POMED Notes: “Iranian Policy Toward the Iraqi And Syrian Crises”

Woodrow_Wilson_Center_logoOn Tuesday, October 21 2014, the Wilson Center hosted an event titled “Iranian Policy Toward the Iraqi and Syrian Crises.”  The event featured Jubin Goodarzi, the Deputy Head of the International Relations Department at Webster University. Mr. Goodarzi was introduced by Haleh Esfandiari, the Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

For a full summary of the event, continue reading below or click here for a PDF.

Mr. Goodarzi analyzed the roots of the Syrian uprising and focused on the Syrian state’s retreat from its socialist roots in the past two decades, which he regarded as a major factor in the rebellion. He explained that as the Syrian state withdrew from public provision of goods, it allowed Islamic charities and social services to fill this vacuum and concomitantly relaxed previously-standing restrictions on religious groups.  Mr. Goodarzi also pointed to Syria’s support for Al-Qaeda throughout the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a key precursor to the rise of ISIS.

In addition to these issues, Mr. Goodarzi identified a number of other factors that influenced the Syrian crisis, including the droughts of 2006 and 2011, the wave of regional Arab uprisings, the lack of political liberalization in Syria, the deterioration of socioeconomic conditions, and the covert efforts of Syria’s international adversaries. He also added that many Syrians had been exposed to Wahabbi ideals through tribal connections or employment in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, Mr. Goodarzi sought to establish that the regime’s strategy for containing dissent had backfired, leading to the current crisis.

Mr. Goodarzi then contextualized Iran’s position towards Iraq within the two states’ relations over the past fifty years, with special reference to the 1980-88 war. He also sought to refute the prevailing notion that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki was simply an Iranian lackey who had single-mindedly pursued sectarian goals. Instead, Mr. Goodarzi explained that Al-Maliki had been viewed as a fairly weak and pliable politician upon his inauguration to office, especially since he represented al-Dawa, one of the few parties that lacked a militia of its own. Maliki had thus sought to pursue policies that would strengthen him, especially in the face of constant threats of coup attempts. Mr. Goodarzi also noted that Iran had initially opposed Maliki’s candidacy in 2010 and had supported the Iraqi National Alliance; Iran only supported Maliki once it became clear that the INA could not succeed without him.

Mr. Goodarzi argued that Iraq remains even more significant for Iran than Syria, since Iran and Iraq share a 1500-kilometer border. Moreover, Mr. Goodarzi explained that Iran feared that instability in Iraq would inevitably metastasize into a threat that affected the Iranians as well. The possibilities of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan or of an ISIS victory in Iraq thus pose major threats for the Iranian state and remain Iran’s most pertinent concerns.

Due to Iran’s stake in the region, Mr. Goodarzi concluded, it is imperative to integrate Iran into peace talks and to acknowledge its role as a major regional power. Mr. Goodarzi cautioned against the longstanding U.S. policy of sidelining Iran, as evidenced in Montreux and the recent Paris conference. Rather, he urged the United States to work with Iran on negotiating a political solution to the Syrian crisis.