Why the US should seek closer cooperation with Iran in the fight against Boko Haram

Richard Nixon visited Mao’s Zedong’s China 43 years ago, from 21 to 28 February 1972. His stay was part of Henry Kissinger’s triangular diplomacy in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union were drawn into a competitive cooperative dynamic with the United States. Because of that newly established link with the PRC, Leonid Brezhnev felt compelled to improve his relationship with the US, resulting in an interim strategic arms limitation agreement (SALT I), normalization of US-Soviet trade and even a joint venture in space known as Apollo-Soyuz. While Détente had its limits, particularly in Vietnam and other areas of the Third World, it still stands as one of Henri Kissinger’s crowning achievements.

The African Union’s (AU) decision to commit 75,00 troops to counter Boko Haram’s in Nigeria as well as Nigeria’s call for American support and the pledge to support of Iranian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Amir Hossein Abdollahian at the AU summit, offers the Obama administration the chance to design its own triangle, a Kissinger 2.0.

It is true, as John Campbell points out, that Boko Haram is an indigenous northern Nigerian response to poverty and bad governance which should not be placed in the context of the international war on terrorism. But sustained attention to the international dimension of this African conflict is vital in addressing an underlying problem: the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is being played out in Nigeria.

President Obama ought to take a page out of the book of the Vice President of Nigeria, Namadi Sambo, who travelled to Riyadh in August 2012 to request King Abdullah’s assistance. The late King and other Saudi nationals funded Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram and Al Shabab believing that their radicalism would provide a vehicle for Saudi geostrategic interests. Iran on its turn has, according to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, invested in intelligence gathering and supports a group of its own: the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. While the fog of war makes the verification of precise details difficult, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ideological competition between Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism and Iran’s Shia inspired Khomeinism has been exported to Africa, with bloody results.

Like the US and the USSR in the 1970s, Iran and Saudi Arabia are keen to acquire allies which has deepened local conflicts. In January 2012, funds from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for instance, increased the popularity of Wahabi Islam in Mali and strengthened local fundamentalists such as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This militant group in turn drew on the discontent of Northern Malian Tuareg who already in 1963 and 1990 had led an insurgency against the central government in Bamako. Similarly, the murder of  Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusef, by Nigerian troops in 2009 cemented Boko Haram’s commitment to violence. Abubakar Shekau’s group could only grow because of local and international benefactors, and links to Al-Qaeda and other well-funded groups in the Middle East.

It is as if a strange version of the Cold War has returned to Africa: ideological affinity compel states outside of Africa to fund groups who on their turn spin out of control, killing thousands of civilians and requiring prolonged military intervention.

In response the White House is hesitantly developing a Kissinger 2.0. Obama’s letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in mid-October 2014, in which he raises the issue of ISIS, the continued negotiations over Teheran’s nuclear program, the war authorization under consideration in the US Congress, and the President’s reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu’s speech all suggest the US government is open to engaging Iran. At the same time Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of Iran’s Expediency Council, has said that cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh would be advantageous to the region.

Bringing Iran back into the international community would give Riyadh and Tehran less incentive to seek allies in the Middle East and Africa and could compel the new Saudi King to prevent his subjects from funding extremists abroad. Improved relations between Iran and the US would force Saudi Arabia into a more constructive attitude because the Saudi Government depends on US military support for its survival and the fight against ISIS.

It is in this light that Africa in general – and Nigeria in particular – becomes a key battle ground in the war on terror and significant in the international order. Not only can cooperation against Boko Haram further restore trust between two nations who have been estranged from one another since 1979, but the defeat of Boko Haram would also offer a blow to the ideological project of a fundamentalist caliphate built on atrocities.

To realise an Iranian-Saudi-US triangle, Obama will have to tread lightly. As Ronald Reagan learned in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal a deal with Iran, like any other diplomatic move, could have unexpected outcomes. Moreover, local problems such as the Kurdish national question or the protracted civil war in Libya might derail a new linkage venture. Nevertheless, Iranian-American support for the AU in Nigeria might provide an important stepping stone to a broader long term arrangement between the US and Iran. For a president eager to establish his legacy this is a golden opportunity. Unlike Kissinger – who was booed when he testified in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a few weeks ago – Obama still has time to write his story.

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