In 1979, the revolution in Iran led to the overthrow of an American-backed regime. In its stead, an Islamic Republic was created, a theocratic government that declared itself an enemy of the United States. Fast-forward 35 years and not much has changed in the relationship between the United States and Iran. The US continues to place heavy sanctions on the country while Iran has continuously produced anti-American rhetoric since its 1979 revolution. Despite this long history of antagonism, the recent rise of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, has placed the United States and Iran in the rather unique situation of being on the same side of the conflict against this terrorist organization. As a result, the question must be raised: Should the United States and Iran cooperate against ISIS?
Iran’s Role Thus Far
In June 2014, Iran directly involved itself in the fray against ISIS by deploying 500 members of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, a special operations group, into Iraq. The commander of this force, Qasem Soleimani, a general who has been called by some as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” quickly established himself as Iraq’s chief tactician against ISIS. By the end of June, Iran also deployed surveillance drones and a signals intelligence unit that began operating out of the Al-Rasheed air base in Baghdad.
In August, it was reported that hundreds of Iranian soldiers took part in a joint operation with Kurdish forces to take back the town of Jalawla in the Diyala province of Iraq, a town only 30km from the Iranian border. The troops returned to Iran shortly thereafter. Between August and October, Iranian military advisers were said to have had a hand in either planning or participating in the breaking of the siege of Amirli and Operation Ashura, two major operations that successfully pushed back ISIS. In November, Iran’s military involvement became blatant when footage emerged of Iranian-piloted F-4 Phantom jets engaging in airstrikes against ISIS targets. Throughout this time, the terrorist organization Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has also operated within Iraq and Syria.
Is Cooperation Feasible?
While some may assume that there might be some degree of cooperation between the US and Iran in terms of conducting airstrikes, both countries have denied that such coordination is occurring. That being said, Iran and the US have talked about Iraq as early as June, which begs the question: Is cooperation even feasible?
The short answer is absolutely. The two countries would hardly even have to talk to each other as Iraq has thus far been acting as a middleman. According to The New York Times, any dialogue between the American and Iranian campaigns is kept at an extremely low profile; often a single Iraqi officer serves as an intermediary between the two countries. Furthermore, Iraq has also been keeping the airspace clear so that American and Iranian aircraft do not encroach on each other’s operations.
But is overt American-Iranian cooperation the right move strategically for both these countries?
The US could have a lot to gain diplomatically. Cooperation in an anti-ISIS campaign could be a way to improve the US-Iran relationship, which in turn could feed into the nuclear talks that have been tabled for 2015. However, any improvement of Iranian-American relations could be made at the expense of the US’s relationship with its Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia who have made it clear they don’t want Iran at the table when it comes to the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
From a purely operational perspective, opening greater lines of communication would make sense for the US. Iranian forces are already operating in Iraq so might as well take advantage of their firepower and try and coordinate simultaneous attacks against ISIS positions across the region. As was already mentioned, the two states would not even have to actually talk to each other, giving each state deniability of cooperating with the other.
Domestically, it is likely that public opinion could impact whether or not the US would decide to cooperate more overtly with Iran over Iraq. Recent polls on this very topic have been inconclusive, however, with one poll conducted by the University of Maryland in July finding that 61% of respondents were in favor of cooperation, while two other polls conducted in June by CBS/New York Times and Quinnipiac University found that 53% and 39% of respondents desired greater cooperation with Iran against the Islamic State. Domestic polling in Iran could not be found on this topic.
Despite potential benefits, coordination with Iran could potentially have significant risk for the United States. Cooperation with Iran could open the door to an increased Iranian influence on the ground in Iraq. Iranian forces have been mostly operating in secrecy, at the very least denying their presence whenever reports arise that suggest otherwise (although last week they did confirm conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets). Any cooperation with Iran could confer some degree of acceptance of Iranian forces operating within the country, which could lead the Iranian regime to expand its influence by sending more forces into the country under the guise of eliminating ISIS. Thus any type of cooperation, overt or covert, would require some strong restrictions imposed by the United States in order to avoid further Iranian influence in Iraq, whose Shiite political leadership has been backed by Iran in recent years. That being said, any US decision restricting the presence of Iranian troops on the ground would be extremely difficult to enforce, given the fact that Iranian-backed militias and special forces are already present on the ground.
Furthermore, giving Iran a seat at the table may fortify chances for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retain his power given Iran’s support for his regime. Iran has spoken out against any effort to remove Assad and it is widely believed that Hezbollah was deployed to the Syrian side of the conflict on Iran’s orders to ensure that the Assad regime did not fall. Cooperation with Iran could also jeopardize the current anti-ISIS coalition of states as well as American relations with the Free Syrian Army, as many local Syrian groups and some members of the anti-ISIS coalition strongly believe that Assad must be removed from power.
Iran on the other would have everything to gain from cooperating with the US. If nothing, it certainly would frustrate its rivals in the region who have done everything in their power to check Iranian influence. Many of the arguments presented above as a negative for the United States could potentially be a positive for Iran. Helping the US could really be helpful for when the two countries come back to the negotiation table for the nuclear talks; extending a lending hand to the United States could give Iran an extra chip when it comes to determining what exactly the country could do with its nuclear program in the future.
The dilemma for Iran comes mainly down to rhetoric. The Iranian government has placed the blame for the rise of ISIS squarely on the United States. Backing away from such a position would require a significant turn around, especially given Iran’s consistent anti-American statements over the years. If any cooperation were to occur with the United States, it most likely would be done covertly on the Iranian government’s part. The regime of President Rouhani would likely wish to avoid being seen coordinating in public with the United States for fear of it being interpreted as a sign of weakness by the Iranian public and the more hardline elements of the its government and religious establishments.
Unfortunately the years of “anti-other” slogans on both sides makes dialogue in general difficult, so coordinating parallel military campaigns may seem next to impossible. But still, this would not be the first time that states with a history of tensions and/or antagonism have fought together for common objectives, one of the more commonly known examples being the alliance between the Soviet Union and Western powers during World War II.
The question then remains: Do the positives outweigh the negatives on both sides for Iran and the United States to find common ground against ISIS?