openSecurity

The case for complexity

As violence in Iraq threatens to overshadow nuclear talks between the US and Iran, we must avoid the tendency to rely on simplistic binaries, and instead recognize the linkages between these challenging dynamics to encourage cooperation.

Paul Ingram
20 June 2014

Football, the modern-day opiate of the masses, is a simple passionate game of  two teams and one simple, generally zero-sum result. We have a winner and loser; even drawn matches contribute to victory and defeat in the tournament. In attempting to make meaning out of the complexity of regional and sub-regional conflict by reducing it to the binaries of the football pitch, we often make monumental errors.

Nuclear talks this week in Vienna, approaching the final 30 days of the interim agreement between Iran and the US (deadline 20 July) have been overshadowed by the shockingly offensive atrocities by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, but like many overlooked dynamics in this region, have important linkages. This week we saw images of advancing masked radicals executing hundreds of Iraqi prisoners, reminiscent of the worst extreme oppressive conflicts during the 20th century. And now the Iraqi government is formally requesting Washington to bomb its own territory.

Blair v. Boris. While it would be over-simplistic to claim that Iraq’s current crisis is an inevitable consequence of the 2003 war, many of us predicted similar consequences before the invasion. It is more than extraordinary for Tony Blair to claim that the current crisis is a direct consequence of the west’s failure to pick sides and intervene militarily in Syria. Foreign governments are already deeply enmeshed in the conflict there. Yet, while we may be sympathetic with London mayor Boris Johnson’s response describing the invasion as a tragic error and Blair as “unhinged”, needing professional psychiatric help, we cannot simply ignore the reality of the events in Iraq today. We are in part responsible for the massacres taking place today, so what can we do about them? Could bombing in support of Iraqi ground operations really be the answer?

There are no silver bullets, but it must surely be appropriate for those states with some influence over events in Iraq, particularly the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to cooperate strategically over measures to bring stability back to the country. Reports that Iran and the United States are already in talks, despite opposition from neo-cons in Washington, are encouraging. In Britain we may be familiar with the influence Russian tycoons and Middle Eastern Sheiks wield on outcomes in the Premier League, but as states sponsor their own favoured armed groups in civil wars in the region with altogether different consequences, it is time for greater transparency, accountability and international cooperation.

Sunni v. Shi’a. All too often, conflict within the Middle East is interpreted through the sectarian lens of a divide within Islam over the successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Islamic world. But this is only one division, and all-too-frequently over-emphasised. For example, over the last 12 months the unity of Gulf Cooperation Council states has been shattered by conflicting loyalties, fears of spreading revolution and violent efforts to clamp down on dissent. These have been caused by and in turn have led to tectonic shifts in long-standing strategic relations in the region, many of which have little directly to do with clear Sunni and Shi’a divisions. Yet that does not stop analysts referring to that particular division, and attempt to make simple sense of something far more complex. 

A direct result of this tendency to interpret the situation through the lens of a single sectarianism is to encourage a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and write off the possibility of cooperation to tackle the myriad dynamics of frustration, revenge and power games. True stability does not come from balancing ideologically hostile powers, but rather from drawing all states into inclusive regional and global institutions that mediate relations, encourage the observance of agreement and international law without resorting to threat, build prosperity through personal and economic relationships, and include a vision of human rights and human security.

US et al v. Iran. As US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and fellow political directors from other world powers sit down with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Vienna this week, they have had a number of tough remaining obstacles to overcome, particularly around the enrichment capacity of the country and the length of time the comprehensive agreement will be in place before Iran is treated like any other non-nuclear weapon state under the NPT.

It is all too often tempting to cheer for one side or another in this contest of wills, but the truth is more complex. Whilst Iran’s nuclear programme presents a challenge to the non-proliferation regime and is structured in ways that arouse reasonable suspicions, states on the other side of the table have their own questions to answer. We have to consider the health of the non-proliferation regime as a core metric of success when thinking about the merits of any particular proposal or deal, but in so doing we have to be pragmatic, and consider it alongside other objectives such as international stability and justice, human security and human rights. 

If negotiators succeed in finalising a deal it needs to be measured against the consequences arising from no deal at all, rather than perfection. We must not underestimate the damage already done by the failure to resolve this issue, damage that will be dwarfed if the current negotiations collapse and both sides slide into more radical responses. The isolation of Iran drives radical and sometimes desperate responses internally and in the region, simultaneously pushing the Iranians into stronger relationship with Bashar Al-Assad and other radical groups, drawing them into the conflict in Iraq, strengthening the hardliners and inflaming internal crack downs and human rights abuses.

It prevents cooperation in dealing with the symptoms of our past mistakes in other areas, such as the atrocities in Syria and Iraq today. The nuclear negotiations are important in their own right, for the future of nuclear non-proliferation, but also for hope in the region that things can improve and the cycles of hatred, sectarian violence and marginalization broken. 

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