The U.S. Isn’t Panicking Over Iran’s Military Operations in Iraq

Tehran and Washington’s common interests could serve the U.S. administration when it presents a final nuclear agreement to Congress.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter fires at ISIS militant positions, September 9, 2014.
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter fires at ISIS militant positions, September 9, 2014.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iran’s morality police recently shut down 26 cafés in Tehran. The crime: Letting young couples sit together, drink coffee, smoke and talk. Iranian President Hassan Rohani wasn’t happy, but that’s the price he has to pay to quell the criticism of his negotiators who left Vienna last month without a nuclear agreement.

Even though Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is keeping a lid on the criticism, the conservatives have had enough of what they call “the disproportionate concessions” allegedly made to the great powers.

The criticism increased after a briefing by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to members to parliament about the talks. The MPs complained that Zarif didn’t say anything that hadn’t already been reported in the media. Now more than 60 MPs are demanding that Zarif explain what Iran conceded and received in return.

Meanwhile,15 MPs want Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi to explain how a secret report on the Revolutionary Guards was leaked to Iranian newspaper Saham. The paper is considered close to a key opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi, who has been under house arrest for three years.

Saham claimed that the report was ordered by Rohani. Saham said that, according to the secret report, the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence chief has set up safe houses where opposition members plot against Rohani. It added that Khamenei had been asked to order the Guards to stop undermining the government. Khamenei reportedly answered: “The Revolutionary Guards don’t listen to me.”

It’s not clear whether Khamenei intended to admit his weaknesses, or whether he simply didn’t want to confront the Revolutionary Guards. In any case, the publication of the story itself and the exposure of the tension between the Guards and the president show that underground forces aren’t just waiting for Rohani to fail, they’re trying to make it happen.

To Khamenei’s credit, he wants the talks with the Western powers to continue; he has even said so in public. And his senior adviser Ali Akbar Velayati has come out against critics of the talks — along with great praise for the Iranian negotiators.

As part of the campaign, the official IRNA news agency has published the results of a poll held in November among people in Tehran. In the survey, 81 percent of respondents supported the negotiations, which 79 percent believed would end positively.

While the negotiations continue, Iran is also busy with the war against the Islamic State in Iraq — and busy with the Kurdish region. Pictures of an Iranian Phantom jet in Iraqi skies this week triggered a denial that Iran is coordinating its military operations in Iraq with the United States.

Getting chummy with the Kurds

In any case, this isn’t the first time Iranian planes have plied Iraq’s unfriendly skies. The magazine Defense News reported in July that Iranian drones were flying over the country, and the Azerbaijan news agency reported on November 18 that ISIS forces had shot down an Iranian drone on a reconnaissance mission over the Diyala region. Last Saturday the Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace chief revealed that the Guards had drones with a range of 1,800 kilometers.

But Iran isn’t only helping out Iraq from the air in the war against ISIS. In recent days pictures have been published in which the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, is embracing Kurdish fighters and Iraqi soldiers in Iraq. These pictures were no coincidence. Iran is keen to prove that it can play a key strategic role in the region.

The Iranian presence in the Kurdish region is nothing new. Not long after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran rushed to open a consulate in the Kurdish region, angering the Turks.

But Iran’s current military presence is particularly interesting. The Iranian-Kurdish cooperation has apparently encouraged Turkey to establish its own military links with the Kurds. For the first time, Turkey is training Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq, and for the second time in a month it has let Kurdish fighters pass through Turkey into Syria.

Washington isn’t panicking over Iran’s military operations in Iraq. A senior U.S. official told The Huffington Post he’s not particularly worried by the Iranian bombings because they’re going on in eastern Iraq, far from the Americans’ targets. It seems some officials in the Obama administration view the Iranian military intervention, which fits in nicely with the U.S. goals in fighting the Islamic State, as a card to use in the nuclear talks.

Tehran and Washington’s common interests in Iraq could serve the U.S. administration when it presents a final nuclear agreement to Congress, a European diplomat close to the nuclear talks told Haaretz. The comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the Iranian attacks on ISIS could have a positive effect bolster this assumption.

But the Saudis are much more worried about the situation — and Iran is accusing the Saudis of trying to damage its economy by forcing down oil prices.

Saudi Arabia says its oil policy is strictly business, but the Iranians aren’t buying that. Iran needs $130.50 per barrel to balance its budget and has suffered enormous losses with the price now at $70 — and the Iranians are claiming that the Saudis are pressuring them in both Iraq and Syria. It will be interesting to see how Rohani keeps his promise to balance the budget, especially as Iran keeps the loan spigot to Syria open.

Low oil prices only increase the urgency for reaching a nuclear agreement, after which Iran can sell its oil in the quantities it did before the sanctions. A number of Iranian commentators said this week that this could expedite the signing of an agreement — before the allotted seven months run out.

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