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The crisis in Iraq appear to have united the US and Iran against the jihadists of ISIS. But claims of a historic rapprochement, let alone collaboration, are wildly overblown.
The crisis in Iraq has given rise to widespread anticipation that the US and Iran, both fearful of further gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), will work together. The Guardian reported that bilateral talks in Vienna constituted ‘the first time the two nations have collaborated over a common security interest in more than a decade’, the Independent breathlessly spoke of a ‘historic rapprochement’, and the Times’ headline read ‘US turns to Iran’.
These claims are wildly overblown. They reflect the unrealistic aspirations of those who would wish to see a new order in the Middle East – a resurrection of the purportedly missed ‘grand bargain’ between the US and Iran in 2003 – and the fears of those who oppose such realignment. In truth, US-Iran interaction in the coming weeks and months is likely to be more prosaic.
Ironically, the US last meaningfully cooperated with the Islamic Republic in 2010, when both sides worked towards the installation of Nuri al-Maliki as Iraqi Prime Minister, the man whose policies lie at the heart of Iraq’s disintegration. The two sides collaborated more substantively before that in 2001, when Iranian officials shared intelligence on the Taliban and took the remarkable step of offering to work under US command in rebuilding the Afghan army.
This level of cooperation will not be repeated. US officials have already ruled out ‘military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people’. Although Iran’s political and security leadership appears to be slightly more divided on the issue, Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), has argued that ‘such suggestions [of collaboration] are untrue and amount to psychological warfare’ and that assistance to Iraq ‘will be bilateral and will not involve a third country’. Those expecting intelligence sharing, or even nothing more than regular contact between Iran’s reportedly 200-strong contingent of Revolutionary Guard in Baghdad and the US’ existing Office of Security Cooperation or its newly-arrived Marines will be disappointed.
US and Iranian views of Iraq
Although the US and Iran both oppose ISIS and support the Iraqi government, they do so in different ways. The US has grown disillusioned with Maliki’s sectarian and authoritarian rule, viewing these tendencies as conducive to ISIS’ growth in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq. Iran, which has used Iraqi airspace to funnel arms to the Assad regime in neighbouring Syria, has avoided public pressure on Baghdad to reform. The US wants Iran to encourage Maliki to reach out to Sunni opponents, but is realistic about securing such assistance.
Moreover, Washington fears that involving Iran too deeply in what they call ‘strategic determinations’ will further alienate those same Sunni constituencies whose support in defeating ISIS will be crucial. After all, Iraqi Sunnis – who have largely supported the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition next door – view Iran as a sectarian actor, whose mode of intervention in Syria was to create and equip Shia-dominated militias. Both PM Maliki and Iraq’s senior-most Shia cleric, the highly influential Ali Sistani, have already called for Shia volunteers to mobilize against ISIS. Were Iran to play a prominent role in this process, it could have a corrosive effect on sectarian relations that are already exceptionally strained. By contrast, Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan in 2001 raised almost none of these national sectarian concerns.
From Tehran’s point of view, the US is also unlikely to deliver what they want: a prominent role for Tehran in the region’s security architecture, and US action against ISIS without any wholesale reform of Maliki’s government. When Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN ‘the Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn’t fall. We need to coordinate with the Iranians’, his comments were reported with excitement. But Graham wanted such discussions ‘to make sure they [Iran] don’t use this as an opportunity to seize control of parts of Iraq’ i.e. he was calling for the US to deter Iran, not really to coordinate with it. The distinction will not be lost in Tehran. Moreover, these different interpretations of what cooperation entails could just as easily become points of friction rather than amity.
Saudi Arabia and Iraq
The US will also keep one eye on its Gulf Arab allies, notably Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has decried Iranian influence in Iraq, and the US’ failure to reduce it, for over a decade. Although Riyadh has been gradually moderating its support for Islamists in Syria over the past six months, and is worried about that the threat that ISIS may eventually pose to the Kingdom, its preferred response is reportedly the rejection of ‘foreign interference’ and the ‘formation of a government of national consensus. Translation: the removal of Maliki, the consultation and inclusion of Sunni voices, and withdrawal of Iranian forces.
Saudi Arabia’s levers in Iraq consist largely of its links to tribes near and along the Syria-Iraq border. If Riyadh uses these longstanding connections to further arm ISIS’ Sunni opponents, as a putative counterweight to Iran and Baghdad’s arming of ISIS’ Shia opponents, this could similarly widen sectarian divisions and, over the longer-term, make it harder for the Iraqi state to restore control over the north and west of the country. Washington will factor these possible Saudi responses into its engagement with Iran.
Taking all this into account, it is unlikely that the Iraq crisis will suddenly facilitate trust building and therefore progress on other issue areas, notably the nuclear dispute. Likelier, though far from certain, is the converse: that progress on the nuclear issue, by strengthening the hand of pragmatists within the Iranian leadership, particularly Rouhani and Zarif against the Revolutionary Guard, could ease security cooperation on other, non-nuclear issues.
For now, the pattern of US and Iranian ‘cooperation’ will comprise parallel but separate action against ISIS and in support of Iraqi security forces. Iran will remain far more wedded to the Iraqi status quo, and the US sceptical that counter-terrorist assistance will achieve much in the absence of much deeper political reform.