The Enemy of My Enemy: The US, Iran, and ISIS

Navid Hassibi and Wisam Salih on how the U.S. and Iran can work together to fight ISIS in Iraq.

By: /
15 July, 2014
By: Navid Hassibi

Founding director of the Council on International Policy

Wisam Salih
By: Wisam Salih

Founding director and senior fellow, Council on International Policy

The expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), into Iraq has prompted Washington and Tehran to counteract their advancement by sending up to 300 U.S. military personnel and an alleged 2,000 Revolutionary Guards to advise and assist Iraqi security forces in their battle against the Sunni extremist group. The United States is also sending an additional 300 troops to Baghdad to help secure its Embassy as well as the international airport while it continues to consider the use of air strikes. Iran, on the other hand, has reportedly supplied Iraqi government forces with Su-25 fighter jets and has pledged to defend Holy Shiite sites in Karbala, Najaf and Samarra. Needless to say, an expansion of ISIS would significantly challenge the Iraqi government, thereby undermining regional stability and the national interests of both the United States and Iran. As a result the current situation necessitates a coordinated and not merely a parallel approach to assisting Iraq.

For the United States, which spent the better part of a decade in Iraq and sacrificed an enormous amount of human and financial capital to stabilize the country after the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s growing instability is threatening to reverse the progress that was made prior to the U.S. departure in 2011. And given the Iraq-Syria pipeline that crosses through Anbar province as well as the significant clashes at Iraq’s largest oil refinery in the city of Baiji, sectarian violence has disrupted Iraq’s oil exports into global markets. For Iran, the regional Shia power, the extremist militants have not only threatened its allies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, but pose a direct threat to Iranian national security by being at its doorstep.

Despite reluctance to do so, both Washington and Tehran recognize the overlapping interests in stabilizing Iraq and preventing ISIS from gaining ground, resources and hearts and minds in Iraq. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that cooperation with Iran was a possibility. Likewise, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed Iran’s willingness to cooperate in addressing the ISIS threat. Others have adopted a more cautious tone to U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Iraq. For instance, Iran’s Supreme Leader expressed his opposition to any possible US intervention in Iraq, noting that: “The U.S. is seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges.” Similarly, the U.S. Department of Defense stated that it had no plans to consult with Iran on military activities in Iraq with the caveat that it was not without precedent to discuss regional security issues with Iran.

Regardless of American and Iranian proclamations about possible cooperation to combat ISIS, the stabilization of Iraq would greatly benefit from some form of assistance by those who wield the most influence in Baghdad, namely the U.S. and Iran. To be sure, Washington and Tehran possess complementary capabilities that could threaten ISIS if utilized concertedly. As difficult as it may be to fathom, coordinating U.S. military and intelligence gathering capabilities with Iranian political influence and the operational and intelligence gathering capabilities of the Revolutionary Guards could assist the Iraqi government in combatting the ISIS threat. Coordinating activities does not necessarily mean that the United States and Iran would conduct joint operations but could mean as little as letting the other side “know what we’re thinking, [and] that we know what they’re thinking and there is a sharing of information,” as Secretary of State Kerry recently indicated; this form of coordination would allow the other side to plan ahead accordingly.

Indeed, the sharing of intelligence would be a good starting point for cooperation as both the United States and Iran have previously collaborated on intelligence matters. Iran assisted the United States in its efforts in Afghanistan against the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 and proved to be a crucial partner in the Bonn Conference that forged a post-Taliban government in Kabul. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) traditionally has had a minor presence at the American embassy in Baghdad, which is due to the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command taking the lead on intelligence matters in Iraq. Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military has built one of the most successful battlefield intelligence systems in the United States’ history. But with the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq in December 2011, there has been little U.S.-led intelligence gathering efforts in Iraq.

This is noteworthy because the CIA now relies on satellite imagery and the interception of communications to track down ISIS, which has been largely ineffective as the latter relies on human couriers and can effortlessly blend in with the locals, making it difficult or impossible to obtain useful information. From this perspective, Iran could fill gaps that may exist in U.S. intelligence in Iraq, and vice versa. An opportunity for intelligence sharing exists as both the United States and Iran have simultaneously begun deploying drones over Iraqi airspace to gather intelligence on ISIS. In this case, it would make sense to share the relevant reconnaissance that was acquired through Iraqi interlocutors, thereby avoiding direct military cooperation between the U.S. and Iran. Of course, both sides would likely only opt to collaborate if it served their respective interests; repelling ISIS certainly qualifies as such an interest.

Impact on nuclear negotiations

While just a year ago the thought of the United States and Iran working together was outside the realm of possibility, this year, it seems as if it is inevitable, if not, a fait accompli. The crisis in Iraq has even prompted American and Iranian diplomats to discuss the possibility of cooperation on the sidelines of the P5+1 talks in June. In fact, suggestions that the United States and Iran may cooperate on Iraq have increased hopes that stumbling blocks toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement will be overcome by some accounts. Some report that Iranian cooperation with the United States could come with a condition. A spokesman to Iranian President Rouhani said that it could cooperate with the United States if nuclear negotiations are successful, which would serve as a test for confidence building.

Regional cooperation is needed

Iraq’s neighbours specifically, and the international community more generally, have a vested interest in a secure and stable nation in the region. All countries in the Middle East and North Africa are interconnected; indeed, the spillover of violence from the Syrian conflict into Lebanon and Iraq is evidence of this. All countries in the region must be involved: not only the United States and Iran, but also Turkey, Syria and the Gulf Cooperation Council member states. For once, all state actors have a mutual interest in defeating ISIS. The international community cannot sit back and allow events to unfold in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and not expect repercussions in their own countries.

All politics is local

There must be a multifaceted approach in stabilizing Iraq. Certainly, there will be a significant military response in the short term, but must be coupled with political concessions and a robust, long-term economic development strategy. A military response should equip and empower the Iraqi Military forces to be able to not only drive ISIS out of Iraq, but also maintain stability going forward.

While it seems that Maliki has built a reputation for himself as an authoritarian and secretarian Prime Minister, his State of Law coalition secured the most seats, 92 out of 328, in April 2014’s parliamentary elections. It is highly unlikely that he will agree to leave office, in spite of increasing calls for him to step down by politicians of all stripes. Sunni communities are still distrustful of his authoritarian policies that have proved highly sectarian. For example, the Maliki has abandoned Sunni fighters and tribal leaders he used to fight al Qaeda in 2010 through “Sahwa” Awakening Councils. These fighters proved to be instrumental to Maliki’s success in defeating al Qaeda, albeit only briefly. In order for the Iraqi government to be able to win the hearts and minds of the Sunni communities in Anbar and avoid a bloody civil war, the military forces based in the province must adhere to the highest principles of integrity and justice, as these communities are already distrustful of the Iraqi military forces, given that Mosul fell so quickly and easily to ISIS. If we are to assume that Maliki will remain in power, there must be significant political concessions made in the name of national unity. As a starting point, Maliki should look to fill the vacant positions of Minister of the Interior, Defence, and National Security, preferably with non-partisan technocrats, in order to downplay images of authoritarian rule. Also, Maliki should look to formally incorporate those Sunni fighters who are against ISIS’ archaic rule, into Iraqi military forces by offering a salary for their services. Not only are these forces in the best position to serve their local communities, but also this provides economic opportunity and political allegiance to a national project in the long term.

Maliki must also publically extend an olive branch to politicians of all stripes, as well as religious clerics in Iraq, given the importance of religion in the country. Engaging religious communities will increase confidence and credibility for Maliki. In addition, Maliki must fix damaged relations with the Kurdish Regional Government, by reforming Iraq/Kurdish oil royalty and export laws, addressing allegations of unpaid wages to Kurdish government and military personnel, in accordance with the constitution, as a starting point. Finally, the Iraqi government must look to implement a long-term and robust economic development strategy, starting in Anbar province. Without economic opportunity, Iraqis of all shades will continue to feel disenfranchised.

However ambitious these steps seem, Maliki must make difficult decisions to rebuild his tarnished image and regain allies in parliament and the international community. Anything short of this will mean disaster for all parties involved – first and foremost, for the Iraqi people.

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