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CNN speaks with Fareed about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), President Barack Obama's remarks on the latest developments, and what Iran’s alleged intervention means for the United States. This is an edited version of the transcript.
One development that has occurred that further complicates this already very complicated situation is we've now learned that Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, some units, have allegedly moved into neighboring Iraq to help the government of Nuri al-Maliki deal with the threat from al Qaeda-inspired terrorists. How does that play into the president's decision making?
It highlights the central problem we face with regard to Iraq which is that the government of Iraq that we are supporting – we would be potentially aiding and helping and maybe even acting as the air force for – is a pro-Iranian government. And it's a Shia government that has persecuted the Sunnis of Iraq.
Remember, this is a few thousand fighters from ISIS who are up against a 600,000 or 700,000-man Iraqi Army – and they are winning. And the reason they are winning is because they have local support among disaffected Sunnis. So in the Shia-Sunni context, you have a Shia government in Iraq supported by a Shia government in Iran. And as you point out, elite guards from Iran are coming to support the Iraqi government. And the U.S. would be placed in the extremely awkward position of being the air force for essentially Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the Iraqi government. That's the dilemma.
This government hasn’t been inclusive or democratic, has been pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian. So before the president decides he wants to act to support it, he's going to have to ask if there is something he can ask of this government in terms of reform.
U.S. officials are deeply worried that some Shiite shrines, mosques, other shines inside Iraq right now could be in danger from this ISIS terrorist group, one reason presumably why Iranian Revolutionary Guards, elite forces, are moving in to help the government of Nuri al-Maliki. Explain what would happen if one of these major shrines were attacked.
This is a movie we’ve seen before. I think it was in 2006, Sunni militants affiliated with al Qaeda blew up what is regarded as one of the holiest Shia shrines. It has a beautiful golden dome. And when they blew it up, it produced an incredible reaction from the Shia population, who are the majority in Iraq.
So now you had a disaffected Sunni minority, but also an enraged Shia majority. And that's what began the Iraqi civil war that continued for a few years, until Gen. David Petraeus was able to stabilize the situation militarily, but most importantly also politically, by reaching out to those Sunni tribes and groups, bringing them in, trying to create a government of national unity.
And what has happened since then is that al-Maliki has once again turned on the Sunnis. He stopped funding them, persecuted them. So we're back very close to those conditions that sparked the civil war. And if that happens, violence will probably go up five-fold and it will become as deadly and dangerous a place as Syria. So you will have this vast stretch of land, Iraq and Syria, which becomes essentially a battle.
The president says this is going to take us a few days before the United States decides what military action to take, if it takes any.
I think what you saw was the president was using what he sees as his moment of maximum leverage with the Iraqis. This is when the Iraqis need the United States.
We got a fascinating window into some of the past U.S.-Iraqi negotiations when he said the Iraqi government was resistant to accept U.S. offers of any kind of help – military training and things like that. When they have now faced this crisis with this terrorist group, they've changed their minds, and they're willing, and they actively seek American help.
So the president is saying, we now have leverage, so we are going to ask you to make some of the political deals and the political compromises that you have not been willing to make. And unless you make those, don't expect major American assistance. It feels as though he is putting the pressure on al-Maliki and staying pretty cool in the face of this very turbulent situation.