In the war against ISIL, Iran is not—and will not be—a friend to the US

Their intentions are not disguised.
Their intentions are not disguised.
Image: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazi
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Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of US president Barack Obama’s latest letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Iran’s Supreme Leader is the suggestion that a nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran could open the way to greater cooperation in the fight against ISIL. The Wall Street Journal reports that Obama invoked the two countries’ “shared interest” in fighting the terrorist organization, also known as ISIS or the Islamic State.

After a firestorm of criticism, Obama sought to walk back the cat, claiming he only meant the Iranians should steer clear of US operations against the terrorists—and that, in return, the US would stay out of Iran’s way in Iraq and Syria.

Obama is hardly the first person to suggest the US and Iran have a common interest in defeating ISIL. Commentators ranging from the New York Times’ Roger Cohen and the the Council on Foreign Relations’ Leslie Gelb  to former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind have argued that Washington and Tehran can and should work together against the legions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State.

Their arguments rest on the premise that Baghdadi’s Sunni-extremist hordes threaten Shia Iran as much as—and possibly more than—they do the US and more generally, the West. Surely the old adage about my-enemy’s-enemy is reason enough to join forces? And if Washington and Tehran don’t share a worldview, that’s not such an insurmountable hurdle: after all, Roosevelt and Churchill were able to work with Stalin to defeat Hitler.

There are several problems with this line of argument. But let’s get the main one out of the way first: In the fight against ISIL, your enemy’s enemy is not automatically your friend.

Indeed, this conflict has made a mockery of the usual axioms about allies and foes. American airstrikes against the terrorists in Kobane help the enemy (the Kurdish PKK) of a friend (Turkey). But strikes against the Al-Nusra Front help the friend (Hizballah) of an enemy (Syrian dictator Bashar Assad).

From the American perspective, Iran is not only the enemy of an enemy (ISIS), but also the friend of a friend (Iraq), and the friend of an enemy (Assad, Hizballah), and the enemy of a friend (Saudi Arabia).

It’s complicated for others, too. Look at it from Turkey’s point of view: Assad is an enemy, as well as the friend of a friend (Iran); the US is an ally, but also the friend of a rival (Saudi Arabia).

Or survey the battlefield as seen by Iran: the US is both an enemy and the friend of a friend (Turkey); Saudi Arabia is the friend of an enemy (the US) and the rival of a friend (Iraq’s Shia-led government).

For Saudi Arabia, the government in Baghdad is both the friend of an enemy (Iran) and the friend of a friend (the US).

I know: it makes my head spin, too.

Anyway, back to the question of US-Iran cooperation.

As far as Iran is concerned, it is already getting all the American cooperation it needs: the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve has helped to halt ISIL’s advance in Syria and Iraq; Western governments are expending great resources to train Iraqi forces and the Syrian opposition to take the fight to the Sunni extremists; international sanctions have been directed at the terrorist organization’s finances. Meanwhile, Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, is able to roam freely in Iraq, pulling the strings with Shia militias and elements of the Iraqi army, as well as helping Assad in Syria.

Why, exactly, would Iran need more US help?

That may explain why Khamenei has already flatly rejected suggestions of such cooperation, saying the US has “a corrupt intention and stained hands.” (And, if there was any doubt that the Supreme Leader views the world—and the Middle East—very differently from the US, his most recent outburst, calling for the elimination of Israel, should be a sobering reminder.)

Rhetoric aside, the fact is that Khamenei’s objectives in Syria and Iraq are very different from Obama’s. Iran’s goal is to restore Syria to Shia rule under Assad, and shore up Shia rule in Iraq. Secondary objectives include the continued empowerment of Shia terrorist groups like Hizballah, the Lebanese group that has greatly expanded its influence in Syria, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq.

Tehran has little interest in a democratic process in Syria, because that would likely hand power to the country’s Sunni majority. Nor has Iran pushed its Shia clients in Baghdad—like former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki or current incumbent Haider al-Abadi—to make peace to Iraq’s Sunnis, which is a prerequisite to the country’s stability and to defeating ISIL.

Tehran’s objectives in its neighborhood are certain to make it a dangerous place—it might seem less dangerous than having ISIL at large right now, but the more it empowers Shia militaries and terrorist groups, the harder it will be for the West to restrain Sunni Arab states form supporting Sunni extremist groups.

Finally, that World War II analogy posited by those in favor of US-Iranian cooperation doesn’t quite apply here. Roosevelt and Churchill were able to work with Stalin because the Soviet Union faced an existential threat from Nazi Germany, its former ally. There’s no chance that Syria’s dictator Assad, Tehran’s ally, will turn around and attack Iran. Nor does the Islamic Republic face an existential threat from the Islamic State: ISIL may menace Tehran’s allies in Syria and Iraq, but the Iranian homeland is not in danger.

It’s notable that although Baghdadi has forces close to the Iranian border in both Iraq and Syria, he has made no moves in an eastward direction. ISIL’s leadership, which includes senior officers from Saddam Hussein’s old military, knows that the Iranian military—and especially the Revolutionary Guards—is a heterogenous and formidable force, unlike the armies of Syria and Iraq, which were riven with sectarian divisions.

Unless Baghdadi is moved by hubris to launch his own Operation Barbarossa, it is hard to imagine Khamenei will change his mind.