Iran’s Afghanistan Policy: At odds with Trump?

By Dr. Amir M. Kamel

The prospect of the US president-elect Donald Trump’s Administration has led to ripples across the international system, not least in the Middle East. Indeed, at the time of writing, Trump had pledged to reduce the US tendency to carry out foreign interventions. Significantly, this included harsh criticisms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia, China, plus Germany). The problems this may cause have implications for Iran’s neighbours, Afghanistan in particular. Not least as a result of Tehran’s own interests in Kabul.

Indeed, in a recent book chapter, titled ‘Iran in Afghanistan: Rejecting Foreign Presence’ in Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas: South Asia and Beyond, I argue that Iran’s ties with Afghanistan are increasingly driven by Tehran’s interests. Specifically, this pertains to the Islamic Republic of Iran regime’s (IRI) dedication to 1) rejecting foreign presence in the region, as well as 2) providing economic and political support to a Taliban-free Kabul. Predictably, such a dual-barreled policy has led Tehran to take contradictory actions since 2001. That being said, the IRI has continued to implement a policy which aimed to sure up its interests, particularly in light of the post-2014 withdrawal of the United States of America (US) led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military personnel from Afghanistan.

A key part of this is Iran’s influence over its neighbour, whether it be as a result of the shared cultural history between the two countries or the fact that opium trade is able to flow across the border, which was identified by the outgoing President Barack Obama Administration choke-point for constraining the Taliban. The feeling of cooperation and shared interests is seemingly mutual. Indeed, for nearly two years, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Iran twice a week in a drive to increase Afghanistan-Iran trade. The fact that Ghani has made such a concerted effort to boost economic ties with Tehran is further evidence of Iran’s interest in ensuring stability in Kabul.

With this in mind, it would seem apparent that an ‘onside’ Iran would also serve the potential interests of the Trump Administration. Indeed, one could speculate that the tearing up of the JCPOA, which already has its critics in Iran (most notably in the form of the more conservative political forces in the country), would hamper Tehran’s ability and propensity to align itself to the US (and broader) interests in stabilising Afghanistan. Whilst it is still unclear what Trump’s policy toward the region will be, the rhetoric in the run-up to what will be the 45th President of the US’ time in office, does not seem positive for Tehran’s interests in Kabul. The hope is that this will become more clear after January 20, 2017.

Image: Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani meeting with Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani in Saadabad Palace, April 19, 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Iran’s DAISH Policy: Pragmatic as ever

Dr Amir M Kamel

This post is the first of a three-part series based on a panel titled ‘Middle Eastern Pragmatism and the Islamic State’ which took place at the Tenth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies 22-24 September 2016 at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime (IRI) response to DAISH (aka IS, ISIS, ISIL, among others) demonstrates the Iranian government’s continued pragmatic manner in which it operates in the international political system. Indeed, since the IRI came into being following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the regime has demonstrated its ability to espouse the revolutionary ethos established at the time, whilst pragmatically pursuing issues of national interests simultaneously. Specifically, this ethos has been evidenced by the following two elements of Iranian policy: Rejecting foreign influence and supporting freedom fighters across the world. The IRI’s dedication to these aspects of policy, in a pragmatic manner, have been evidenced in actions since 1979 and including the country’s reaction to DAISH.

Initially, the IRI demonstrated this approach following the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, when Tehran actively sought (and ascertained) support from foreign states in order to recover from the conflict. The Iranian regime did so whilst continuing to maintain its revolutionary mantra in international affairs (exemplified by the fatwa placed on the British-Indian citizen Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses book’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and Islam).

Then, following the 2002 revelation that the IRI was carrying out strictly legal, but the necessary measures for nuclear proliferation, Tehran sought to continue along this trajectory by maintaining economic and political ties with ‘friendly’ states in the international system. Ultimately, the sanctions placed on the IRI as a result of the nuclear program were followed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), geared at alleviating the sanctions in return for the scaling back of said program.

The JCPOA presented a framework for the IRI to continue to act pragmatically to achieve its national interest orientated goals (that is to maintain its sovereign right to develop a peaceful nuclear program), whilst implicitly (and explicitly in some cases) engaging with former rivals to combat the DAISH threat.

Indeed, the JCPOA context provided a forum for dialogue with Saudi Arabia (e.g. on the sidelines of 2013 UN conference), whilst simultaneously backing opposing sides in the conflict in Yemen – demonstrating the dedication to rejecting foreign influence (DAISH in this instance) in a pragmatic manner. Further, despite decades of having sanctions levied against it by the US (and still does), the JCPOA demonstrated a first in the sense of the agreement being followed by an US-IRI dialogue. The support for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) forces in northern Iraq, the Shia-led government in Baghdad and support for Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad all demonstrated Iran’s goal of ridding the region of a foreign threat (DAISH) whilst juggling a pragmatic need to maintain influence in these various arenas.

This demonstrates the IRI’s practice of its policy and the significance of the JCPOA when the interests of the IRI are at risk of being negatively impacted upon. As a result, I contend that Iran’s decisions are rooted in its experiences, constitution and actions. This process therefore comes under the three tranches guiding Iranian policies in international affairs, namely: rejecting foreign influence, supporting what it terms as freedom fighters (i.e. those under the control of their respective ‘oppressors’) and the IRI does so in a pragmatic manner in order to ensure its own stability and security.

Image: Parliament (Majlis) Speaker Ali Larijani meets Syrian Defense Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij in Tehran, 9 April 2015. Courtesy of Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons.

All the Shah’s Men: The Imperial Iranian Brigade Group in the Dhofar War

The King’s College Research Centre for the History of Conflict will be hosting a symposium, ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War: Operations and Legacies’, at the JSCSC in the Tedder Lecture Theatre on 13th July 2016. All staff and students are warmly invited to attend.


In the autumn of 1972 Shah Reza Pahlavi, the Emperor of Iran, send 150 special forces soldiers from his armed forces (the Artesh) to Oman, commencing an intervention that culminated in the deployment of a brigade group to assist the British-led Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) in their counterinsurgency campaign in Dhofar against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). At least 15,000 Iranian soldiers, sailors and airmen were deployed to Oman between 1972 and 1979, with over 700 being reportedly killed in combat. Few historians have written about the Imperial Iranian Brigade Group (IIBG) and its interaction with the British-trained SAF, and this subject will be addressed in a paper that I will present to the symposium on ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War’ convened by the Research Centre for the History of Conflict on 13th July 2016.

At a time when the UK and other Western powers favour a ‘light footprint’ in military interventions, the prospects are that British military trainers and advisors will be working with allies like the Artesh – with armed forces with little if any record of alliance interaction with the UK, and with specific weaknesses such as those originating from the coup-proofing of militaries by regimes. In Dhofar, the Iranians could provide the mass and manpower that the British – with their NATO commitments and the worsening crisis in Northern Ireland – could not deploy. They played an important role in winning the war against the PFLO, although the partnership between them, the Omanis and their British allies was not trouble-free.

In the late 1960s-early 1970s the Shah oversaw a massive expansion of Iran’s military might, his intention being to make his realm a regional superpower, filling the power vacuum left in the Persian Gulf by Britain’s ‘East of Suez’ withdrawals between 1968 and 1971. Reza Pahlavi also saw himself as a bulwark against revolution in the region, and was as determined as the governments of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson to save Sultan Qaboos bin Said from being overthrown by the Marxist-Leninist PFLO.

On paper, the Artesh was a powerful force, lavishly equipped as a result of US and (to a lesser extent) British military aid. However, Iran’s military expansion was constrained by several factors. The Shah’s armed forces had an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure, officers were appointed and promoted on the basis of loyalty to the imperial regime rather than professional competence, and the military and defence ministry was hampered by a shortage of key personnel – senior NCOs, trained staff officers, and also civil servants specialising in procurement.

There were also specific factors which made the Iranians awkward partners in Dhofar. Arab-Persian animosities, and the Shah’s territorial claims in the Gulf, meant that the IIBG’s presence was politically controversial as far as regional opinion was concerned. Traditional Anglophobia – deriving from Britain’s legacy of imperial meddling in Iran’s affairs – meant that British officers seconded to serve with the SAF faced the suspicion and mistrust of their Artesh allies.

Initially, the Iranians were also of questionable quality. The Shah’s special forces contingent attracted the ridicule of their counterparts from the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22SAS), who had been deployed to Dhofar to organise the firqat forces (tribal militias). In December 1973 Iran sent a battalion of paratroopers to open up the Midway Road that linked Dhofar with the rest of the Sultanate; the road was quickly secured, but as the Commander-in-Chief of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (CSAF), Major-General Timothy Creasey, observed, the Iranian airborne soldiers were trigger-happy and quick to open fire on Dhofari nomads and their herds. While the Iranian Chief of the Army, General Golam Reza Azhari, wanted to confine his forces to Eastern Dhofar, Creasey feared that Iranian troops would antagonise Dhofari civilians with their heavy-handedness, and wanted the IIBG to be deployed in the less-populated West of the province, where the PFLO had its strongest presence. The CSAF was able to persuade Qaboos (and through him the Shah) that the Artesh should fight in the West, which meant that between December 1974 and December 1975 the IIBG became involved in a series of offensives that eventually swept the insurgents out of Dhofar.

The Iranians had a steep learning curve to climb. Their initial performance in combat showed that their soldiers often lacked basic infantry skills. They did not patrol, they did not site their defensive positions with interlocking fields of fire (a challenge in its own right because of the tough terrain) they were unable to fire and manoeuvre in battle, and under fire their troops tended to bunch, rather than disperse. However, their commitment to operations in the West played to their favour. The Artesh had been trained by its US advisors to fight ‘conventional warfare’, and the last year of the war against the PFLO was very much a ‘conventional’ fight. The final offensive in October-December 1975 (Operation Hadaf) involved two brigades of Iranian and Oman forces fighting pitched battles against the insurgents, and required artillery, naval gunfire support and rotary wing manoeuvre to work.

Creasey’s successor as CSAF, Major-General Ken Perkins, noted in December 1976 that ‘without Iranian assistance we would not have won the war’. The IIBG were awkward partners. British liaison officers found it difficult to get even basic information from their allies (such as the location of friendly units), and often felt that they got the blame for Iranian mistakes and incompetence. But the Artesh’s contribution demonstrated the adage, attributed to Josif Stalin, that ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’. The IIBG augmented an overstretched SAF, its helicopters supplemented the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (which was constantly short of both machines and RAF-seconded pilots), its naval task force helped blockade the PFLO, and both the air base built at Manston (now Thumrait) and the air defence units Iran sent to Dhofar provided both a deterrent – and a potential counter – to any overt intervention by the insurgency’s sponsor, South Yemen.

However, thanks to the Islamic Revolution Iran’s intervention in Oman was to become a forgotten war. After the Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979 the officer corps of the Artesh was purged and the Islamic Republic withdrew the limited contingent left in Oman after the PFLO’s defeat. Reportedly some Dhofar veterans saw action in the war against Iraq (1980-1988), but their actual contribution to that particular war, and their effect on operations, is difficult to determine.

Nonetheless, the IIBG’s involvement in combat operations in Dhofar remains worthy of attention, not least because of the parallels between the conflict against the PFLO, and the involvement of Coalition advisors, special forces and air power assisting the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga against Daesh. Furthermore, and in spite its own pronouncements on non-intervention, the Islamic Republic has sent its Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors to bolster both the Iraqi government and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In this respect, the mullahs in Tehran are following in the Shah’s footsteps, using Iran’s military muscle both to protect clients, and to bolster the Islamic Republic’s regional influence and prestige.

I would like to thank Ian Buttenshaw, Ian Gordon and Mike Lobb for their sharing their knowledge and insights on Dhofar, and the Iranian role in that conflict.

Featured image: Iranian troops prepare to deploy on Operation Nader, Christmas 1974. Photograph provided courtesy of Lt Col Ian Buttenshaw, WKhM.


Iran and Regional Security


Following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January 2016, involving Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, on behalf of the international community), there has been an increased potential for a new era of Iranian cooperation when it comes to security issues of international concern. The JCPOA had ameliorated international security concerns surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme, and set a precedent for reciprocal dialogue between the Middle Eastern state and the international community, at least on paper. That being said, there are still points of concern across the region as to whether the JCPOA is a positive development, vis-à-vis removing the nuclear threat of Iran, in principle, and what this means in practice across the Middle East.

Firstly, regional concerns emanate from the very nature of the JCPOA, i.e. it’s finite remit. Specifically, the agreement details that:

– Iran must limit it’s estimated 20,000 centrifuges (as of July 2015) to 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges in Natanz over the next 10 years.

– The country must also reduce it’s uranium stockpile by 98% to 300kg (660lbs) over the next 15 years, limit the level of enrichment to 3.67%, and the Natanz facility is to be used for research and development.

– The Fordo facility is prohibited from nuclear enrichment for the next 15 years (and is to be converted to a technology centre with the existing centrifuges to be used for alternate purposes).

– The Arak plant is not permitted to build additional heavy-water reactors or accumulate any excess heavy water for the next 15 years.

– Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is mandated with further safeguards, including: IAEA inspectors are allowed access to sites deemed suspicious and Iran has 24 days to comply with IAEA requests for the next 15 years.

The JCPOA also articulates that should Iran fail to honour it’s commitments to the agreement then the sanctions imposed on the country prior to January 2015 would be ‘snapped back’ into place for 10 years (and extendable for another 5).

Resultantly, the finite nature of the JCPOA has created a ‘new realm of security’, where the nuclear capabilities of a state have been effectively put on pause for the next 10-15 years. As a result, this has inevitably caused concern for the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime’s regional rivals. Consequently, the rhetoric of limiting Iran’s intentions (i.e. the rhetoric put forward since the IRI came to power following the 1979 Revolution), has continued to hold it’s place in the regional centres of power.

On the one hand, the JCPOA has condoned or legitimised Iran’s clandestine behaviour over it’s nuclear programme over the past fifteen years or so. Further, to put this in a regional context, the agreement has brought Iran ‘in from the cold’ when it comes to the international community (to a certain extent). Those who see the world in zero-sum or realist terms, see this as a negative development.

On the plus side, the JCPOA has provided a new foundation and framework for dialogue and cooperation. Indeed, as I argued in a previous post titled Iran and DAISH: A Cause to Agree on, issues of mutual concern, e.g. the threat of DAISH, have already resulted in uneasy collusion between Iran and it’s most prominent regional rival, Saudi Arabia. As a result, the positive-sum or liberally inclined actors and observes see the agreement as a positive development. Indeed, the precedent set over such cooperation, is promising for the post-JCPOA era.

That being said, both views will adjust, develop and reform as different internal and external pressures emerge and re-emerge in the short and medium-term, as I noted in an earlier post titled Winners and Losers of a Post-Sanctions Iran.

Image: Satellite Image of the Middle East Region, obtained from NASA and/or the US Geological Survey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



At the 2016 International Studies Association (ISA) conference, I presented a paper arguing that the EU’s peace-through-trade policy failed in the cases of Iraq, Iran and Libya as it did not take into account the context in which it was being implemented, i.e. the barriers to peace. The paper draws from the theoretical argument concerned with the EU’s liberal idea of increased interaction leading to influence, something I articulated in a previous Defence-in-Depth post titled The EU: A Model For Economic Governance? This is an idea which I have been thinking and writing about (for the case of Iraq and Iran), and one which I am continuing to test in different case studies, hence the inclusion of Libya in my ISA conference paper.

The argument isn’t particularly sophisticated, indeed it is one which is often levied against liberally-inclined foreign policies. The novelty however lies in the contribution to the theoretical and policy targeted debates. I argue that the liberal theory-based EU policy of using economic ties (increasing trade in this instance) with an actor in order to achieve political goals (i.e. peace), is not being implemented in the manner in which the theory espouses. Indeed, the theory delineates that the economic ties can act as a carrot to induce an environment where peace can be achieved. For this to be true, the policy must be adopted in an absolute sense, i.e. for trade to be carried out when a country is at peace and NOT when it is in a state of conflict. However, the EU does not implement it’s foreign policy in this manner. It merely freezes trade agreements, transactions, updates and in some cases, renewals, in times of conflict. The result, in the case if Iraq, Iran and Libya was a continuing level of EU trade with the three states whilst they were embroiled in conflict (at different levels).

As a result, I argued in my paper (and my book), that the EU is not adopting it’s peace-through-trade policy in a manner which satisfies the theoretical assumptions upon which it is based. The line of argument continues to denote that the policy can therefore not be implemented in an ‘accurate’ way (in a theoretical sense), and thus undermining the fundamentals of the policy all together.

I therefore contend, that if the EU is truly dedicated to it’s self proclaimed peace-through-trade policy, then it must either adopt the policy in an absolute manner (as the theory dictates) or account for the different barriers to the policy succeeding by other means. Alternatively, the EU could go the other way and remove it’s peace-through-trade rhetoric and policy altogether.

Image: Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Vice-President of the European Commission, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nagorno-Karabakh clashes threaten stability in the South Caucasus


Violence has erupted in the South Caucasus, with clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops along the Line of Contact around Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in a number of casualties. The military clashes began in the early hours of 2 April, while both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents were attending the Nuclear Security Summit in the US. The unresolved dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most worrying unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus region, both because of rising tension between the two sovereign states and because the three principal regional powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – all have a differing stance towards the issue. The tense situation polarises the regional powers, with Russian support for Armenia and Turkey’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan dividing the wider Caucasus region into two blocs and raising fears that, if there was a sustained renewal of fighting, it could rapidly become internationalised. It is over two decades since a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1994, but the ensuing stalemate has brought no real peace or stability and the two countries are still officially at war over the mountainous region. Fundamental issues remain unresolved and, as the fresh clashes demonstrate, the threat of renewed hostilities remains very real.

In recent years, there has been an escalation of violence around Nagorno-Karabakh with regular exchanges of fire along the 160-mile Line of Contact (LoC) between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops and a growing number of casualties in the so-called ‘sniper war’. The outbreak of violence on 2 April is the most serious confrontation since the 1994 ceasefire with over 30 deaths on both sides confirmed. Reports suggest that tanks, helicopters and armoured vehicles were involved. A new ceasefire was announced on 5 April, but there have been reports that the violence has continued and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has warned that, if the fighting escalates, Armenia will recognise the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. The escalation in violence on the LoC over recent years has been accompanied by increasingly belligerent rhetoric from political leaders and a significant growth in defence spending by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has made it clear that he intends to pursue his father’s objectives of transforming the country into a regional power, restoring its territorial integrity and uniting the population. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan spend a significant proportion of their national income on defence expenditure, although Armenia is not endowed with the hydrocarbon reserves that its neighbour has. There has been a dramatic rise in oil-rich Azerbaijan’s defence spending from US$175m in 2004 to an estimated US$3.8bn in 2014, meaning that Azerbaijan’s spending on defence exceeded Armenia’s entire national budget (around US$3.2bn in 2014). Nevertheless, in spite of its relative lack of economic advantage, defence spending in Armenia still constitutes around four per cent of GDP (its defence budget in 2013 was US$447m), one of the highest levels amongst the post-Soviet states. Furthermore, whilst Azerbaijan’s armed forces are already almost double the size of Armenia’s, Armenia benefits from Russian political and military support. Russia is Armenia’s staunchest ally and Yerevan has sought a close relationship with Moscow to counterbalance what it perceives to be its vulnerable position between two countries that are antagonistic towards it: Turkey and Azerbaijan. Russia is its key trading partner, providing vital supplies of energy, as well as its principal source of security, providing much-needed military equipment and support. Armenia also has close relations with Iran, a relationship driven by strategic necessity: the two countries share borders and one of Armenia’s principal transit routes passes through Iran, whose southern transit routes are vital to Armenia given the closure of its border with Turkey. 

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is similarly dominated by the continuing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: settlement of the conflict and ‘the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity’ are the country’s primary foreign policy priority. Azerbaijan has a close relationship with Turkey, a relationship based to a large extent on ethnic and linguistic similarities. In addition to strong diplomatic and economic ties, Azerbaijan also receives a considerable amount of military support from Turkey, which has been assisting the development of the Azeri Armed Forces since the country became independent in 1991. However, this close alliance, like the Russian-Armenian partnership, reinforces mutual mistrust and suspicion over Nagorno-Karabakh, hindering the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. These agreements also increase fears that the conflict could become internationalised, with Russia or Turkey being obliged to assist their strategic ally in the event of a resumption of violence. Current diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Ankara could further complicate the situation.

The rapid escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh took many by surprise: after years of stalemate and an apparent a lack of resolve in the international community to sort out the problem, the protracted conflict has dropped off the radar, despite the need for greater international involvement. In addition to the security and geostrategic implications of any renewal of conflict, there are also economic ones to be considered, particularly the region’s role as a key transit route for the export of hydrocarbons from the landlocked Caspian Sea region. The rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, combined with escalating defence expenditure, threaten to undermine security in its broadest sense across the volatile Caucasus region. This latest escalation of hostilities should act as a stark reminder of the need for greater international attention and the imperative of a negotiated settlement.

Image: A graffiti in Yerevan depicting the outline map of Armenia and Artsakh. The text says “Liberated, not occupied”, via wikimedia commons.

Iraq: Shi’a Militias – Partners or Contestants of Iraqi Stability

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].


The fall of Mosul in June 2014 came as a result of series of mistakes committed by the then Iraqi government and Prime-Minister al Maliki. Despite the significant efforts by the international community and the substantial financial resources, dedicated to the strengthening and vocational training of the Iraqi security forces in order to confront both internal and external challenges, the outcome appeared to be rather grim. Notwithstanding the numerous warning signals, the newly established military and security apparatus of Iraq has been plagued with corruption. As a result, it became an arena for irregularities, which by the time of the ISIS invasion, resulted in a complete undermining the Armed forces capacity to confront the threat, as well as the other Iraqi Sunni militant groups. Professionally and ideologically weak, the Iraqi army and security entities were incapable to forecast and thus to plan a strategy on how to approach the terrorist threat.

Sources inside the Iraqi political establishment admitted their shock at these developments, which coincided with the evaporation of the Mosul (and further south) bound Army regiments. The advancement of ISIS and its tactical allies developed with frightening promptness, reaching the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, a.k.a. the Baghdad belt. This was a turning point. As a result of the swiftly developing political dynamics aiming to urgently save Iraq, a fatwa was issued by the Supreme religious authority in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. The fatwa called upon the Iraqi nation to stand alongside the Iraqi army and defend the country. Although the fatwa did not have a discriminatory character, i.e. it did not draw sectarian lines, it was wrongfully interpreted and decisively refuted by the Iraqi Sunni component. The fatwa and the following decree by the new PM Haider al Abbadi, on the establishment of the Popular Mobilization Forces, however served as a perfect pretext for the reemergence of the Shi’a paramilitary forces, a.k.a. the Militias. The biggest among them – the Badr corpus (the former military wing of the SCIRI) managed to swiftly mobilize and deploy hundreds of its members at key blockposts around Baghdad, with the logistical and military support of Iran, at a rate which allowed it to commence a counter-attack in certain areas. Soon, other groups like Asa’ib al Ahl al Haq (ex Sadrists) and Kata’ib Hizbullah followed, thus occupying locations both inside and outside of Baghdad.

With the support of Iran and, at a later stage, of the US-led International anti-ISIS coalition, Iraqi Forces and PMF soon repelled the terrorist attacks in various places around the capital and areas in the North and North-East of the country. This propagated the hope that Iraq would assert its sovereign status to function and defend itself against an enemy. Within a period of over a year, a large portion of previously occupied territories were regained and returned to the Central Government. While Baghdad managed to claim administrative control, at least officially, throughout many places like the Diyala Province, security/military control remained in the hands of Militias.

The campaign for Ramadi revealed serious differences between various power circles in Baghdad. Despite the expectation that the PMF would play a decisive role in the operation against ISIS, the Military command and the PM’s Office decision was to keep their regiments away from the battlefield. That was ill perceived by the high command and led to a serious shift within the balance of coordination between PM Abbadi and Militia forces. Furthermore, the Government began to lose support from the Supreme religious authorities in Najaf and is now facing another challenge – regaining the trust of the Iraqi population by implementing reforms and adopting strict anti-corruption measures. Recently, the PM announced intentions to shuffle ministerial personnel, among them the personal appointee of the Badr Organization – the Minister of Interior Muhammad al Ghabban. This presents an open challenge to the Militias and their clout over Iraqi political environment. Yet to succeed, Abbadi has to convince the Parliament to accept his proposal. As Abbadi is lacking the support of Najaf, this task looks even more difficult. It is already anticipated that the majority of the parties within the largest Shi’a Coalition – the National Alliance, will reject the reappointments. With Iran allegedly supporting the main Abbadi rival – al Maliki, it is quite difficult to foresee which side of the fence the Militias will come down on. Purportedly, al Maliki remains to be the Iranian supported candidate enjoying the strong support from Tehran, while the Militias are highly unlikely to stand against Iranian support as they are quite dependent on its logistical assistance. It is therefore probable that their main question has become whether to choose the national interests over their own.

Image: Left, Nouri al-Maliki meets with George W. Bush, 13 June 2006, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Right, Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Winners and Losers of a post-sanctions Iran


January 16, 2016 marked a significant day for the Iranian regime. On this day, aka ‘Implementation Day’, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), informally known as the United Nation’s (UN) nuclear watchdog, announced that Tehran had ‘completed the necessary preparatory steps to start the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)’. Under the agreement (signed in July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1), Iran was to scale back its nuclear programme and would  have sanctions levied against it removed. As I noted in a previous post titled Did US Sanctions Succeed In Bringing Iran To The Table?, the JCPOA represented a landmark agreement between Iran and the international community, and was facilitated by the multinational dimension of the deal. As I noted in the post, it was based on my article titled The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations (2005-2014) which highlights some of the risks associated with the JCPOA. Indeed, these risks highlight some of the winners and losers which have surfaced and the potential to surface as a result of the nuclear agreement being implemented.

The proponents of the deal can be seen as the winners, they do after all stand to gain from its implementation. Within Iran, these include the current administration, headed by the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, and his supporters, as well as the Iranian public who have suffered from the politically motivated economic sanctions. Indeed, the alleviation of the sanctions is set to unlock an estimated $100 billion worth of governmental assets, allow Iran to increase its oil exports and reinvest the accrued benefits into its economy, in addition to the projected benefits in the private and tourism sectors, as well as the benefits of ‘coming out of the cold’ in the political realm. Outside of Iran, this camp also includes the demand side of the market for Iranian goods, from oil to pistachios and Persian carpets. Consequently, the removal of restrictions on Iranian goods has the potential to benefit the population – a key to maintaining stability within the country, as well as the international community security concerns over the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Conversely, the performance of the agreements is met with equal distaste by those who opposed the deal, or the losers. Within Iran, these include the political opposition parties and their supporters (both within the Majlis and outside of it). Particularly, the hard-liner camp which has been sharpening its rhetoric and actions to try and derail the deal. Indeed, the hard-liners have accused the Rouhani Administration of diluting the regime’s dedication to its constitution espoused revolutionary mantra of rejecting foreign interference and influence in domestic affairs. Additionally, criticisims from the political opposition in the US, as well as those who oppose the deal in the Middle East region (e.g. Israel and Saudi Arabia) also have incentive to see the deal go sour.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s decision to maintain its oil production levels (in order to keep a hold onto its market share) has the knock-on effect of: dissuading and limiting Russia’s profiting from hydrocarbons, alternatives (i.e. states who are perfecting fracking means of extracting energy) and Iran from assuming a portion of the oil market.

As it stands, the stated plans and actions of the JCPOA critics have the potential to unseat the deal. This is significant due to the fact that Rouhani’s promise of alleviating the sanctions is predicated on the notion that the people of Iran will experience improved conditions (in socio-economic terms), through the benefits accrued from being re-introduced into the international economy. Therefore, if the ‘losers’ succeed in continuing to limit and follow through on their threats to deriding the JCPOA, there is a real possibility that the deal to collapse. The potential knock-on effects are also negatively weighted, with respect to the economic prosperity of the country, the level of political isolation (which it has endured on some level since 1979), and of course Iran’s incrementally important role in the fight against DAISH.

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry holds a bilateral meeting with Iranian Foreign at the UNs Headquarters on the side lines of the 70th Regular Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, on September 26, 2015, courtesy of State Department Photo/ Public Domain.



In July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran, and hailed as a landmark agreement. The JCPOA is concerned with the alleviation of sanctions levied against Tehran in return for the scaling back of its nuclear programme. Indeed, the JCPOA represents the first significant international agreement involving the Islamic Republic Iran regime (IRI), which has been somewhat politically isolated since its formulation, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. There have been a myriad of studies and analysts positing in the lead up to and following the signing of the JCPOA, that sanctions are what brought the IRI to the table. A more concentrated perspective has argued that it was the US sanctions placed on Iran for over three decades which resulted in the JCPOA. Either way, the developments leading up to July 2015 tell us at least one thing: unilateral actions to economically isolate a targeted country are becoming increasingly impotent. I argue this case in my article titled The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations (2005-2014) which focuses on the period leading up to the JCPOA. Indeed, my argument was convincing enough to warrant being asked to include a post-article commentary on how my conclusions fared up to the JCPOA, which came into place after I had written my original study.

In the article, I concentrate on the 2005 to 2014 timeframe and focus on the period which captures Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and US President George H.W. Bush’s simultaneous times in office, Ahmadinejad and current US President Barack Obama’s times as leaders of the two respective countries and during the first twelve months of the Obama and the current Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani’s time in office. These spates of differing US-Iranian presidency stances also included significant changes in policies towards one another, specifically when concerned with the nuclear programme and sanctions being levied not just on a bilateral level, but also in the form of US pressure on other aligned states in the international system to multilaterally slap Iran with sanctions.

My argument is embedded in the literature and theory concerned with economic interdependence and the ability of such a relationship to foster results and agreements in the security sphere. Specifically, this economic interdependence-security relationship is predicated on the idea that economic means are increasingly incorporated into foreign policy tools. However, I posit that this stance fails to take into account that the increasingly globalised nature of the international economic and political systems has a knock on effect of diluting the ability of unilateral actions by a specified state, the US in this example, to have the desired effect without the buy-in from other actors in the international system. Using the case study of Iran, I then detail and argue that it is this multilateral level of support which led to the desired effect, i.e. the political goals of reaching an agreement which is ultimately geared at scaling back Iran’s nuclear programme.

It is also worth noting that the P5+1 also had stumbling blocks and barriers which appeared and were needed to be overcome in order for the JCPOA to come into fruition. Indeed, a number of instances, usually off the back of a P5+1-Iran round of talks, demonstrated that there were disagreements within the P5+1 itself when drawing up the nuclear agreement – compounding the issues surrounding a multilateral approach to the problem. Further, this also conveyed the need for such an internationally hailed and pivotal agreement (the JCPOA) to come into place, then there must be buy-in on a multilateral level. As a result, it is clear that the effectiveness of policies adopted unilaterally, the US sanctions on Iran in this particular example, will be increasingly diluted as the international economic and political systems become increasingly globalised and interconnected with one another. This notion was realised when it came to July 2015 when the JCPOA noted that its implementation “will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UNSC sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme.” The significant point here being that the sanctions were being referred to on a multilateral level, therefore demonstrating how cognisant the JCPOA was of the importance of adopting such a policy on multilateral and not just on a unilateral level.

Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With Energy Secretary Moniz As He and Fellow P5+1 Foreign Ministers Hold Nuclear Program Negotiating Session in Austria With Iranian Officials, courtesy of State Department Photo/ Public Domain.

The EU: A Model for Economic Governance?


The idea that political differences between two or more actors can be improved through economic means is at the heart of the study of the International Political Economy (IPE). This notion, which is rooted in the Liberal school of thought, sets the foundations for one of the most long lasting supra-national institutions in the post-World War II era, the European Union (EU).

Indeed, following World War II, European policy makers and leaders began building a narrative of economic cohesion in order to ensure peace and stability on the continent. The famous Schuman Declaration on May 9, 1950, made by the then French Foreign Minister and founder of the EU as we know it today, Robert Schuman, emphatically proposed that the rivalry between France and German be eradicated by pooling the means of production and placing the administration of these means ‘under a common High Authority’, i.e. the EU. As a result, this economic community would create a sense of unity in terms of solidarity and cohesion in a production sense. Consequently, Schuman prophesised that such unity ‘will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible’. Schuman’s ideal was then realised under the 1951 Paris Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the EU in its first guise if you will. Since then, the supra-national institution has evolved following an agenda which has seen its member states become increasingly economically aligned, through the 1993 Monetary Union and the 1999 birth of the Eurozone. This concept of economic cohesion and integration has concurrently been applied to the EU’s foreign policy endeavours.

Further, the EU policy has seen varying levels of success internally, in the sense that there has been an increasingly closer economic and financial union between the member states, in spite contemporary concerns over Greek debt and bailout conditions. Indeed, when concerned with the Greek debt crisis, the EU (alongside the IMF) has thus far have commissioned just over €290 billion in debt relief to Athens. Politically, the decision making process has revealed that the EU states are at odds with one another when it comes to identifying not just whether to continue to support Greece, but also how to support their fellow member. As a result, the crisis has demonstrated how the interests of the actors concerned, in this case the non-Greek member states, can influence the performance of economic governance within the EU.

Additionally, a look at this economic form of governance when concerned with extra-EU states depicts an almost equally less than rosy picture. Indeed, the EU’s foreign economic policy operates under the same Schuman-espoused conditions: economic cohesion can ameliorate conflict. That being said, this notion is not always applicable for a number of reasons, namely that the policy does not take into account the environment or context in which it is implemented. This is something which I argue, in the context of the EU’s foreign policy towards two countries in the Middle East, in my book titled: The Political Economy of EU Ties with Iraq and Iran. Using the examples of Iraq and Iran, I demonstrate, like in the case of the Greek Debt crisis described above, how the interests of the pen-holding actors ultimately led to a failure of the EU policy in these two instances. As a result, I argue that the notion of achieving political goals through economic means must be cognisant of the fact that the policy is not acting within a vacuum. There are forces, actors and interests which must be taken into account.

Thus, when posed with the question whether the EU economic governance experiment has been positive or successful, the answer is twofold. From an internal EU perspective, the Greek debt crisis has revealed that no matter how much EU member states are integrated economically, political and cultural differences are prevalent. Whilst on the one hand, the EU has remained in tact, and therefore it can be considered a conditional success. On the other hand, the lack of unity of the EU members politically and economically points to a failure, in spite of over 60 years of trying to do so. Looking further afield, the EU’s foreign economic policy has fared even less favourably. Indeed, whilst the EU’s economic footprint in Iraq and Iran has been larger than that of any other actor in the international system, it has still failed to ameliorate concerns over conflict and instability.

Resultantly, the EU’s model for economic governance suffers from barriers and inefficiencies on a structural and practical level. This inefficiency applies to both the internal and external functioning of the Brussels based institution. It is therefore clear that either the policy or the structure of the EU must reform if it is to achieve its stated goals of peace and stability, when concerned with internally and external ventures.

Image: Robert Schuman 10 Franc coin, courtesy of Yricordel on Wikimedia Commons.