Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham.
No one can question that the events of the past few days have demonstrated the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to the Middle East and to the international community. It threatens greater instability, violence and terrorism. Within a short period of time, Isis has captured large sections of Iraq, and is now closing in on the capital, Baghdad. It also claims to have killed 1,700 prisoners.
But co-operation with Iran over Iraq, which the West is now considering, could exasperate an already precarious situation. It is the foreign policy equivalent of pouring water onto an electric fire: it’s as likely to hurt you as to put out the flames. Let us not forget that Iran has been fully engaged in Iraq since the fall and capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and has trained and supplied militias in Iraq that were used to attack American soldiers. Its goal was to create a weak, decentralised Iraq that could not pose a threat to Iran.
Recently, it has been a strong ally to the Iraq Prime Minister’s, Nouri al-Maliki, Shiite-led government and his pursuit of sectarian policies. I questioned the UK’s support for Iran in Parliament yesterday. During his statement, I asked the Foreign Secretary how the international community could engage Iran to help resolve the situation in Iraq when Iran is aiding terrorism in Lebanon, supporting Hamas and corroborating with the horrific regime of President Assad in Syria.
It is clear that the only way we could ever stomach cooperation with Iran is if it agrees to stop exporting and harbouring terrorism in the region. How can we work with a country that for far too long has provided funding, training and weapons and a safe haven for militant groups in the region? If Iran wants to assist the international community, it first has to ask Hamas to give up violence. Although the relationship between Iran and Hamas has been strained in recent years, there are reports that steps have been taken to restore cooperation, including financial assistance.
Tehran must also stop supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and give up its long standing relationship to the organization it helped to create 30 years ago. Iran has continued to use Hezbollah as a proxy for its own foreign objectives, often with mix results, such as the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States in 2011. And it should end its aid for President Assad in Syria and allow the country to decide its own future. They are one of Assad’s key backers, providing finance, logistical and military support.
Even if we imagine that Iran agreed to change its policies, and we worked with it to defeat Isis in Iraq, can we really then expect it to withdraw its influence and presence from Iraq? There is also the risk that Iran will use its role in Iraq as a bargaining tool in the ongoing nuclear weapons negotiations. The 20 July deadline is nearly upon us for replacing the interim deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear programme.
Many in the international community will also say that allowing Iran to give assistance is like giving tacit support to their form of terrorism. By giving up its nuclear ambitions and ceasing its support for terrorist groups, Iran can do much to improve stability in the region. But without this, we cannot and should not work with it in Iraq.
In the coming days and weeks, the international community will face a significant challenge over Iraq. Whilst Iranian support may provide a quick fix against Isis’ momentum, it will lead to long term problems and further sectarian and ethnic violence in the region which will pose a challenge for the international community for many years to come.