Iran,  Iraq

Fisk of Peter Oborne’s latest article.

This is a guest post by Mugwump

I’ve quoted several academics and scholars at length because they make the point far better than I do. I’m going to start with a claim that Oborne makes at the end of his article:

“Again and again since the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in 2001, the Iranians have offered cooperation against al-Qaeda and its allies. These entreaties have repeatedly been turned down.”

This is incredibly ignorant. Firstly, the Iranians offered help initially after 9/11 in the fight against the Taliban. But that didn’t last. Tehran began providing direct military aid and assistance to the Taliban – a group that continues to harbour Al Qaeda. We know this because we found their prints on Taliban weapons. Channel 4 reported that “exclusive images and documents show, for the first time, the full extent of Iranian support for the Taliban in the shape of tonnes of weapons of the type being used against UK troops in Helmand province.”[1] Those arms were used against our servicemen who were acting to liberate a country. This is not a country we make an ally.

Second, this ignores the on-going coordination between Iran and Al Qaeda. Pundits – but not regional analysts and academics – often scoff at a link between Iran and Al Qaeda because they are theological foes. Quite frankly, should anyone make this point, it should lead to immediately writing them off as ignorant. The 9/11 Commission found that the two had an “informal agreement to cooperate in providing support — even if only training — for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives” (p.61).

This connection did not end in the 1990s – they persist today in several forms. One form is relevant to Al Qaeda core. After the liberation of Afghanistan, the Iranians held on to several AQC members who were fleeing. After 2003, they allowed freedom of movement to AQC’s number three, Saif al-Adel, probably in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who was taken hostage.[2] This is obviously not giving AQ support – but I wanted to emphasise how murky the relationship between the two really is.

The second form that the relationship takes can be openly condemned: Iran’s relationship to Al Qaeda in Iraq (as it was then) and its current support or AQ-linked rebels in Syria. Iran attempted to destabilise Iraq significantly in the aftermath of the 2003 intervention – and it did not just give money to its Shiite brothers. As the U.S Treasury noted, Iran was “facilitat[ing] the movement of al Qa’ida operatives in Iran and provid[ing] them with documents, identification cards, and passports…MOIS also provided money and weapons to al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI)”[3]. The rationale is clear:

“With al Qaeda members and their families under its control, Iran can loosen its restrictions on al Qaeda operatives in the country and facilitate their travel if it wants to stir the pot in Afghanistan or Iraq (or against the United States generally); on the other hand, it can constrain their mobility or even surrender them if it wants to improve relations with Washington or al Qaeda’s Arab foes.”[4]

The current relationship with AQ-spawned militants in Syria is a lot harder for people to swallow. Here are the main points of evidence that such a relationship exists. First a report from Turkey’s Zayman:

“The Treasury statement underlined that “in addition to providing funding for al-Qa’ida activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this network is working to move fighters and money through Turkey to support al-Qaida-affiliated elements in Syria…According to US officials, the terms of the agreement between al-Qaeda and Iran is that “al-Qaida must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities. In return, Iranian regime provided the Iran-based al-Qa’ida network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel”[5]

Some may reject this as U.S propaganda against Iran – but that doesn’t seem to be the case for several reasons. Firstly, an ISIS spokesperson all but confirmed this relationship. In a letter to AQ chief al-Zawhiri, he stated that

The ISIS has kept abiding by the advices and directives of the sheikhs and figures of jihad. This is why the ISIS has not attacked the Rawafid [rejectionists, a term used to describe Shia Muslims] in Iran since its establishment. It has left the Rawafid safe in Iran, held back the outrage of its soldiers, despite its ability, then, to turn Iran into bloodbaths. It has kept its anger all these years and endured accusations of collaboration with its worst enemy, Iran, for refraining from targeting it, leaving the Rawafid there to live in safety, acting upon the orders of al Qaeda to safeguard its interests and supply lines in Iran.

And for good measure, the statement ends with “Let history record that Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably.”[6] In any event, you would have to be conspiracy theorist to assume that the U.S Treasury is putting sanctions on individuals in an attempt to stop this relationship as part of some propaganda ploy. Leaked reports – i.e, ones not meant for public consumption – put together by the Pentagon refer to this relationship over and over again.[7] And this all goes to show – if the reason for getting close to Tehran is its resistance to Al Qaeda then its not a good reason at all. Tehran is a major contributor to terrorism in the world: in Iraq, in Syria (whether that be its support for the regime or its support for AQ), in Gaza, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon.

Oborne starts his article with a very popular idea that doesn’t seem to be all that supported by the historical record. He states that

“It is almost one hundred years since Sir Mark Sykes, an otherwise forgettable British politician, entered into an agreement with a French diplomat called François Georges-Picot (great uncle of the former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing) to carve up the Middle East after the end of the First World War.”

This idea that Syrkes-Picot Agreement is the cause of all ills is seriously misguided. I can’t really explain the point any better than Norwegian Institute of International Affairs’ Reider Visser:

“When it was concluded in 1916, the main idea behind the agreement was to secure annexation of certain coastal areas that were deemed to be of particular interest to the allies, especially Basra for the British and the coastland between Lebanon and Cilicia for the French (the Russians were accorded control of the Straits for similar reasons)… , the details of demarcation in the interior – where a more informal form of British and French influence was envisaged – was accorded less importance at the time. Furthermore, scholars such as Eliezer Tauber and Nelida Fuccaro have convincingly demonstrated that local politics, not the rough lines of Sykes Picot, governed the final details regarding the disposal of border areas between Syria and Iraq like Abu Kamal and Jabal Sinjar during the 1920s… What is often not realized is the extent to which the agreement merely put on the map patterns of special administrative arrangements that had been in the making under the Ottomans for decades, if not longer… ll the talk that these boundaries are a mere hundred years old and that everything was designed by a couple of European colonial strategists is utter unscientific nonsense that collapses immediately upon confrontation with contemporary primary documents, where terms like “Syria” and “Iraq” were in widespread use long before Sykes and Picot even knew where these areas were located… It is often forgotten that most of the Sykes-Picot agreement was never implemented.”[8]

Oborne’s claim that “Ninety-eight years later, however, Sykes-Picot is finally starting to collapse.” Also seems to be seriously overstated. This was a failure of the Iraqi army and the absence of U.S military personnel. This is everything to do with military policy. The Iraqi forces have two significant weaknesses. Firstly, they have dropped the use of COIN – a policy used by the U.S that was hugely successful in 2007-8. See my ‘Blowback against Greenwald #1’ post to see the empirical literature on the topic. As Massimo has said:

“After the US withdrawal in 2011, the ISF largely stopped carrying out proactive counterinsurgency operations. Without U.S. troops in an advise and assist role, the ISF fell back on reactive, ineffective search and raid operations, large-scale clearing operations and a reactive operational posture of defense of fixed positions like checkpoints and combat outposts. The Iraqi government also released large numbers of insurgents that had been held in detention by U.S. forces, many of who rejoined ISIS, boosting its strength with an infusion of experienced, veteran manpower. In early 2012 without the pressure from JSOC’s special forces raids, ISIS began reconstituting its leadership structure, centralized command hierarchy and VBIED network, escalating its operational tempo in June 2012 with the start of the insurgent summer offensive.”[9]

The U.S could have done more. Iraq has requested drone strikes, military equipment and much more – but the U.S has been “reluctant” to provide it with what it needs to fight against terrorists.[10]

Oborne’s claim that “Iraq as we have understood it for the past century or so no longer exists” is simply nonsense. There have always been groups, indeed, “back in 2005 pan-Islamic movements also operated in this area, including an Islamic emirate in al-Qaim near the Syrian-Iraqi border.”[11] The problem now, as explained, is weak military policy. I think the case against Maliki has been overstated: ISIS rise is more to do with external and security factors than it is with domestic politics. Douglas Ollivant makes the point:

“The current crisis did not arise overnight. The tensions in Anbar — and other Sunni-dominated areas — have been building for some time. Some blame the situation on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated national unity government, but this confuses cause and effect…”

There is Sunni discontent but importantly this does not translate into support for ISIS (which makes up at least 75% of the violence). The Sunnis are, frankly, asking for more than Maliki can give. As Ollivant says again:

“As Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell has noted, the moderate camp of Iraqi Sunnis is calling for a complete end to de-Baathification (a demand that no democratic leader could ever agree to), discussing Arab Sunnis as the demographic majority in Iraq (there is no reliable census, but estimates of the Sunni proportion range from 15 to 25 percent), and demanding proportional representation in the security services based on their “majority” status, all while waving Baathist flags and referring to Arab Shiites as “Persians.””[12]

And this links with Oborne’s claim that

“emergence can be traced straight back to the Iraq invasion. Some of its fighters (who bring formidable military capability) are former Ba’athist soldiers. Others learnt their trade with the so-called “Awakening fighting” groups created by the US to head off an all-out Iraqi civil war back in 2007.”

This is to mis-state the facts so as to make the Anbar Awakening part of the problem. The opposite is true. Those involved in the Anabr Awakening cannot significantly be said to be involved in this violence: “Almost all of the Anbar sheikhs were involved with the Awakening and remember the excesses the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq perpetrated in the province, and don’t want to see it return.”[13] True, there are some – but far more important has been the Iraqi weakness and missteps listed above, together with the Syrian influx of fighters. The Surge and the Anbar Awakening *reduced* violence – and failing to note that, and the fact that this a military problem, leads to conclusions like Oborne’s.

Oborne states:

“ Instead, mainly through allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the West supported militant rebel groups which have since mutated into Isis and other al Qaeda connected militias.”

They have not “mutated” – they are different groups of people which have gained the upperhand. The U.S has consistently blacklisted groups which are linked to AQ[14] – but it has not stopped the rise of foreign fighters.[15] As for arms, as soon as there was an incident where non-lethal aid was abandoned and given to the extremists, the US and UK suspended *non-lethal* aid (forget about lethal aid). The U.S administration has essentially dragged its heels on giving the Syrian opposition military support. We know this not just from U.S policy but from statements from Syrians[16].

Oborne states:

“The comparison with the terrible mistakes made by Western intelligence agencies during the Afghan war against the Soviets is startling. We supported al Qaeda, which later turned on us. “

What is with this meme about the U.S supporting Al Qaeda? There is a consensus in the literature that this did not happen. Bogdanor quotes leading writers so I don’t need to:

“This is “not true” since CIA money “went exclusively to the Afghan mujahideen groups, not the Arab volunteers” (Jason Burke).257 Bin Laden was “outside of CIA eyesight” and there is “no record of any direct contact” (Steve Coll).258 There is “no evidence” of funding, “nor is there any evidence of CIA personnel meeting with bin Laden or anyone in his circle” (Peter Bergen). There is “no support” in any “reliable source” for “the claim that the CIA funded bin Laden or any of the other Arab volunteers who came to support the mujahideen” (Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin).”[17]

Oborne also make one or two other mistakes (his reference to the McMahon-Hussein correspondence is flawed) but I need to get back to work. The broader point is this: Oborne is seeking to provide a unified theory about the Middle East based on Western machinations. It is simply not what has happened – from 1917 to 2014. The solutions, once we realise what the problem really is, is not less intervention – but more.


[4] Ibid.
[10] See here: and here:
[16] + “More than two months after they were promised, U.S. weapons and ammunition have not reached America’s allies among the Syrian rebels, and their delivery date remains unclear” – that was in 2013: