Nuclear Deal with Iran: The Wrong Defense

Most sensible people allowed themselves to breathe a sigh of relief when Iran and six other countries announced their agreement on key parameters of a nuclear deal. It was no surprise to discover that Israel and the Republicans in the United States did not belong to this category of sensible people. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk promptly declared “that Neville Chamberlain got a lot more out of Hitler than Wendy Sherman got out of Iran,” referring to a top State Department negotiator. Ignoring that a deal reduces the chances for a US-led military attack on Iran, Kirk nonetheless maintained that lifting sanctions (as the deal would require) “dooms the Middle East to yet another war” and it would all end “with a mushroom cloud somewhere near Tehran.”

Kirk wasn’t alone in his frustration. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who once compared organized workers to the Islamic State, declared that “Obama’s dangerous deal with Iran rewards an enemy, undermines our allies and threatens our safety.” Walker doesn’t explain how a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear capacities, subjects them to international inspection, and reduces the risk for another war in the Middle East manages to do all of that. For Walker, Kirk, and others the contents of the nuclear deal are simply not relevant, which makes sense considering some of the sources of their funding. The are only interested in depicting Iran as an irredeemable evil requiring a military response. As Walker put it, “The Islamic Republic of Iran — the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism — is on the march throughout the Middle East.” Not to be outdone, Texas Senator and presidential-hopeful Ted Cruz said that the Obama administration “doesn’t understand the people they are dealing with. They support death and suicide.”

It is this last point–the depiction of Iran as a regional and international aggressor–that Juan Cole responds to in his latest post for The Nation. Admittedly, there are quite a lot of lies and outright fabrication in the charges  levelled by hawkish elements in the US and Israel against Iran. Cole, however, manages to promote some falsities of his own. Consider the following section on Iran’s involvement in Syria:

Iran has sent trainers and strategists to help Damascus against hard-line Salafi Sunni rebels, and is accused of rounding up some Afghan and other mercenaries for Damascus. Syria’s geopolitical alliance with Iran came about because of Syria’s isolation in the Arab world and need for an ally against nearby threats from Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

In just two short sentences Cole manages to reduce the Syrian opposition to “hard-line Salafi Sunni rebels” and completely ignores Assad’s brutal suppression of a non-violent uprising. There is nothing here about the schoolboys in Daraa who scribbled anti-regime slogans on school walls and were arrested and tortured by the Assad regime, sparking the uprising. Nor is there any mention of local grassroots activism against the Assad regime. Cole does not discuss the formation of hundreds of local committees and councils where “revolutionary activists engage in multiple activities, from documenting and reporting on violations carried out by the regime (and increasingly elements of the opposition) to organizing protests and civil disobedience campaigns (such as strikes and refusing to pay utility bills) and collecting and providing aid and humanitarian supplies to areas under bombardment or siege.” He does not care to talk about the courageous and increasingly creative ways Syrians have been protesting against the Assad regime. The experiments in self-governance in liberated zones are also absent from Cole’s account. We are left with the impression that the opposition to Assad’s regime comes only from “hard-line Salafi Sunni rebels.”

It is also worth dwelling for a moment on what Iranian support to the Assad regime has entailed. Early on in the uprising Iran significantly increased its personnel in Syria and provided “help to monitor internet communications such as Skype, widely used by a network of activists, methods of crowd control, and providing equipment such as batons and riot police helmets.” Needless to say Iran’s provision of riot gear and help in monitoring internet communication was not intended against “hard-line Salafi Sunni rebels” but instead against unarmed protesters.

Reuters report last year provided further details on Iranian support. Assad, according to the report, “is now benefiting from the deployment by Tehran of hundreds more military specialists to Syria,” including “senior commanders from the elite Quds Force, the external and secretive arm of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as IRGC members.” Their function is “to direct and train Syrian forces and to assist in the gathering of intelligence.” According to a recently retired senior IRGC commander cited by the report, there are 60 to 70 top Quds force commanders in Syria at any given time. They were backed up by “thousands of Iranian paramilitary Basij volunteer fighters as well as Arabic speakers including Shi’ites from Iraq.”

As for the “hard-line Salafi Sunni rebels,” data from IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center’s suggested that Assad’s “counterterrorism operations — more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes — skew heavily towards groups whose names aren’t ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year up through Nov. 21, just 6 percent directly targeted ISIS.” The Islamic State has reciprocated the gesture: “Just 13 percent of the [Islamic State] militants’ attacks during the same period — the year through Nov. 21 — targeted Syrian security forces. That’s a stark contrast to the Sunni extremist group’s operations in Iraq, where more than half of ISIS attacks (54 percent) were aimed at security forces.”

The Assad regime is not simply fighting a war against “hard-line Salafi Sunni rebels.” It is an unelected and illegitimate (not to mention criminal) dictatorship that is fighting to ensure it remains in power. That is what Iran is supporting in Syria. The nuclear deal with Iran reduces the chances of another war in the Middle East and lifts sanctions on the country which mostly hurt ordinary Iranians. It is possible to defend the deal on those grounds alone, without having to pretend Iran is innocent of all crimes. Unfortunately Juan Cole seems incapable of that simple enough task.