump in completely, if we were to use an idiom to try and explain what’s going on. Because they’ve been working against each other, because they’ve been fighting a proxy war in Iraq for quite some time, refusing to collaborate, and it’s blown up in their face as a result, both sides are slowly coming around to the realization that they need one another in some way, shape and form. They need to collaborate, if not communicate. So the very positive first step is having conversations, clarifying one another’s position, so that they can go back to their respective capitals, explain it to the political leadership, because in order to move forward with any concrete actions, with any real, tangible, sustained collaboration, leaders must be willing to take those kinds of risks. But they’re not going to take those risks until they’re fully informed. So this was a very positive first step, and I think we’re going to see more of it, going forward.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia has not received any criticism of note from the United States government for its continuing support of some of the very groups that—like ISIS, that are leading the attacks now in Iraq.
REZA MARASHI: Well, it’s very tough for the Obama administration—or any other American president, for that matter—to criticize an ally publicly. What the United States likes to do is to try backroom diplomacy, having very tough, frank, candid conversations in private. And then, if that doesn’t work, then you’ve got to go to the megaphones, and you’ve got to call them out publicly in an effort to try and raise your leverage vis–à–vis friend or foe. I’d like to think that the Obama administration—in fact, I know that they have been having those tough, candid, frank conversations directly. The president and all of his senior advisers were in Saudi Arabia only weeks ago. If Saudi Arabia does not choose to invest in a political solution that can stop the killing—win-win outcomes instead of zero-sum security—then it’s going to be beholden on the Obama administration to criticize the Saudis the same way that they would criticize Iran or anyone else for doing destructive things in the Middle East that exacerbate, rather than stop, the killing of innocent people.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is Syria’s role in this?
REZA MARASHI: Well, that’s the wildcard. What we do know is that a lot of the fighters that were fighting in Syria against Assad, what many have deemed the most radical of the radicals, have bled over into Iraq. So it’s become a bit of a—a bit of a quagmire, to put it lightly. The Assad government is sitting back and smiling, in my view, because they say, "See, we told you so. The problem isn’t us. The problem is them." I think the reality of the situation, of course, is that there are a lot of problems, the Assad government being one of them and the ISIS fighters being another. How you deal with multiple problems, how you put out multiple fires that are blowing up in the face of not just the United States, not just Iran, but the region at large—and, frankly, the world—depends on that willingness of leaders to take risks for peace, to put politics aside, sit down and have very tough, frank and candid conversations with their adversaries. There’s no other way.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, speaking on Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran will not hesitate to protect Shiite holy sites in Iraq threatened by Sunni militants.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] We announce to all superpowers and their subjects, murderers and terrorists, that the great nation of Iran will stop at nothing to protect the glory of the Shiite holy shrines in cities. I would like to say this to the dear nation of Iran. Thank God there are plenty of self-sacrificing forces consisting of Shiite and Sunni and Kurds throughout Iraq ready to give their all. These terrorist groups and those supporting them, whether in the region or across the world, are nothing against the will of the great nation of Iraq and the Muslim nation of this land, who will put them back where they belong, God willing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Reza Marashi, to what extent do you think that Iran will intercede? And would they be willing to support, for instance, the airstrikes that the Iraqi government has asked the United States to launch?
REZA MARASHI: Well, the Iranian position is a interesting and unique one in that they don’t view holy shrines in Iraq as being property of Iraq. They view it as property of Shia Muslims in Karbala and Najaf. So, the borders become irrelevant, at least in the mind of top decision makers inside of Iran at that point in time.
Now, the kicker is, what do they do about it? What kind of help, what kind of protection, will the Iranians provide? I’m skeptical about the idea of the Iranians putting boots on the ground in terms of fighters to actually do the fighting. I think they’re more inclined to do what we’ve been seeing them do for the past 10 to 11 years since the United States invaded Iraq, which is empowering local militias, providing intelligence and guiding the political decision-making process, not just amongst Shias, but amongst Shias, Kurds and Sunnis, as well. Now, the Iranians certainly have room to improve in that regard. There’s no question about that.
But I think that what we’re seeing so far right now is the Iranians treading carefully, because they don’t want foreign boots on the ground, be it the United States or anyone else, and they also don’t want airstrikes, because that makes Iran more vulnerable. And overall, the instability in Iraq is a grave threat to Iran, because it could spill over the border and cause Iran, which is a relative island of stability compared to the rest of the region, which is on fire—Iran could also become unstable, as well. And that’s a direct national security threat that the Iranians are very clear about.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we have 30 seconds. How do you see this conflict cooling down, Reza?
REZA MARASHI: Well, right now I see the problem getting worse before it gets better, and that’s the unfortunate reality, because I don’t see political leaders anywhere, in the Middle East or in Washington, willing to take the risks that are necessary to put the fire out. But what it’s going to do in the bigger scheme of things is sharpen choices and make sure that the very private communication eventually becomes overt—or private, perhaps—collaboration to stop the killing, because, like I said before, we need a political solution. There are military options, but there’s no military solution. So, hopefully, the leaders can have that crystallize in their minds sooner rather than later.
AMY GOODMAN: You say political leaders are not willing to, you know, go the distance. If they were following your advice, what would you say, whether or not they would do it?
REZA MARASHI: If I was speaking to them directly, I would say, "We know what doesn’t work, and that’s what you’ve been trying for the past 10 to 11 years. So, you can go out to the media, you can go out to the American people, the people of the Middle East, and say one thing and continue to do another, or you can actually make an effort to solve the problem and achieve the interests of not only your country, but the shared interest of countries in the region, as well, and, most importantly, the interests of innocent people, not just in Iraq, but in the Middle East as a whole." That’s what makes real leaders successful.
AMY GOODMAN: Reza Marashi, we want to thank you for being with us, research director at the National Iranian American Council.