Venturing into airspace patrolled by the US military used to be a perilous business for Iranian pilots. Back in 1988, an American destroyer mistook an Iranian civilian aircraft for a warplane and blew the airliner out of the sky, killing 290 innocent people. Did that precedent cross the minds of the crew of the Iranian F-4 Phantom as they took off to bomb Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) positions in Iraq last Sunday?
If so, they need not have worried. The pilot and navigator might have been in danger from surface-to-air missiles fired by Daesh — or even from mechanical failure, given that their Phantom is an antiquated model, which first flew in 1958. But America, with the world’s mightiest air force, clearly had no interest in doing them any harm.
The Iranian air strikes, which probably involved a second Phantom, would have been tracked on the radar screens at Al Udeid airbase in Qatar. This military hub outside Doha serves as the headquarters of America’s offensive against Daesh. At any given time, serried ranks of B1 bombers and Globemaster transport aircraft can be seen beside Al Udeid’s runway. If American commanders had wanted to destroy Iran’s brace of Phantoms, they could have done so with a fraction of the power at their disposal.
Yet, they allowed Iran to go ahead and strike Daesh unmolested. In the process, America demonstrated the eternal relevance of the old dictum that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. As a Sunni zealot, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh, considers Iran’s Shiite regime to be despicable infidels, every bit as loathsome as America and the West. Suddenly, Baghdadi has managed to give America and Iran a common cause: Both have a vital interest in ensuring his defeat.
The immediate consequence is that American spokesmen have tied themselves in knots to describe their country’s new position. Officially, Washington will not “coordinate” the military campaign with Iran. Does turning a blind eye to Iranian air strikes amount to “co-ordination”?
Absolutely not, according to Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. Asked about the raids, he confirmed that Iranian Phantoms had indeed been in action in Iraq, before adding: “Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians.”
Meanwhile, Iranian officials flatly denied that their air force had struck Daesh at all. This makes no sense, given that a Phantom was filmed in the act of bombing targets in Iraq on November 30 — and no other country in the Middle East possesses this venerable fighter save Turkey, which has played no part in the anti-Daesh campaign. Moreover, the air strikes took place in Diyala province, which covers the approaches to Baghdad and shares a border with Iran, making it exactly the sort of place that Tehran would be anxious to defend. So the verdict is clear: Iran dropped the bombs — and America let them do so. Given that Daesh poses a threat to just about everybody and Iran clearly has legitimate security interests to protect, are there any reasons to be wary?
Many of America’s most powerful Arab allies would answer with an emphatic “yes”. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states nurse a visceral suspicion of Iran. America duly kept them in the dark last year when US diplomats held secret meetings with their Iranian counterparts. Those talks eventually produced an interim agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear programme. Since then, America and Iran have stopped bothering to hide the frequency of their contacts. In the past 12 months, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has held dozens of meetings with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister.
In theory, the two men have been solely focused on settling the confrontation over the nuclear programme — and a final deal remains elusive. But no one doubts that they have discussed other subjects as well. Privately, diplomats from the Gulf fear that the rapprochement between America and Iran has gone much further in secret than either side has acknowledged in public. The fact that Washington is, at the very least, prepared to tolerate Iranian air strikes in Iraq will be taken as further evidence of this theory. But you do not have to believe that Iran has covertly become an American ally to be wary of any cooperation with Tehran against Daesh. After all, Iran’s ruinous interventions in Iraq and Syria helped to create the conditions for Daesh’s rise.
In Baghdad, Iran backed the nakedly sectarian policies of Nouri Al Maliki, the former prime minister. The Revolutionary Guard armed the very Shiite militias that alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority and drove some into the Daesh camp. In Syria, Iran has done more than any other outside power to sponsor Bashar Al Assad’s war against his people. The onslaught against Syria’s Sunni majority has been the galvanising force behind Daesh. With every sectarian atrocity, Al Assad deliberately sought to radicalise his foes in order to ensure that even he would appear more palatable than those who were trying to bring him down. As he trod the murderous path that ended in Daesh’s ascendancy, Iran was alongside him every step of the way. So if Iran now seems part of the cure, never forget that it helped to incubate the disease. On balance, America was right to let those Phantoms bomb Daesh — but that does not make Iran an ally.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2014