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Cooperating with Iran is a Fool’s Errand

by Jordan Curwin

Cooperating with Iran against the Islamic State may offer short-term advantages in the fight against the terrorist organization, but doing so seriously threatens the long-term stability of Iraq and the Middle East as a whole.

For the past several weeks, the United States has led a coalition of the willing against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.  Iran, a country many deem vital to the coalition’s success, has recently stated its willingness to join the coalition that has already been joined by many Arab and Western countries. 

However, those wishing to see peace in the region must remember that Iran is not a friend to the West, and its involvement in this situation would only create greater conflict in the Middle East.

Iran’s history of conflict and tension with the West should not be discounted.

Recent statements in support of Iranian involvement in the fight against IS from people such as Secretary of State John Kerry and columnist Fareed Zakaria – the latter of whom argues that cooperation with Iran is necessary in order to defeat IS – downplay the real potential for future conflict.  As Iran is one of the largest countries in the region and has very close ties with Iraq’s new Shi’ite government, it makes sense that high-level officials and experts believe cooperation with Iran is important in order to leverage Iran’s relationship with the Iraqi government and bring stability to the country. However, Iran’s history of conflict and tension with the West should not be discounted. Though well intentioned, cooperating with Iran will likely only destabilize the region further

The Atlantic Senior Editor David Frum notes that even when the United States has considered Iran a potential partner, Iran has repeatedly chosen to act against the West.  For example, given Iran’s conflict with the Taliban in 1998, one might think Iran would have been supportive of the U.S. fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, Frum notes, “the rulers of Iran… saw the U.S. as a greater enemy than the Taliban.” Moreover, in 2012, the US Treasury found that Iran was actually supportive of IS and that the Assad regime, a long-time ally of Iran, has had a business partnership with the terror group to purchase oil from wells it controls.

Though the United States has pledged not to partake in intelligence sharing or coordinated military action with Iran, Iran has already started to use the situation to its advantage.

Before former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down earlier this year, Iran sent its Qods force (the extraterritorial special forces unit of the Revolutionary Guards) and military equipment into Iraq as part of an agreement between Tehran and Baghdad to aid Maliki’s regime in the fight against IS.  Iran expert Farzin Nadami argues that these Iranian soldiers are working with Shi’ite groups in Iraq and that Iran will be looking to increase its military role.  Nadami points out that a greater Iranian presence in the fight against IS could give Iran greater credibility and influence in Iraq and with the Kurdistan Regional Government, and diminish the United States’ role.

Even if cooperating with Iran against ISIS does offer some tactical advantages, doing so could signal tacit approval of the Iranian presence in Iraq that is exacerbating the renewed and growing Sunni-Shi’ite conflict there. At a minimum, working with Iran and the radical Shi’ite Qods forces against the Islamic State, a Sunni terror group, in a conflict driven by sectarianism would weaken stability’s cause in Iraq. Furthermore, the United States’ Sunni allies, specifically Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, do not support Iranian involvement and will not be supportive of cooperation between the United States and Iran. 

There also appear to be talks between the United States and Iran on linking cooperation against IS with the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.  Though Iran and the United States deny this, a series of retracted statements and explanations indicates that some discussion on this matter has taken place.  These discussions are a sign that the United States could be letting go of the long-term goal of regional stability for the short-term goal of defeating IS.  Loosening the requirements for lifting economic sanctions against Iran would be a “bad deal” for many concerned nations.  In addition to Israel, who consistently speaks of the danger from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would also be very upset with a deal that does not remove Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons through uranium or plutonium means.

Discussions with Iran are a sign that the United States could be letting go of the long-term goal of regional stability for the short-term goal of defeating IS.

Saudi Arabia’s concerns over the relationship between the West and Iran became very apparent last October when it became the first country to reject a seat on the UN Security Council.  The main stated reasons for Saudi Arabia’s rejection were its discontent with the United States and the UN’s lack of action in Syria and on Iran’s nuclear program.  Feeling threatened by Iran and insecure over the nuclear negotiations, Saudi Arabia, according to TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief Aryn Baker, indicated that it might obtain a nuclear weapon should the nuclear negotiations fail.  A nuclear Iran would destabilize the region and would allow it to exert more influence in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. 

Obama’s decision to act against IS through a multinational coalition has driven him to find partners that may help in defeating IS sooner rather than later, but that may also contribute to further instability after IS is defeated and the rehabilitation of Iraq begins.  Defeating IS simply does not outweigh the long-term goal of regional stability.  The maxim, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is often prescient, but, regarding Iran, it appears that  “the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy."  

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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