The idea of Iran as partner of the US in the battle against IS will not have sufficient political support in Iran, among the allies, or domestically, says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Many of the Middle East experts that we speak to at The Real News, such as Phyllis Bennis, Hamid Dabashi, Vijay Prashad, have all said that the war against Islamic State is going to be a dismal failure. The only thing that might work in the region is a regional political solution that takes into account all of the key players, including Iran.
Now joining us to talk about the role that Iran in the region is playing is Trita Parsi. Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the U.S., and he’s the president of the National Iranian American Council.
Thank you so much for joining us, Trita.
TRITA PARSI, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: Trita, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, in his remarks at the UN last month, opened the door to the collaboration in the fight against IS. We also know that the Iranian foreign minister and the Saudi foreign ministers both met, and they declared on September 21 that this is the first page of a new chapter in their relations. Do you think that is so?
PARSI: I think it’s too early to tell if there really is a new chapter. I think ithere is a desire in many different places to see a different relationship, a different dynamic between Saudi Arabia and Iran, because the conflict between the two, the rivalry between the two has fueled many of these other conflicts. So, for instance, the Saudis have been very active in promoting various jihadist groups in Syria, in Iraq, and elsewhere, mainly as a buffer against Iran. And because those areas have ended up becoming areas of competition between the two, we’ve seen how this proxy war between them has ravaged and destroyed many countries in the process.
Now, is this meeting between the two foreign ministers just a sign that they both realize that this is going a bit too far at this moment and that it’s getting too dangerous and is actually becoming a threat to themselves? Or is it just a tactical reduction of hostilities for now, but does not have much more of a strategic dimension to it? It is too early to tell whether that is the case or not. But clearly it’s going to be very difficult to resolve any of the conflicts in the region unless the Saudis and the Iranians manage to find a way to work together.
PERIES: And the current negotiations that are underway on the nuclear agreement with Iran, do you think that is helping or hindering the possible talks that might happen in the region?
PARSI: It should help, but I think in reality, in the case of Saudi Arabia, the fact that the negotiations have been going on, the fact that much of the real negotiations were taking place in secret in Oman and the Saudis were not aware of it, has just fueled their suspicion and their fear that if there is a successful nuclear agreement, the Iranians would be recognized by the United States as a major power in the region, and that their power ambitions would be legitimized and accepted by the United States. That has fueled what I would call Saudi panic for the last couple of months, in which there’s been a lot of drastic measures, most of them completely counterproductive, that the Saudis have engaged in.
But I think ultimately the Saudis should not be fearing a nuclear deal. Ultimately that’s going to make the region more secure, and the Saudis and the Iranians essentially have to come to terms that both of them are there to stay and they have to find a way to work with each other, rather than having this almost existential rivalry between the two.
PERIES: The Iranians are supporting the Iraqi militia to fight the IS in Iraq. Assuming that this is a given, what effect will this have in terms of the coalition’s fight against the IS?
PARSI: Well, I think the coalition, many of the coalition members are joining this coalition in the hope that afterwards the United States will continue a military engagement in Syria in order to take out the Assad regime as well. The Iranians are outside of the coalition. They’re probably doing more to fight ISIS on their own, but they’re doing so outside of the coalition, not accepting that the coalition would enter Syrian territory without the approval of the Syrian government, whereas in Iraq, the U.S. is working in tandem with the Iraqi government.
But I think the Iranians have also tried to keep a bit of a low profile, let the Kurds be at the forefront of this, because they want to take away as much as possible the sectarian angle out of this conflict, if the Iranians were very visible in this fight, that this would give credence to the idea, the false notion, that this is a sectarian war being fought. The Iranians are trying to reduce that element. And keeping a lower profile, working more behind the scenes, is a helpful element in their calculation then.
PERIES: And do you think this will lead to some sort of discussion, negotiation, joint effort in terms of fighting the IS?
PARSI: The United States and Iran are already indirectly, at a minimum, coordinating efforts, because the U.S. is coordinating with the Iraqis and the Iranians are coordinated with the Iraqis. Both sides seem to prefer to keep this unofficial rather than to make it public for various reasons.
PERIES: Such as?
PARSI: Well, from the Iranian side, they don’t want to be seen as becoming a partner with the United States at this point. They may share common interests, but the idea of Iran being seen as an an ally or a partner of the United States is not something that has sufficient political support in Iran.
From the U.S. side, there are numerous reasons, including the fact that if the Iranians were to be part of the coalition, there’s a risk that some of the Sunni states would walk out. The Saudis have made that threat themselves. And beyond that, the Iranians were needed in order to get rid of the Maliki government. But now the U.S. calculation is that there is a need for a Sunni component to the coalition in order to be able to defeat ISIS in Syria. And there’s also the domestic political consideration of not having the U.S. and Iran suddenly being on the same side very overtly in this conflict, because that could have domestic political ramifications for the president just weeks away from crucial midterm elections.
PERIES: Right. And what are the indicators that the Iranians will be able to live with a Syria that is not led by Assad?
PARSI: There’s no clear indications yet that that is something that they’re going to agree with. But I think the red line is not Assad is much as it is the Syrian state. They don’t want to see the Syrian state completely collapse. They believe that that’s the worst outcome, because then you’re going to have yet another failed state in the region that will be very prime target for IS, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist movements. So there seems to be a theoretical openness to having a solution without Assad, as long as the Syrian state structure remains in place. That may not be sufficient for some of the other coalition members, who want to see a complete change of the regime, meaning it’s not just enough for Assad to leave; the entire Alawite elite needs to believe–believing as well.
PERIES: Right. Trita, thank you so much for joining us today.
PARSI: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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