The European “migrant crisis” was radically affected recently by the sad and telling image of Aylan Kurdi, the three year-old Syrian child who drowned trying to escape the on-going Syrian war. Until now, the crisis was typically depicted as non-Europeans “burdening” Europe; the sobering photograph of a child’s lifeless body has compelled European leaders to respond. But no one is trying to solve the conflict. Barack Obama missed a glaring opportunity these past few months by not tying Iran’s unconditional support for Bashar Assad, the embattled Syrian president who has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in his quest to remain in power, to the deal. The fact is – there is no refugee crisis without the Iranian government’s arming of Assad and the accommodation of President Obama.
I recently had dinner with a colleague who attended a pro-deal rally in Chicago this past month; he was surprised that very few non-Persian Muslims attended. I informed him that most Muslims I know, including myself, are opposed to any U.S. or Israeli war against Iran, for only Iran’s population will suffer. But considering Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq and Syria, it is difficult to muster up any enthusiasm for the Iranian regime.
Those who support the deal do so for the right reasons: They are opposed to war and the unwarranted suffering of yet another civilian population in the region. But those same supporters are totally silent on Iran’s commitment to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad, its propping up of non-state militias who act just as morbid and brutal as ISIS but happen to be Shi’is and – of course – Iran’s direct involvement in the demographic destruction of Syria. Aylan Kurdi would still be home today if not for Iran, not to mention 10 million other displaced Syrians.
Reza Aslan, Noam Chomsky, John Esposito, Juan Cole and others publically endorsed the deal by addressing a letter to Congress for its support. The letter was organized by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Trita Parsi, president of the NIAC argued “in addition to advancing non-proliferation goals, this agreement could be the key that unlocks solutions to some of the most intractable conflicts in the Middle East.” But it is highly improbable that this deal will do that.
Iran in Iraq and Syria
In 2003, Baghdad’s population was 65% Sunni and 45% Shi’i, today Baghdad is 25% Sunni and 75% Shi’i. From 2006 to 2009, Iranian backed militias literally cleansed Baghdad of its Sunni population. Hundreds of Sunni men were found daily, blindfolded and tied, shot execution style. Even now, the ‘war’ against ISIS is largely a pretext for Iranian militias to cleanse the suburbs of Baghdad of Sunnis as well. Qasem Suliemani, the architect of Iran’s regional strategy is not constrained by the Iran Deal; he is in fact rewarded by it; along with other top military officers. Suliemani, singularly responsible for the death of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, is being relieved of sanction. No one has addressed how relieving Suliemani – who has been as brutal in Iraq and Syria as the Israelis in the Gaza Strip will pave “the way for an increase in dialogue and diplomacy on a whole set of issues – which is critical for stability in the Middle East.”
Liberals obviously support the deal for partisan reasons, but to also distance themselves from certain war-mongering Republicans. But more troubling is many public intellectuals and writers unconditionally support the deal as well; Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky and other Leftists pontificate on the imperial nature of American foreign policy, but remain silent on glaring Iranian crimes to only further a view of the world as simple as their rhetorical opponents. Even Muslim public figures, such as the aforementioned Reza Aslan and Dean Obeidallah have obviously explicitly or implicitly supported the deal, associating anti-deal with Islamophobia and Bush administration-like policies. They might be right. But Iran is currently killing far more people in the region than Israel at the moment. And the Iran Deal – as it stands now – will only make the Iranian government more effective at a policy that will not change soon. HA Hellyer recently highlighted the hypocrisy of progressives who rightly condemn Israel’s human rights abuses and genocide in the Gaza Strip but support Assad – who does the exact same thing in Syria.
There are several reasons for this hypocritical gap: First, opponents of the Iran deal are chicken hawks who advance Islamophobic rhetoric. To oppose the deal opens one up to being thrown into that camp. Secondly, Iran has constantly invoked the “resistance” card, insisting on its pure commitment to Palestinian justice – but a critical look at Iranian policies demonstrate that Iranian ‘resistance,’ though present, is much more complicated and adulterated than the rhetoric. You need look no further than Trita Parsi, president of the NIAC himself, and his excellent book Treacherous Alliance. It outlines the numerous ways in which Iranian policy calculates according to interest rather than ideology (and the public consumption thereof).
There is another reason, perhaps more obscure, that Muslim thinkers in the West are supporting the deal with no regard for the lives of Iraqis and Syrians – the old (but actually new) Sunni-Shi’i card. It is presumed by some of these writers that if you oppose the Iran deal, you might just be a “disgruntled Sunni,” another Islamophobic trope that blankets 85% of Muslims. On the Tavis Smiley show this past week, Aslan argued that the Saudi (i.e. Sunni) lobby was very much responsible for opposition to the deal for it is as “potent” a lobby as the pro-Israel lobby. I am not sure how he came to the conclusion of such strong Saudi influence. In 2003, as a vocal opponent of the Iraq War (as were the Saudis, whose “lobby” failed), I was involved in a radio debate and was told blankly I was a “Sunni” potentially anxious about “Shi’i power.” It did not occur to my colleague that, though born in Baghdad, I am an American – the thought of neither Sunni nor Shi’i power keeps me up at night. But for the record, my mother is Shi’i and my father Sunni; most of my relatives are Shi’i (including a former mayor of Karbala). Iraqis simply thought of themselves as Muslims – until the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, which relied heavily on Iranian cooperation.
Again, I want to be clear, I am opposed to an American or Israeli strike on Iran. But were those the only two options? I even welcome the relief of so many ordinary Iranians suffering from sanctions – but not Qasem Suliemani. I cannot get excited about a deal that will only cause more suffering for the people of Iraq and Syria. There seems to have been an opportunity to pressure Iran on Syria (at least) as part of the deal, but President Obama demonstrated no such concern. Maybe he would have, if American Muslim writers were more nuanced and less antipathetic to the suffering of Iraqis and Syrians. Parsi proudly adds that “many of the signers of the letter publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003…History proved them right. Clearly they know a thing or two about international relations, the Middle East and Iran.” I too publically opposed the war and know a thing or two about the region. The only thing this deal proves to me – for certain – is that Iranian policy in Iraq and Syria is not something the Americans are concerned with. But American Muslims, the same Muslims many of these writers claim to represent, will become increasingly concerned.