Outcome of Iraqi Crisis Far from Certain

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Nader Entessar
By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi

The ISIL militants in Iraq have launched a systematic ethnic cleansing campaign in the areas they have seized, killing people indiscriminately. Last week, the ISIL announced that it was establishing what it called a caliphate on the territories under its control in Syria and Iraq. Over one million Iraqis have fled homes over the month as the ISIL terrorists seized Mosul, Tikrit and other cities in the northwest areas. Tikrit was recaptured later by the Iraqi army. According to estimates by the United Nations and official Iraqi data, more than 2,400 people were killed in June.

In another development Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Germany formally kicked off the sixth round of nuclear talks on Thursday, July 3rd 2014, to discuss a final accord. Iran and the six countries have been discussing ways to iron out differences and achieve a final deal that would end the decade-old dispute over Tehran’s nuclear energy program.

To discuss the future course of Iraq’s developments, Maliki’s role in Iraq crisis, independence of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, ISIS military and financial resources, and the sixth round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group over a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear energy program Iran Review.Org conducted an exclusive interview with Professor Nader Entessar.

Nader Entessar is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama.  Dr. Entessar is the author or editor of numerous books, book chapters and journal articles on the Middle East, foreign policy, security and the Kurds. He is the author of Kurdish Politics in the Middle East. The following is the text of the interview.

Q: The latest measure taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to declare their “caliphate” headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the terrorist group, has taken the crisis caused by terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and the entire region to a higher level. While the Iraqi army is still advancing in northern provinces such as Salahuddin and the provincial capital of Tikrit has been almost retaken from militants, new reports had it that Iraq has taken delivery of several Sukhoi fighter jets along with the Russian advisers. What is your opinion about the future course of these developments?

A: At this point, the situation in Iraq remains fluid.  Notwithstanding the advances that have been made by the Iraqi military in the past week, the outcome of the Iraqi crisis is far from certain. We have to remember that ISIS, or the Islamic State or “caliphate” as it now calls itself, is fighting an asymmetrical war against the Iraqi forces.  Success or failure in asymmetrical warfare is not necessarily measured in terms of holding a territory for a length of time.  Again, in the short to medium-term, I foresee a high degree of fluidity and uncertainty in Iraqi army’s confrontation with ISIS/Islamic State. Russia has recognized the danger of extremist groups from the early days of the Syrian crisis, especially in terms of the spill-over effects of instability in key areas of the Middle East for Moscow’s own strategic interests.  In light of Moscow’s concerns, I am not surprised that we have seen the delivery of Sukhoi fighter jets and Russian military advisors to help the Iraqi government.  But we have to remember that what Russia has done so far is modest and not a game-changer in the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

Q: The US Secretary of State John Kerry has said after his meetings with political officials and leaders of Iraq and its Kurdistan Region that there is no military solution to the crisis in Iraq. At the same time, Ali Al-Moussawi, the media adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, has announced that the United States and Iraq are mulling military cooperation. Do you think that getting directly engaged with the ISIS militants is really on the agenda of the United States’ military cooperation with the Iraqi army?

A: What the Obama administration has done is to deploy a small number of advisors to assess the situation and provide guidance to the Iraqi army.  In the future, the United States might accelerate its own delivery of arms to Iraq.  Although history teaches us that “mission creep” is certainly an unintended consequence of any foreign military involvement, I do not see the United States reversing course and deploying large contingents of its own forces in Iraq anytime soon.

Q: Some sources say that Maliki is against a national salvation government and will not resign his post. What is your take on the composition of the next Iraqi cabinet?

A: Forming governments in the post-Saddam Iraq has been a daunting challenge.  It took almost nine months to form a government after the third parliamentary elections in Iraq.  Maliki has been a lightning rod in Iraqi politics, but I am not sure if another individual would have been able to establish a government acceptable to all Iraqi groups. It is a mistake to scapegoat Maliki as the sole source of Iraq’s problems. Political fissures in today’s Iraq will make the formation of the next Iraqi cabinet an extremely difficult task, with or without Maliki.  Unfortunately, most major groups in Iraq view their country’s politics as a zero-sum game.

Q: One of the consequences of the security crisis in Iraq, which was triggered by the invasion of the country by Takfiri-Baathist terrorists, was heated debates on the independence of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region and its evolution into a totally independent state. In a related development, Israeli analysts have noted that the Israel will move fast to recognize a Kurdish state after it is established. At the same time, there are reports that the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is selling oil to Israel. These developments and various positions taken in this regard in recent days have made the Western media conclude that the disintegration of Iraq and independence of the autonomous Kurdistan Region is now a serious possibility. Do you think that this would be a realistic and practical scenario and what countries will be most benefited by it?

A: Iraqi Kurdistan has been an unrecognized state for over a decade.  Although it has not been a de jure state, it has, legally speaking, all the attributes of statehood.  It has a permanent population, a functioning government, a military force, and conducts foreign relations with many countries. Therefore, declaring statehood is a political decision that may be made by the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan if they decide that it is in their best interest to do so. Israel will certainly be one of the first, if not the first, country to recognize Kurdish declaration of independence.  Iraqi Kurdistan has also developed extensive ties to Turkey, and Ankara may also make a 180-degree turn in its previous stand and recognize an independent state in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey is well aware that such a state will be heavily dependent on Turkey to transport its energy resources to the outside world and would not take steps to challenge Turkish policies vis-à-vis its own Kurdish population.  The downside of Ankara’s policy in this regard is that Turkey’s own Kurds may be emboldened and demand the same type of support for their own rights as Ankara is presumably going to accord to the Kurds in Iraq.  Of course, there are several other political and economic variables that may make it difficult for the Kurds to declare independence from Iraq at this time.

Q: The ISIS continues its advances and aims to capture the border region between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Is this measure aimed at making closer contacts with Saudi Arabia? Or have the ISIS militants decided to get closer to Saudi Arabia lest they would be defeated in Iraq and they want to find refuge in Saudi Arabia in case of need in order to rebuild their military and financial resources?

A: So far, ISIS has not directly challenged Saudi Arabia and has not included any Saudi territory under its “caliphate” domain.  Saudi Arabia’s stance vis-à-vis ISIs and other similar groups has been cynical. In other words, the Saudis want to have their cake and eat it too. As long as the salafist groups create havoc in courtiers that Riyadh views as inimical to its own interests, Saudi Arabia sees no reason to curb its support for such groups.  However, Saudis will ultimately suffer from the blowback effect of their short-sighted policies id ISIS becomes stronger.

Q: The sixth round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group over a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear energy program will be held in the Austrian capital city of Vienna on July 2-20. This unprecedentedly long round of negotiations will be held in order for the two sides to reach a final agreement on Iran's nuclear energy program. All the available evidence points to the fact that Iran and the P5+1 have necessary will to reach a final comprehensive agreement. However, both sides are also trying through bargaining in the negotiations to get the maximum amount of concessions from the other side in return for giving the least possible amount of concessions. Do you believe that the negotiating sides would be able to achieve a comprehensive agreement in this round of talks? What consequences could be expected if they would have to extend the period of negotiations?

A: All the publicly available evidence indicates that both sides do indeed want to come to a negotiated settlement at the end of the current round of negotiations in Vienna.  However, there are still several points of disagreement between Iran and 5+1.  Therefore, I am not sure if a comprehensive accord can be achieved, but certainly another interim agreement is possible by July 20th.  Domestic pressure, especially in the United States, will remain constant, and U.S. Congress can undermine any agreement. 

Q: As the new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 is forthcoming, the Israeli prime minister has been taking measures to influence the positions of the European countries and the United States. In an interview with the British news channel, Sky News, he said Iran should be stripped of any degree of nuclear enrichment capability. He added that any agreement with Iran should be similar to the agreement that the Western countries clinched with the Syrian government over that country’s chemical weapons stockpiles as a result of which all the Syrian chemical weapons were taken out of the country. Can we conclude on the basis of these remarks that Iran will be in for a tougher round of nuclear negotiations?

A: The short answer to your question is yes.  A more accurate name for Iran and 5+1 round of negotiations should be Iran, 5+1 plus one behind the curtain.  In other words, Israel has been a crucial behind-the-scenes player in the nuclear negotiations and its influence will be felt even if an agreement is signed between Iran and 5+1.

Key Words: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iraq Crisis, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, United States-Iraq Military Cooperation, National Salvation Government, Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran-P5+1 Talks, Final Agreement, Nuclear Enrichment Capability, Entessar

More By Nader Entessar:

*Paradoxical Implications of the Ukraine Crisis for Iran Nuclear Talks:

*Iran P5+1 Nuclear Deal:

*Rebooting US-Iran Relations:

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