By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
Henry Kissinger at 94 is still misinforming Washington about Iran. Now he is warning of an “Iranian radical empire” stretching from Tehran to Beirut if Iran is allowed to “fill the vacuum” as ISIL is rolled up– as Jack Moore at Newsweek points out.. Kissinger seems stuck in a Cold War mentality, and still addicted to domino theory, just substituting Khomeinism for Communism.
“The outside world’s war with Isis can serve as an illustration. Most non-Isis powers—including Shia Iran and the leading Sunni states—agree on the need to destroy it. But which entity is supposed to inherit its territory? A coalition of Sunnis? Or a sphere of influence dominated by Iran? The answer is elusive because Russia and the Nato countries support opposing factions. If the Isis territory is occupied by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or Shia forces trained and directed by it, the result could be a territorial belt reaching from Tehran to Beirut, which could mark the emergence of an Iranian radical empire.”
I presume Kissinger thinks the Iranian radicalism here is the ideology of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or Khomeinism, which holds that clerics should rule society.
If Kissinger is suggesting that we go slow on rolling up ISIL because it is a check on Iran, that is a non-starter. ISIL blew up Paris and Brussels and Istanbul and Damascus and Baghdad, and it simply must be stopped.
As for the radical empire idea, first of all, that is ridiculous. Lebanon is a multicultural country where Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Druze shape politics. Even Hizbullah admits that it isn’t a plausible country for Khomeinism.
Most of Syria is dominated by the secular Baath Party. Its alliance with Iran is one of convenience, not ideology. Although the upper echelons of the Baath and the Syrian Arab Army are dominated by the Alwaite Shiite minority, Alawites are esoteric, New Age Shiites without Friday mosque prayers or a seminary-trained clerical establishment. In short, it is the least likely community to support Khomeinism you could imagine. The rest of Syria is Christians, Druze, Kurds and Sunni Muslims– also not likely to be tempted by Twelver Shiite clerical Khomeinism.
Although the majority of parliament in Iraq is Twelver Shiite, most Iraqis reject Khomeinism. They do not want clerical rule. Even the chief cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, rejects clerical rule in favor of parliamentary governance. And Shiites in Iraq are not all-powerful. They need the Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Kurds are Sunnis. So 40 percent of Iraq is Sunni or other non-Shiite minority.
So Iran cannot spread a ‘radical empire’ in these countries because their elites would never accept Khomeinist ideology.
As for alliances of convenience, those existed long before ISIL’s take-over of territory in 2014. They are based on national interest and domestic majorities, something a realist like Kissinger should understand.
Moreover, the US is not in a position to prevent Iranian alliances with Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. Those alliances have been forged over the past decades, and were strengthened by the threat of ISIL.
Kissinger seems unaware of the possibility that al-Qaeda and other Salafi Jihadi groups could fill the vacuum, as it has in Syria’s Idlib province. Would Kissinger really prefer that outcome?
The former Secretary of State is overly reifying Iranian influence, which is at the level of foreign policy and elite self-preservation in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, all of them multicultural societies where Iranian ideology has no appeal.
Even in Iran, the number of people who still genuinely believes in Khomeinism is vanishingly small, though some hard liners use it for their purposes.
The Kissinger view of Iran and its allies of convenience as a monolith seems to just parrot the hard right Israeli line, of parties like the Likud.
The US did indeed de facto depend on Iran to roll up ISIL, and will need Iran’s help to make sure it does not come back to attack the West again. That cooperation is an opportunity, one that Kissinger wants to throw away.