Chances for Iran-U.S. collaboration in Iraq

Kayhan BarzegarKayhan Barzegar explains why it is so unlikely for the U.S. and Iran to work together to confront the current crisis in Iraq. Such narrow cooperation, Barzegar writes, would threaten the delicate political balance that Iran seeks to maintain in the region. In order for a coordinated effort to work, he argues, the U.S. would need to focus on the broader problem of Sunni extremism and bring its own regional partners into the process.

 

By Kayhan Barzegar

The capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on June 10, 2014 has raised speculation that Iran and the United States might cooperate to suppress the terrorist group in Iraq in order to preserve the country’s stability and unity.

However, such cooperation is unlikely at present because it would trigger another round of sectarian and intra-state conflict, subsequently weakening Iran’s ability to maintain an intact coalitional government in Iraq. Such a coalition government is necessary for Iraq’s territorial integrity. 

Those who favor U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq may argue that Iraq is moving towards becoming a failed state incapable of preserving its territorial integrity, demonstration of the failure of both Iranian and American policies for establishing a peaceful Iraq since the removal of the Bat’tist regime in 2003.  Therefore, the argument goes, the two countries have common geopolitical interests in keeping the state system intact in Iraq by establishing a more inclusive government in the country.

But this is only one face of the story. The ISIS issue is a complicated ideological and geopolitical challenge for Iran. Iran believes that there is a linkage between the recent ISIS offensive in Iraq and its activities in Syria. This anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian extremist faction has attacked Iraq with the calculated objective of putting Iraq on the brink of disintegration through sectarian conflict, thus weakening the regional position of the Iraqi and Syrian governments, Iran’s two regional allies.

Iran perceives the ISIS issue as a fight against a regional coalition of Sunni extremism that primarily aims to contain Iran’s ideological and geopolitical status in the region. Iran sees the massive mobilization of ISIS forces as being beyond the insurgents’ capacity to accomplish without assistance and therefore believe that some regional and trans-regional states have logistically and financially support ISIS and their objectives.

Iran primarily seeks to solve the current crisis in Iraq through balancing the demands of diverse domestic political forces—the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds—in the context of a coalitional government and a united Iraq. The Iran-U.S. collaboration on the ISIS issue would, in several aspects, contradict this policy. 

Kurdish peshmerga
July 3, 2014 - A Kurdish peshmerga keeps watch and aims at armed groups led by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Mosul, Iraq. (Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

First, such collaboration will alienate Iraq’s Sunni population, triggering another round of unnecessary Shiite-Sunni conflict.  The new sectarian rift will give the Kurds the opportunity to ask for independence. Iran works to avoid this situation because it would weaken Iran’s political role in enhancing a coalitional government in Iraq, thus leading the country towards disintegration.

Second, the return of the U.S. in Iraq’s political scene will itself bring about fresh political divisions in Iraq’s power-sharing base, based on the degree of U.S. political-security presence in the country. This will ultimately challenge the significance of Iran’s political role in combining Iraq’s diverse political forces to create a coalitional government such as Maliki’s.   

Third, endorsing a U.S. military role in Iraq would challenge the legitimacy of Iran’s current regional policy. That policy is based on seeking political solutions in the context of regional cooperation, as well as non-foreign military intervention for ending regional crises such as that of Syria. 

And fourth, Iran-U.S. bilateral cooperation in Iraq will diminish the possibility of regional cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as has been the case in the nuclear negotiations. Despite all the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it seems that Iran is determined to improve relations with the Kingdom for managing the regional issues.

Beyond the above-mentioned aspects, such collaboration will be interpreted as an orchestrated attempt with America to keep the Shiite government of Nuri al Maliki in power at any cost. This situation will also challenge the legitimacy of Iran’s policy in Iraq, which is based on supporting a balanced state comprised of all political factions involved the state’s power-sharing agreement.

Recently, there has been the speculation that the U.S. will change its policy in Iraq by replacing Prime Minister Maliki. The argument is that he can no longer act as a source of unity in Iraq’s coalitional government and his presence even justifies the continued terrorist and violent activities in the country. If so, this would be another source of divergence between Iran and the U.S. in the coming days, as Iran would consider replacing Maliki as a new U.S. attempt to shape Iraq’s political transformation in its own favor

Iran would argue that Maliki’s government is the result of the legal process of general elections in Iraq and that this is unchangeable in principle, despite the fact of the Maliki government’s mismanagement of the country, especially in monopolizing the power which somehow triggered sectarian politics. The same argument goes for the recent presidential election in Syria which has returned the Bashar al Asad regime to office. Previously, the victory of Hamas in the Gaza Strip’s general elections could not change the reality on the ground. 

Based on the above-mentioned calculations, Iranian officials were quick in denying any possible bilateral cooperation between Iran and America on the ISIS issue, basically due to the concern that such interactions at such sensitive time will not benefit Iran’s interests.

It seems that Iran is more interested in managing the ISIS crisis by mutual cooperation with the Iraqi government and in the context of regional cooperation. Recently, Iran announced that it will only be ready to provide military support in Iraq if asked by the Iraqi government and in the context international law and the United Nations regulations.

Yet, despite all the challenges, bilateral collaboration between Iran and America is feasible if it addresses the issue of fighting Sunni extremism in the broader Middle East and, as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif put it, in the context of battling global terror with the involvement of main regional and trans-regional players including Saudi Arabia and America. So far, however, as the U.S. addresses the ISIS issue in the context of the individual Iraqi state and its ethnic, geopolitical context, there is little chance of bilateral cooperation between Iran and America on regional issues such as that of ISIS in Iraq.

Kayhan Barzegar is the chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University and the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. He is also a former Associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.