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ISIS Is a Perverse Product of the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Monday, February 16, 2015

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with John Tirman
By: Kourosh Ziabari

One of the major imprints of the proposal made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the world nations during the 68th session of the UN General Assembly to form a global coalition against violence and extremism was the 1st International Conference on WAVE held in Tehran on December 9-10, 2014.

The large international gathering, sponsored by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, brought hundreds of politicians, career diplomats, academicians, intellectuals, religious leaders, authors and other public figures to Tehran to exchange views and discuss the growing phenomenon of terrorism and extremism, that is gravely undermining global peace and security. The importance of the conference was manifold considering the worrying rise of the terrorist group ISIS, which has established a self-declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria and is killing innocent citizens of different nationalities on a routine, daily basis.

Iran Review has conducted a series of interviews with a number of the prominent guests attending the conference. You can read our previous interviews here, here, here, here and here.

One of the academicians who took part in an in-depth interview with us was Prof. John Tirman. Tirman is the Executive Director and a Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies. The American political theorist is the author of several books including “Sovereign Acts: American Unilateralism and Global Security” and “Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America’s Arms Trade.” He has recently released a book entitled “U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue” which he has co-edited with Prof. Abbas Maleki. The book includes chapters by Robert Jervis, Hossein Mousavian, Matthew Bunn and Steven Miller, Kayhan Barzegar, Huss Banai, and Robert Reardon.

Prof. Tirman has extensively researched the civilian casualties of the wars waged by the U.S. government across the world, as represented in his 2011 book “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.” His articles and op-eds appear regularly on The Huffington Post, Washington Post, The Nation, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal. From 1999 to 2000, he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Cyprus and a researcher-reporter at the Time magazine from 1997 to 1979. John Tirman has studied Iran’s contemporary political history comprehensively and has authored several essays, articles and books about the Iran-U.S. relations.

Iran Review talked to Prof. Tirman about terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, the global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the future of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the six world powers.

On the possible reconciliation between Tehran and Washington, Prof. Tirman says, “[t]here have been many cases that are much worse than U.S. and Iran that have been successfully resolved.”

“Then, we can think of France and Germany for example; they had two colossal wars fought within three decades with each other in which millions and millions of people were killed. You know, they resolved their differences and they did so very successfully; in Europe it’s a great success story,” he said.

Prof. John Tirman is optimistic that Iran and the United States can find a solution to the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and then cooperate on other mutual concerns. The following is the text of our interview with Prof. John Tirman while he was in Tehran to attend the international WAVE conference.

Q: As my first question, what do you think are the reasons for the rise of the terrorist cult Islamic State in the Middle East and the fact that they are waging a bloody war against the governments and peoples of Iraq and Syria, threatening the security and peace in the entire region?

A: Well, it’s a phenomenon that has resulted from many different influences including most prominently the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and there are lots of other causes, but there is a confluence of these factors that has led to a very difficult situation, particularly for the people who are in those areas where they are waging wars. Unfortunately, it appears as though this could go on for a while; it’s not a small outburst of, you know, a small group. It’s a fairly significant scale; fighters possibly in tens of thousands, well-equipped, well-financed, with a kind of liberationist ideology. That is to say, they do have an ideology that whether or not one finds it consistent with Islam or some other kind of ideology, gives them some purpose and that’s also very dangerous. So, it’s something to be taken quite seriously.

Q: So, you believe that the occupation of Iraq by the United States and its international allies has been one of the reasons contributing to the rise and growth of ISIS?

A: Yeah, I think what happened was a long, drawn-out and complicated process, but if one goes back to the period of what we call “Desert Storm” in the 1991 war to push Iraq out of Kuwait, the most important and lasting policy decision for that war is the sanctions. And there were very severe sanctions that the West and the UN imposed on Iraq, with a very explicit goal of trying to weaken Saddam Hussein. And the sanctions did weaken him; they did not weaken him to the point that he was ousted by his own people, which was the hope of those behind the sanctions, but it did weaken him in the following way, that is his authoritarian role, his ability to govern in the fullest sense had been undermined. And he made a series of decisions, political decisions of governance within Iraq from 1991, at the end of operation Desert Storm, until the occupation and invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, twelve years long time, he made decisions that so-called de-centered power, as Toby Dodge a prominent British historian of Iraq states, de-centered power in Iraq and gave a great deal of power to tribal sheikhs and generally loosened the bonds of authority and identity in Iraq.

Well, this later came to be a fateful decision, because when the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq in 2003, the state no longer properly existed in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was vanquished; he was eventually executed, and the army collapsed, that party collapsed and so on. And what happens when you have dozens of small insurgencies and violent actors, however you regard their resistance to the United States, the factors that existed and they made mischief and they promoted real civil war between Sunni and Shiite; and that’s the dynamic that has persisted to this day, almost twelve years after the United States invaded Iraq. So, you see a process that’s almost twenty-four years in the making and actually going back almost twenty-five years out of the imposition of sanctions in which authority was undermined, a sense of, you know, who is in charge, who is providing the next meal, who is going to protect us from invaders, who is going to fix the water pipe, who is going to pump the oil; so, all these things a state normally does in Iraq were undermined by sanctions and war.

And ISIS is the perverse result of that process which, you know, was attributed not only to the United States but we have also other countries; say, Britain was involved, France was involved, some other Middle Eastern countries were involved, not Iran, not Israel but several other countries in the region and of course Saddam Hussein himself who was ultimately responsible for governance here. So, in a way it was an unfolding and unraveling not only of state but of society itself; high mortalities of young men; many people died, many people displaced, five million displaced, probably seven hundred thousand dead. And this is what you see.

Q: Right. Do you think it’s possible really and practically to form a coalition against such groups like ISIS or create an international coalition between those nations that really want freedom and security in the region to fight it? Are you optimistic about the coalition that the United States has established with some of its NATO allies and some of the Arab members of the Persian Gulf? Do you think it’s really possible to form such a coalition? Does it work at all?

A: Well, so far it’s held together somewhat tentatively but it doesn’t appear to be a very robust coalition. You can see that not only in the lack of participation by members of these states that were supposed to be members of the coalition, but in the actual operation. So, for example in the defense of Kobani, the Kurdish town in Syria – the town in the border of Turkey – the Turks were reluctant to participate in the operation because they did not want to empower the Kurds, because they have what they consider to be a Kurdish problem. And that somehow symbolizes the difficulty of having a coalition. In the view of Washington, you have not only the problem of ISIS but you have an ongoing crisis in Syria and opposition by the United States to Assad continuing in power. Then you have the panoply of resistance; opposition fighters in Syria which includes ISIS, and the United States is supporting other resistance fighters some of whom then ally with ISIS, supply them with arms and so on. So, even that situation alone is exceptionally complex.

Then, you know, looking at the relationship to Iraq, you have a relatively weak state in Iraq although sometimes maybe it’s going to turn around, but you have a state that has not been able to muster an army able to take on ISIS, defend the territory and so on. There are many signs of difficulty in holding together a coalition. The other element which is very problematic of course is that some of the Persian Gulf monarchies have been supporting ISIS according to reports; they may not be supporting them officially and they may not be supporting them right now, but certainly were supporting those kinds of groups in Syria in the last year or two. And that complicates the sectarian crisis as well. So, under those circumstances, it’s very difficult to maintain a coalition. United States isn’t willing to put troops into Iraq or Syria, a decision with which I agree, but again it makes it difficult to lead a coalition if one isn’t able or willing to commit the amount of force needed to make headway against these ISIS fighters.

So, you know, your question is a good one; it’s difficult to see how the coalition would be maintained and successful under these circumstances. The key is going to be whether or not the government in Iraq can put an army in the field that is willing to fight and competent to fight.

Q: As you know, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has proposed a plan that was adopted as a resolution in the UN General Assembly, known as the World Against Violence and Extremism. What practical steps do you think the international community needs to take in order to realize a global fight against extremism? And aside from the rise of ISIS, how is it possible to tackle and address the phenomenon of extremism and violence emerging in different parts of the world including in our turbulent Middle East region?

A: Well, it’s a big question. I am of the view that we need to look at, at least, two or three different global policies that are undermining the fight against extremism or sap the ability to fight extremism. So, one of them is economic policies that have favored wealthy transnational corporations held for local control of economies. You see that that has happened in this region but it has also happened in Latin America. So just to give a very quick example, which is a little bit simpler than what we are looking at in Syria or Iraq, in Central America, this is the case where the United States is a major economic player. The push to marketize or to make new liberal policies where foreign corporations run and basically control the economies of the small countries, take their cultural products, or their minerals, what they have, whatever is of interest to them, and undermine traditional livelihoods in the countrysides such as farming, import substitution and other things have been fairly successful in these developing countries. Because if they undermine those economies, it also opens the door to things like drug trafficking and cocaine trafficking, particularly to the United States – you now have governments in Central America and Mexico that are almost completely beholden to drug cartels and what you get then is terrible violence, just not a civil war like what you see in Syria but you get terrible violence in the cities in the countryside and you get pressure on people to migrate and that’s how the phenomenon of what we call the border kids emerges. It was last summer; tens of thousands of children, children coming by themselves to try to get into the United States because they’re fleeing the drug cartels. And listen, all of this really comes from the disruption of the economies of those states in addition to having deadly wars some years ago. And so, it’s a combination of violence and lack of good governance and the policies that undermine traditional ways of making a living. That happens in the Middle East too, and that happens in other places and you get the wrong combination of things and that’s one way of promoting a kind of extremism; it’s not necessarily religious extremism, but it could be just violent actors that work in tandem. So, we have to re-examine how global economic policies promote inequality and these desperate situations for ordinary people.

And second thing, I think, of global importance is how to do oddly enough with climate change. You know, there is lot of evidence such as how to see what the connections between extremism and climate change, but factors show the places like Syria have been undergoing a drought for many years, and usually a historical drought and water becomes a precious commodity and people can’t make a living, farmers and other people who depend on water for their livelihoods are being forced into submission. So you have a rise in inequality and poverty and desperation as a result of what I think to be these very sudden shifts in the climate, and it’s just going to get worse. We’re just to see the beginnings of this process; so we have massive and long periods of drought and a couple of other types of effects like that, sometimes flood, sometimes severe weather situations and there are people whose livelihoods again are just completely wiped out. And what do they do? Well, the young men often join extremist groups because there is nothing else available to them and weather or climate oddly enough, you know, is one of the causes of that.

Then the third thing, I think it’s important to look at is the status of women in the world. Again it is not obvious what the connection is, but I think the connection becomes clear when you look at the way ISIS and other extremist groups treat women. You know, one of the goals of these groups seems to be merely to dominate and control women’s lives and do so in a particularly hostile and violent way. But more importantly, you don’t have women as being fully functioning citizens of these states and that invites a kind of predatory activity on the part of young men again. So, there really is such a problem; you know, we do call it in academia the “young man problem” and that is, there are men who’re not employed, who don’t really believe in anything particularly, that don’t have a social structure that supports kind of a normal life, don’t have an economic future and so on; and what happens is that they become vulnerable to recruitment by extremist ideologies, whether that be of a perverse religious kind or as I was saying in the case of South America, drug cartels; what have you? And so if you think of young men being the problem, then you also have to ask who the young women were. Why do the social structures allow it to happen to the women? And I think repression of women, the lack of participation of women in political life, is one of the reasons why you have this enormous surplus army of young men who go out to make mischief and violent, horrible mischief.

So those extremes are very big kinds of approaches, they’re not specific to ISIS, but they are relevant to ISIS; you know, we need fair economic conditions, we need more sustainable environment, which gives rise to agriculture and sustainable industry and we need a society in which people are treated equally regardless of their gender, or their religion or their status in the world. And those are very big objectives, but we don’t do those things. If we don’t do these things, we’re going to see extremism come back and fight us one year after another.

Q: Right. So, in this international fight against extremism and violence, which option should be given the priority to: the military option or diplomacy? Do you think that in such cases as ISIS, diplomacy can really work or be effective, or should it be really tackled simply through military action and military intervention?

A: Well, I think initially, in a very specific case of ISIS, one needs to have a strong military response because they are fomenting a crisis that is based on violent acts, on war-making and grotesque human rights violations. So, there needs to be a way to contain them as quickly as possible. There is really nobody to negotiate with ISIS; you want a diplomatic solution, well, who do you talk to? You need a legitimate state that operates in a way, in an acceptable way, when it comes to such things as relationships with other states; and we don’t have them in the case of ISIS. It’s not a real sate; it’s just a band of criminals. And so, it’s very difficult to imagine at this point, a diplomatic solution. I think what needs to be done is – and I don’t think there is any easy answer to this – to get the Iraqi army to stand up and to fight ISIS on the ground, starve them of resources which help them survive and begin to encroach upon the territories they’ve gained and possibly make a big stand in Mosul and other major urban centers where they’ve been successful. I think the battle for Kobani is one such place. But it’s conceivable that with the military recruitment and other kinds of resources that ISIS has, it will begin to collapse more quickly than some people may think. So, Obama has spoken about multi-year effort to go after ISIS. Well, I’m not sure that it actually will take multi-year if the military front is not competent.

In some ways, a bigger problem is going to come when ISIS itself is going to destroy as a cohesive entity which I think could happen, you know, within a year. So, and then what happens to those 20,000, 30,000, or 50,000 men who have been recruited to fight with ISIS? What happens to them? That is, will they form their own different extremist groups and continue to wage war in one way or another? I think that’s a likely possibility because in fact ISIS is that kind of group itself; that is, it comes out of the earlier wars that have occurred in Iraq particularly, but also the insurgency against the Assad government in Syria.

So, you know, the multi-year aspect of this is not necessarily against ISIS as it defines itself. The multi-year part may come with what do you do, how do you neutralize without killing everybody, how do you neutralize the fighters that have been recruited to ISIS after the leadership of ISIS decapitated or collapsed as a septic ideology. And that’s going to be a much bigger challenge because we’ve never really successfully dealt with that kind of demobilization and I don’t hear anybody talking about.

Q: Well, let’s move from the issues of terrorism and extremism to Iran’s nuclear dossier. My question is about the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers. Do you think that the current process of negotiations can finally lead to a sustainable solution that can actually put an end to more than one decade of controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities? And do you think that the new U-turn shift in Iran’s foreign policy and its appeal to the West, what the U.S. media refer to as President Rouhani’s “charm offensive”, is really working? Do you find it effective in bringing an end to this nuclear controversy?

A: Well, it will greatly depend on what happens outside the negotiations which is to say, from my standpoint in the United States, what happens in the U.S. congress. And I think that a deal that is an agreement between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 can be achieved within three months or so; as Secretary Kerry said, three or four months. And I think they’re very close to an agreement. So, it seems that some kind of agreement can be achieved which would be a considerable achievement. Then the next problem is selling that in Iran and selling that in United States; Europe would probably not resist; and Russia and China would not resist the deal that is struck. I can’t speak to politics within Iran because I don’t know it well enough, but in the United States, the new Republican majority in the Congress is going to seek to impede the success of this agreement should it come to pass, and that is based not on the merits of the case but based on an animus hatred of Obama by the right wing. And this is really unfortunate to say, but it is something we have to deal with in this situation. And the question is how far will the Republicans go to scuttle an agreement? The American population seems to be supportive, according to opinion surveys, of a deal. They were supportive of the interim deal; they seem to be supportive of an ultimate deal if it’s in the interest of security all the way around. But Republicans want to scuttle it and they will try to do by so stripping Obama of his authority to lift sanctions on Iran. So you have two different kinds of sanctions; one which were imposed by the UN Security Council which can be lifted of course by vote of Security Council and would be, I believe. But then you have the U.S. sanctions, unilateral sanctions, and those need to be reversed by the Congress or lifted by executive order of the President on a temporary basis; he can do that for example, every two years. That authority, that latter authority, executive authority of the President is what the Republicans will try to strip away from Obama through legislation. Now the question is: if they vote for that authority to be rescinded, then will they have enough votes to overcome a veto by the President? And that’s really where the issue is going to be decided as far as I can tell. And do they have the votes is not a simple majority to override a veto. So, it is a big question mark. Speaking as sort of an American in this sense, the fact that the Republicans are threatening the position of President in the middle of important security negotiations is really scandalous, but there it is and that’s what they are and that will have to be dealt with. Who will know by springtime what is going to happen.

Q: And my final question that pertains to your recent book “U.S.-Iran Misperceptions”: do you think it’s really possible to remove all the misunderstandings that have existed between Iran the United States? Although it’s really idealistic to think that all the misconceptions can be eliminated in a short period of time, do you think that the two governments can move toward a viable reconciliation and take away the misunderstandings one after the other, and cooperate on some issues that are of mutual interest such as the security of Iraq, the drug trafficking in Afghanistan, and other areas?

A: Yes, I do think it’s possible. I think that we’re beginning in some ways with one of the most difficult issues, and that’s the nuclear question. And it’s difficult because it’s very technical, involves nuclear weapons which is of course very serious and it also involves the security of Israel which in the United States is a very important consideration. So if we can, in fact, have success with the nuclear issue, then I think we can have success on many other issues. There are mutual interests in Afghanistan, stabilized Afghanistan; there are mutual interests in defeating ISIS; there are common interests in bringing stability to this region, in seeing Iran become an engine of sustainable economic growth. So, there are lots of things that we can seize upon that are positive, that are good things. And if that happens and trade increases, investment increases, and so on, then the two national narratives as I call, the two antagonistic stories that the United States has toward Iran and Iran has toward the United States can begin to be resolved in the course of time. You know, you look at other places where this has happened, where two countries were antagonistic toward each other.

There have been many cases that are much worse than U.S. and Iran that have been successfully resolved. Then, we can think of France and Germany for example; they had two colossal wars fought within three decades with each other in which millions and millions of people were killed. You know, they resolved their differences and they did so very successfully; in Europe it’s a great success story. And one of the reasons they were able to do – it’s true that they have many common heritages, but they were able to do so because they built institutions, common institutions that made cooperation easier and made life together easier. And that’s one of the things, I think, we need to do is to build some common institutions, whether they are economic or social or what have you, that bind the United States and Iran in positive ways. So for example, it could be a military coalition against ISIS – I would prefer it to be not military maybe, something that is concerned with sustainable economic development in the developing world or something of that kind. But the fact is that you need institutions, you need cooperation, you need things that bring you together in positive ways in order to lower the tensions and resolve the misperceptions that have been driving each other’s behavior for a long time.

You know, ultimately unlike France and Germany, United States and Iran are not neighbors, they’re not even close to each other on the map; they have very different cultural origins, different languages and so on. So, it’s conceivable that we could just each go on our own way and pay a lot of attention to the other. One of the things that Iran must come to terms with is that United States, because of its economic power and military power, is much more important to Iran than Iran is to the United States. And that’s the nature of how big powers and smaller powers deal with each other. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t cooperate; that doesn’t mean that they can’t find some accommodation with each other, even if they’re not close allies in the end like Germany and France.

So yes, it’s possible. I think it’s really necessary, given how unstable this region is, now and for the foreseeable future; you not only have ISIS but you still have a civil war in Syria, an authoritarian tendency now in Egypt, Al-Qaeda in Mali, Yemen and so on. You know, there are a lot of problems in this broad Middle East and North Africa region but, you know, a nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran would go a long way toward singling great stability, sanctions can come down [and it] would be very good for Iran. So, economic relations should be good for the entire Persian Gulf region and maybe then we can have a much more productive relationship.

Q: Thank you, professor Tirman. Just for the conclusion, do you think that the possible coming to power of a Republican President in the next round of presidential elections in the United States can ruin the efforts made by President Rouhani and President Obama to bring the two nations closer together and finalize a nuclear deal that the two sides have said are optimistic about in the next seven months, that is until June 2015? Do you think that a Republican President and now a Republican Senate can spoil and impede the comprehensive nuclear deal that can be achieved in the coming months?

A: If there were going to be a Republican President, yes, but there isn’t going to be a Republican President; Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president. And well, she is more hawkish than Mr. Obama. She will, I believe sustain the agreement that I hope is forthcoming in 2015 and let’s just hope that nothing else disrupts that possibility.

Key Words: Terrorism, Extremism, Middle East, Global Fight against ISIS, Iran’s Nuclear Negotiations, P5+1, US, EU, Arab Members of the Persian Gulf, NATO, President Hassan Rouhani, Military Intervention, Iran’s Foreign Policy, President Barak Obama, Tirman

More By John Tirman:

*U.S.-Iran Misperceptions A Dialogue: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/U-S-Iran-Misperceptions-A-Dialogue.htm

*The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The_Deaths_of_Others.htm

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