The Middle East, always in turmoil, may have been upended in fundamental strategic terms by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, referred to generally by the shorthand label ISIS. The movement seemingly has emerged from nowhere, at least in terms of general public awareness and media attention.
With stunning speed and effectiveness, they have captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and threaten Baghdad, the capital and seat of the besieged beleaguered government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He is rightly criticized for lack of inclusiveness, committed to cronies and the Shia ethnic majority. Excluded Sunnis, who dominated the deposed dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, provide most of the manpower for the growing resistance to the current elected but imperious ruler.
Prime Minister al-Maliki arrogantly, and unwisely, rejects pressure from the United States government and elsewhere to pursue more diversity. He now has only uncertain control over only a portion of Iraq.
ISIS in Iraq is estimated at a maximum of approximately 10,000 men, but the relatively small force has demonstrated considerable combat effectiveness. The fractious state of Iraq has been split open and sundered by a strategic sword of great force.
The borders of the nation-state have always been artificial and arbitrary, drawn early in the 20th century rather hastily by British colonial rulers as they prepared to withdraw. The Kurds, a distinct ethnic minority spanning several national borders, are already exercising independence from Baghdad.
ISIS provides the most dramatic and ominous confirmation yet of the long-term strategic vision of al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden. The 9/11 attacks were driven by a sophisticated strategic designed to draw the U.S. into a long costly ground war on Islamic territory, in turn sparking popular uprisings, which ideally would grow. The Bush-Cheney administration accommodated.
ISIS is so brutal that even al-Qaeda rejects them, with exceptions. Extremist Islamic factions are divided, which should be kept in mind in planning U.S. policies. What are other important considerations?
Iran must be central to our calculations. Destroying Saddam Hussein's regime has greatly strengthened Tehran's hand in the region. Former President Richard Nixon predicted such an outcome to invading Iraq two decades ago, in the wake of the well-executed First Gulf War which liberated Kuwait only.
Observations of Dennis Ross are also important. This knowledgeable and skillful public servant has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. He is clearly committed to Israel's security.
Ross notes Iran generally is realistic in actual behavior, as opposed to rhetoric. Leaders evaluate odds of success, and act accordingly. Hence, the substantial costs of international sanctions may eventually bring about more reasonable attitudes on the part of the leadership.
Iran has sometimes shown restraint in using armed force. During the long costly war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran suffered attacks from weapons of mass destruction without responding in kind. The Reagan administration provided Kuwaiti oil tankers with U.S. flags and warship escorts.
In July 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was mistakenly identified as a military aircraft and destroyed by a surface-to-air missile from the USS Vincennes. A total of 290 civilians were killed. Eight years later, Tehran accepted a financial settlement from the U.S. government of $131.8 million.
Currently Secretary Kerry pursues contacts with Iran officials in the effort to stabilize Iraq. Simultaneously, negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program continue, including a group of six major nations led by the U.S. Kerry's hard work deserves our support.
(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After the Cold War.)