Session 5: Iran and the US, the impact of a changing relationship
Part 1: Intervention of David Pollock (The Washington Institute)
Part 2: Intervention of Hiwa Osman (Mediawan)
Part 3: Questions & Answers Session
Transcription of Hiwa Osman (Journalist, CEO, Mediawan)
To begin with, there is just one point of disagreement with Mr. Pollock related to the people of the region liking or disliking Iran or America. If you conduct an opinion poll today in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Kurdistan regions of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, the most liked nation despite all of the episodes of betrayal in the past, is still the United States of America. This is an important fact that the world community should know about.
I would like as a journalist and as someone who was close to President Talabani for about three years and observed some of the events that benchmarked and shaped the trends of Iraqi-US relations would look at the past 10-12 years, starting from 2003, when America did a great service for Iran, and for the people of Iraq, liberating us from Saddam Hussein something that took Iran over eight years that they could not do.
When the new government of Iraq was installed, with the Governing Council, as a result of the CPA order declaring the United States as the ruling power in Iraq, the first country that recognized the Governing Council was Iran. And all of America’s allies in the region, starting from Saudi Arabia to all others, did not. And they labelled the new Governing Council, the situation in Iraq as an American occupation. That translated into preaching in the Friday sermons, and in the mosques of the Sunni Arab world. They completely disregarded the fact that the Shiite faith of Iraq is predominantly Arabist and continued to look at the Shias of Iraq as Iranian agents; as Safavids, as Persians, as Ajamis. Here I would like to mention something that President Talabani would often say with reference to the Sunni leaders of the Arab world that the Shiites believe in Twelve Imams; all of them are either buried in Saudi Arabia or in Iraq. He said one of them missed his way and ended up in Mashhad and to this day when people visit him they say ‘ya gharib ad-dar’, which means the estranged Imam.
What happened was that the easy option for the Arab world was to say that this is all an Iranian block and we do not want to know anything about it. So, we witnessed a competition between Iran and the United States in Iraq. I think both thought that they could dominate the scene. And in this cat and mouse game, we were the first people to suffer from that. And it was also the case that an American and Iranian agreement was fundamental to resolving political crises in Iraq starting from forming certain bodies or certain agreements, to naming Prime Ministers in Iraq; ultimately there had to be an American and Iranian agreement.
However, after a while competition started between the two which ended up with both trying their muscles against each other. We saw the attacks on American soldiers in Iraq. It led to America arresting some Iranians, some businessmen. But again it created a very tense situation. It postponed many issues that Iraqis were supposed to deal with and it widened the gap between the various components of Iraq. The Shia component of Iraq felt quite emboldened by Iranian support. I am not generalizing here. There are some Shia voices to this day who are saying that we are not Hezbollah, we are a strong country that can stand on its feet, have a strong economy and that all we need is stability. The way for us to deal with Iran should be on the basis of equal neighbours who have historic relations with each other on the basis of mutual respect.
In Kurdistan the situation is rather different. The Kurds of Iraq since 1991 have become masters in playing the balancing act between all the various neighbours, all the conflicting parties and conflicting regional agendas. In order for us to survive in this region, we had to play a kind of balancing act specifically in relation to Iran. Both PUK and KDP have borders with Iran. The difference here is that for the PUK, the only international neighbor is Iran. The KDP has a slightly different situation with Turkey being at its border.
This conflict between Iran and America in Iraq is at times interesting to watch. For a while, for example, and this is an anecdote that I use at times about Iranian presence and influence and American influence in Iraq. At the time when America had a 150,000 soldiers in the country, the American Ambassador used to travel a distance of about one mile from the edge of the Green Zone to the President compound with the following convoy: five black armoured SUVs, two Humvees in the front with gunners pointing either side, two Humvees in the back with gunners pointing either side and two helicopters. And this was for the American Ambassador to travel about one kilometer in Baghdad. Once, on the same day, after receiving the American Ambassador, we received the Iranian Ambassador. He turned up in two black BMWs and that was it. And he came from the other side of the Green Zone, travelled around the Green Zone and came to the Presidential compound. And this was at the height of the conflict.
Looking at the conflict, I must say, we always found that Iran was always a step ahead of America. And I once asked an Iranian friend: how come you are always a step ahead? What is it that you guys are doing that the Americans aren’t? He said just look at the map. America has this whole area to worry about, we have you and a couple of other places to worry about. So, our time is spent thinking more about you than American brainpower thinking about all the other places.
I think that both sides are realizing that neither can win. This was coupled with a change of government in America in which there was a new President. President Obama wanted to do anything for a quiet life, which was basically his policy from the start. This led to a period of détente between Iran and America in Iraq. And it led to the signing of the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). The Americans withdrew from Iraq, with Maliki in power. The Americans thought in terms of their public relations or public outlook, felt that they are leaving behind a strong representative. I cannot remember the exact words or the number of adjectives that they used for the government and Maliki at the time.
It was in the interest of Iran to say that a Shiite government should be able to successfully manage Iraq and President Obama had the same view. So both of them tried to make things work but what they did not realize that one day after the last American soldier withdrew, Prime Minister Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and the problems started going downhill. Both sides did not really want to interfere and thought that the problem will solve by itself. But the problem was not solved. And the Prime Minister became more and more powerful and especially after the second round when he was voted in, he took a very high vote, which he thought was a message from the people that they want a strong man. So, he started behaving like a strong man. And we saw what happened at the end.
That exercise of power by Maliki by holding on to everything led to this wider rift between the Shiite and Sunnis of Iraq and at the same time we had all the demonstrations in the Sunni areas. So, all of this paved the way for ISIS to come and take over the Sunni triangle overnight specially Mosul. With Mosul, if I may remind you, in 2004/5/6, General Petreaus with over 30,000-40,000 American soldiers could not take over Mosul for three years. And 1200 guys with light weapons coming over the border from Syria were able to do it overnight.
So, clearly there was something else going on under the surface. The aim of this introduction is just to say that today America and Iran are fighting together against ISIS and this fight is not likely to disappear anytime soon. Because ultimately ISIS is a Sunni Arab problem. Neither the Kurds nor the Shias can get rid of ISIS. The Kurds can only go where they are now or a bit further because if they set one foot in Arab land, they will immediately be seen as occupiers and invaders and so on and so forth. The Shiite forces, on the other hand, will not be able to enter Sunni areas. So, the only hope for seeing the end of ISIS is to see a strong, indigenous, ideologically motivated local Sunni Arab force. And with the current set-up and current conflicting agendas of Iran and America, I find this possibility very remote to create the right conditions for assembling a strong representative Sunni force on the ground that is able to take on ISIS.
Looking at the future, I think Iran and America cannot continue like this and I recall here one picture of General Qasim Suleimani, which I think is outside Amerli, where he is standing with an Iraqi soldier and saying to him: Tell Mr. Obama that we need two more bombs in that area! Now that relationship that’s good for us, if that is going to continue but ultimately I think Iran and America, in addition to the nuclear file, have a serious issue in Iraq. For quite some time to come both countries are going to be in this country, we realize this as Kurds, as Arabs, as Shias and Sunnis and the only way for a healthy engagement that brings about peace and dialogue and prosperity here, is for them to separate Iraq from the nuclear issue. And to have a track specific with respect to the situation in Iraq, and possibly Syria. Because it is clear that the threat to all is ISIS, everyone is on the same page as far as ISIS is concerned, and you cannot coordinate a war through third parties. There needs to be direct dialogue between the two in order to settle the issues in Iraq.