Allan Massie: Devil of a choice in Iraq

Iran will be in a strong position to make significant gains in return for coming to the aid of Maliki, writes Allan Massie

The policy of western liberal interventionism has ended in humiliating failure in Iraq as it seeks to keep Nouri al-Maliki in power. Picture: Getty

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Churchill said that he would make an alliance with the Devil if Hitler invaded Hell. So, despite his fierce anti-Bolshevik past, he chummed up with Stalin. In the context of the time this made sense, and, even while we are fresh from celebrating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we should remember that it was the Red Army that bore the brunt of the war against the Wehrmacht.

Now with Iraq in turmoil, the United States and the United Kingdom are edging, unavoidably it seems, towards Churchill’s position in 1941. Ever since the Iranian Revolution that disposed of the shah, Iran has been regarded as an enemy. If the ayatollahs call the US “the great Satan”, we have seen them as devilish, and so we backed and armed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. But it now seems we have no choice but to welcome Iran as Churchill welcomed the Soviet Union. If the Iraqi state and the government we helped to set up are to survive, they need Iran’s help.

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It’s a bizarre development. A few months ago we were preparing to intervene in Syria to defeat president Bashar al-Assad. Our policy since the outbreak of war there has been to insist that Assad should go. That he hasn’t done so but has turned the war in his favour is because of the help he has received from Iran. So Iran has propped up Assad whom we wanted to see defeated, and is now apparently needed to prop up Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki whom we want to see survive. Confusing, yes?

The truth is that the West no longer has a coherent foreign policy, certainly not as regards the Middle East. We are at a loss as to what to do, and, even if we weren’t, we are not in a position to contemplate military intervention, certainly not in the form of troops on the ground. The public wouldn’t wear that, neither in the US nor here in the UK. There is talk of American air assaults, probably by means of drones, but, from what one can gather of the state of affairs in Iraq and the nature of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) forces, it is not clear that this would be effective.

Nevertheless, the present unhappy situation is to some extent anyway of our making. Tony Blair may deny this. He still says we were right to get rid of Saddam and his horrible regime. He may even be right in stating that Saddam would not have survived the Arab Spring, but that goes beyond being one of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, for it is simply unknowable.

In any case, it’s irrelevant. Iraq is as it is because of the war in 2003, the mistakes made during the years of occupation and, probably or in part anyway, because president Barack Obama’s withdrawal of US troops in 2011 was premature.

There’s little point rehearsing the rights and wrongs of the 2003 war, or indeed the mistakes that followed the invasion. We are where we are now, and the only relevance of our past actions is that our responsibility, or our share of responsibility, for the present state of things means that we have a moral obligation, which we cannot simply wish away.

It is true that Blair is right to say that the cause of the crisis lies within the region and “that this is our struggle whether we like it or not”, because “the jihadist groups are never going to leave us alone”. But recognising this is no substitute for a foreign policy.

So, for lack of one, we turn, hopefully, to Iran, which has already, reportedly, sent troops from its Revolutionary Guard to bolster the defences of Baghdad. Whether it is ready to do more than that, or is capable of doing more than that, is unclear. It has successfully supported Assad in Syria, it may manage to do the same for Maliki in Iraq. But this is likely to deepen the Shia-Sunni divide. Isis, a Sunni movement, apparently supported by remnants of Saddam’s mostly Sunni, if formerly secular, Baathist party, already holds much of eastern Syria and now swathes of northern Iraq. It may be well on the way to carving out an Islamist Sunni state there, which, judging by reports of atrocities and war crimes, and the videos Isis has posted, would be every bit as vile and repulsive as Saddam’s regime.

We tried to establish democracy in Iraq, and indeed, the Iraqi people responded by flocking to the polls in elections, queuing for hours to vote and defying the terrorists who tried to deter them. But prime minister Maliki has formed a government that is almost entirely Shia, and the exclusion of Sunni politicians opened the door to the Islamists. Since Iran is itself a Shia state, one must doubt whether its intervention in support of Maliki will do anything to repair the damage done by his sectarian policies.

Yet for us now, there seems no immediate alternative to involving Iran. William Hague has been talking with the Iranian foreign minister, and so has the American State Department. Intervention is in Iran’s interest, in Iraq as in Syria. But while Iran may enable Iraqi forces to withstand and perhaps in time defeat Isis, it is difficult to see the Iraqi state holding together. It is likely that the war will be as prolonged and destructive as the one in Syria, and, whatever our moral obligation, we probably lack both the means and will to be more than cheerleaders – cheerleaders for the Iranians, who will presumably want something in return. Easing of the sanctions imposed on Iran as a result of its nuclear programme is the most likely outcome. After all, you cannot reasonably apply sanctions to a regime that has become your ally in fact if not in name.

Meanwhile, with any semblance of a British foreign policy in tatters, we wait apprehensively for the return of trained British-born-or-raised jihadists from Syria and Iraq. The policy of western liberal interventionism has ended in humiliating failure and we have nothing to put in its place as Shia-Sunni religious wars tear the Middle East apart. Churchill’s alliance with Stalin looks straightforward common sense in comparison with our present predicament.