Why does Washington give Tehran’s violent proxies – which today are aiding Russia against Ukraine – a free pass?
As the Kremlin’s ill-organised war machine rumbled over Ukraine’s borders in February, journalists and pundits with Western mainstream outlets were positively in shock about how such an assault was taking place in Europe rather than where they thought it ought to take place – the Middle East.
But their shock also led them to miss something else — apart from a moral compass in how they deal with those they deem alien and therefore somehow deserving of war. Namely, that this “European” conflict is not isolated to simply Russia and Ukraine, but is in fact a struggle between great powers. The Middle East, therefore, still plays a role, albeit less conspicuous, either through Assadist mercenaries or Russian allies like Iran jumping to the aid of their senior partner.
Last week, the Guardian reported that Iran was assisting Russia in Ukraine by engaging its Shia militant proxies in Iraq to source and smuggle rocket and anti-tank weapons to be funnelled to the frontlines. The US response has been almost stereotypically flaccid, leaving people wondering why Iran seems to mostly get a “free pass”.
Iran’s false ‘Axis of Resistance’ narrative
As the report goes, Iraqi Shia groups – many of whom serve formally in the Iraqi armed forces – are pleased to take part in this smuggling operation because, “Whatever is anti-US makes us happy.”
These are the same groups that the US helped bring to power in 2003. They are the same militants who enjoyed military support from the US, whether directly or indirectly. They are the same radicals who, while slaughtering Sunni civilians, benefited from American close air support during the 2014-2017 war against Daesh.
Yet here they are, back on the “death to America” bandwagon, attempting to undermine a US foreign policy priority in Ukraine, and getting away with it scot-free.
There is a reason why these groups — all tied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — always seem to literally get away with murder and mayhem.
The compartmentalisation of issues and interests is part of what makes international politics and the global game of power so complex — states will often be found collaborating with each other in certain circumstances even as they clash with each other elsewhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between the United States and Iran who, quite literally, make the best of enemies.
While no one in the Islamic Republic would deny that the US supported the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty until it was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, no one in today’s Iranian regime will admit to colluding with both the US and Israel in the infamous Irangate scandal during the 1980s in order to undermine Iraq, then under Saddam Hussein and the Baathist regime.
The reason why is obvious – it undermines Iran’s carefully laid narrative of “resistance”. Tehran’s spiel is built on chants of “death to America”, “death to Israel”, and claiming to be the vanguard of the so-called “Axis of Resistance”, an alliance led by Iran against American imperialism in Muslim lands.
The reality is far different, with Iran happily accepting covert Israeli military and diplomatic support during the Iran-Iraq War, colluding with Tel Aviv during Operation Opera to destroy Iraq’s light water nuclear reactor in 1981, and certainly never turning their noses up at American armaments just to be able to stay in the fight against a formerly independent Iraq.
The West undermining itself
In other words, a country like Iran that dubs its military operations after “The Great Prophet” readily accepts for its proxy forces in Iraq to receive air support from the “Great Satan”, to use the words of famed Arab media personality Faisal al-Kasim.
What is even worse is that the US-led West allows this to happen, props up a failed state in Iraq, and then gets surprised and outraged when they get attacked by Daesh, which would never have existed without IRGC-backed sectarianism in Iraq providing the perfect breeding ground for extremism to fester.
In the context of Iraq, this is likely due to the fact that the US does not want to admit defeat there. As the US was forced out of Afghanistan in defeat last August, a similar case in Iraq would have far more seismic repercussions for American global prestige and power.
Arguably, and because Iraq was far more developed than Afghanistan and largely had a fully-functioning state, for the US to take action against its former Iraqi clients who abandoned them for Iranian patronage would mean admitting that Washington’s entire “war on terror” foreign policy of the past two decades was nothing but an abject failure and a colossal waste of trillions of dollars in resources. Their logic is therefore geared toward “balancing” against Iran in the hopes of salvaging something— which they have been failing miserably at.
Although Washington was all too happy to destroy Baghdad and keep Iraq on its knees over false allegations (it even once bombed Iraq for an alleged assassination plot against former President George H Bush in 1993), it largely allows Tehran and its proxies a free pass over confirmed facts. President Trump’s killing of Qasem Soleimani in 2020 was the exception that proves the rule in US foreign policy.
Such complicity with Iran and its client state in Iraq is not only counterproductive to Western security, but also to the lives of communities throughout the Middle East that have been torn apart by Iran’s penchant for creating problems like Daesh only to pose themselves as the only solution to the same nightmare they created.
Now Iran and its Iraqi rump state are expanding beyond creating problems in the Middle Eastern neighbourhood to fomenting mischief in Europe. The US and the West need to stop undermining themselves, call time on their Iraqi “allies”, cut their losses, and act to take one of Iran’s biggest gains of the past two decades away from them.
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