This week, an offer to help stabilize Iraq came from an unlikely source: Iranian negotiators who are trying to broker a deal over their controversial nuclear program.
Indeed, Iran and the United States face a common enemy in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militant group that has taken over the Sunni areas of the country, has vowed to slaughter the Shiites of Iran just as it has threatened to attack the United States.
Some voices in Washington see an opportunity to work together with Iran on this front. But there are a number of powerful reasons that the United States should refrain from cooperating militarily with Iran on Iraq.
The first is that Iran is going to fight these Sunni militants anyway. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, is an existential threat to Shiites everywhere. Iran has already mobilized elements of its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight in Iraq, just as Iran has also helped prop up the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. Cooperating with Iran against ISIS would put the United States in the absurd position of working with Iran on one side of the border, while supporting moderate Sunni militias in Syria who are fighting against Iran on the other side of the border. If anything, the rise of ISIS presents a more urgent rationale for giving greater support to moderate Sunnis who are battling ISIS in Syria, where ISIS is far less popular.
The second reason to avoid military cooperation is that Iran is hardly a stabilizing influence in Iraq. The Shiite-Sunni war in Iraq mirrors a larger proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who each have been supporting different armies inside Iraq’s borders. Iran has fanned the flames of sectarianism by putting the wrong sort of pressure on Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, spent years in exile in Iran. Sunnis widely consider him to be a puppet of Iran. That may be a stretch. But Iran did help broker the deal in 2010 that left Maliki in power, despite the fact that Ayad Allawi — a secular Shiite supported by many Sunnis — won more seats in parliament. Allawi might have ushered in a more inclusive government that would have pulled back from the sectarianism plaguing Iraq today. But Iran wasn’t interested. Iran also pressured Iraq’s government to refuse to allow a residual US troop presence in Iraq. It is foolhardy to think that Iran would cooperate with the United States military in good faith.
It is worth noting that our allies in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan — all fear Iran. They are already deeply skeptical about a nuclear deal that would lift sanctions on their mortal enemy. US military cooperation with Iran would be considered beyond the pale.
Indeed, were it not for the profound humanitarian disaster that looms in Iraq and Syria, and the destabilizing effect the conflict has on the entire region, the United States could sit back and watch two bad actors, ISIS and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, bleed each other dry. But we have some moral responsibility to Iraqi civilians, given that the US invasion in 2003 helped create the current crisis. And while Iran may not be a worthy military partner, it can be pressured to play a more constructive role in Iraq.
Perhaps the only hope of pulling Iraq back from the brink is to get the regional players — including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — to come to an understanding with each other, and their proxies on the ground, that keeps the bloodshed to a minimum. It will not be easy to convene feuding regional powers. But if Iraq’s neighbors ever did agree on a common vision that secured protections for the Sunni minority, funding for ISIS would dry up.
The good news is that none of those countries has an interest in having ISIS permanently control large parts of Iraq. Even Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has allowed its citizens to fund Sunni jihadists in Iraq, is threatened by ISIS, which does not consider the Saudi royal family to be true followers of Islam.
If there is any silver lining on the terrible situation, it is this: Iran, already suffering under sanctions, is hemorrhaging money in its effort to prop up allies in Syria and Iraq. That means that Iran needs a nuclear deal now more than ever. With luck and diplomatic skill, the Obama administration could turn its weakness in Iraq into a strength.