April 11, 2013

Iraq "inspects" Iranian cargo aircraft heading for Syria - color me skeptical

There is widespread reporting about Iraq's third inspection of Iranian cargo aircraft bound for Damascus in just the past three days. This particular flight was a Mahan Air Boeing 747, similar to the one pictured above.

These "inspections" are in response to the recent visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Baghdad. On March 24, Kerry met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and almost demanded that Iraq stop Iran from shipping arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace. "Anything that supports President Assad is problematic,” Mr. Kerry said, adding that the Iranian flights were "sustaining the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad."

If it were not such a serious issue, Kerry's naivete would be humorous. A virtual neophyte in Middle East matters, Kerry presumes to explain regional politics to the prime minister of Iraq. Specifically, he tells pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki - known in Iraq derisively as "Nuri the Iranian" - that allowing Iranian flights to transport weapons, supplies and personnel to Iraq is supporting the pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Do we see a theme here? Iran, al-Maliki and Bashar al-Asad are on the same side. Why does Kerry not seem to know that?

Again, a neophyte in things Middle Eastern, Kerry probably believes the Iraqi accounts of what has happened this week. Three Iranian flights have been asked to land while transiting Iraqi airspace for inspection to ensure weapons are not among the cargo. In all three instances, Iraqi officials have found only "humanitarian goods" on the planes. True to form, the Iranian government has called the inspections “unacceptable," and vowed to continue its "relief operations" in Syria despite the inspections.

Mr. Secretary, surely you must know this is theater for your benefit. The Shi'a-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki is in the pocket of the Iranians - al-Maliki takes his orders from Tehran. Iran is the Syrian regime's primary supporter - the two countries have had close relations since Syria supported Iran in its eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s.

The Syrian and Iraqi leaders have grown closer since the premature departure of American forces in 2011, completing what one could call a "Shi'a crescent" running from Damascus through Baghdad to Tehran. You can thank your President for that....

There are two scenarios that may be in play here. The Iranians may have told the Iraqis which planes are not carrying weapons and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters, and the Iraqis are selecting these for inspection. Alternatively, the planes are carrying weapons and the Iraqis have been told to look the other way. Either is possible, although I suspect it is the former.

I also question the use of Mahan Air for resupply to the Syrians. In the past, they have used Iranian air force Boeing 747 cargo freighters, just as they have for decades. If you honestly believe that your admonition to Nuri al-Maliki has stemmed the flow of weapons from Iran to Syria via Iraq, you really are naive.