Iran seek common ground against militants, but doubts persist
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[September 23, 2014]
By Matt Spetalnick and Peter Apps
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Whether Washington likes
it or not, Shi'ite Iran, a key ally of the governments of Iraq and
Syria, is all but certain to be a major player in the fight against the
Sunni militants of Islamic State.
Bitterly at odds over most major Middle Eastern issues, the United
States and Iran now essentially find themselves on the same side in
an escalating crisis over the Islamist group that has seized large
swathes of Iraq and Syria.
While hardly anyone sees this as a case of “the enemy of my enemy is
my friend,” an old proverb that resonates even today through the
geopolitics of the region, a common foe could give Washington and
Tehran rare common ground.
Any effort to bring Iran and the United States closer will not be
Outright U.S.-Iranian military cooperation against Islamic State
appears to be off the table and Iran is also being frozen out of
membership in the international coalition being assembled by
President Barack Obama.
Current and former U.S. officials acknowledge that American and
Iranian interests rarely coincide, so the challenge will be to make
sure Iran’s role is as constructive as possible.
“They will clearly be part of this,” said Aaron David Miller, a
former Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic
administrations. “They have boots on the ground in ways that we
don’t …. But there’s good reason for us to be wary.”
Washington’s preferred dynamic, experts say, is for Tehran to work
separately toward the goal of defeating Islamic State while the two
countries seek to “deconflict” their activities, essentially to
avoid stepping on each other’s toes.
The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran during a
hostage crisis after the 1979 Islamic revolution, and the Obama
administration has made curbing Iran’s disputed nuclear program a
“Their irresponsible behavior reminds us that the enemy of our enemy
may still remain our enemy,” the former head of the U.S. military’s
Central Command, retired General James Mattis, told a congressional
hearing last week. “There may be ways that we can work in parallel.
But I’d be very cautious and have very modest expectations.”
Any material cooperation between the United States and Iran, for
example in sharing intelligence about Islamic State movements, would
have to be behind the scenes or done through intermediaries, experts
The reason is that Washington’s Sunni Arab partners in the fight
against Islamic State regard Iran with even more suspicion than U.S.
officials and see it as trying to deepen Shi’ite dominance in Iraq
and extend its own influence in the region.
Iran’s backing for allied Iraqi Shi’ite militias poses a particular
dilemma for Washington. U.S. officials are mindful that the groups
have helped blunt Islamic State’s momentum in Iraq after the Iraqi
army collapsed in the north in the face of Islamic State’s
But Washington also sees the potential for further alienation of the
large Sunni minority that has helped fuel the rise of Islamic State.
“What the U.S. wants is (for Iran) to create some measure of
discipline over these militias’ activities so that it doesn’t become
widespread attacks against Sunnis,” Miller said.
It would not be the first time the United States and Iran have found
common cause and become uneasy bedfellows.
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During the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, officials
from both sides say Iranian intelligence cooperation was invaluable
in routing the Taliban and securing the advance of the Northern
Alliance rebel forces. Information from Tehran helped to target air
strikes and win over tribal groups.
Some U.S. and other Western officials privately say that working
with Tehran in a similar way might make sense in the fight against
Islamic State, but they concede that geopolitical rivalries and
sectarian hostilities between Iran and Sunni coalition members will
make it impossible to coordinate this time.
At the same time,
experts say there is relatively little the United States can do to
stop Iran from weighing into the fight against Islamic State on its
own terms as Tehran continues efforts to prop up the government of
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and strengthen its clout with
Iraq’s Shi’ite dominated leadership.
"The U.S. cannot stop Iran from following its own agenda when it
comes to Iraq and Syria," says Hayat Alvi, professor of Middle
Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval War College, adding that distrust
between the two nations remained enormous. "That makes for a very
Even so, Tehran has emerged as a ready source of weaponry for
Baghdad, provided much more quickly and with fewer strings attached
than U.S. military aid, and Washington appears to have quietly
acquiesced to this arrangement.
A detachment of Su-25 Russian-built attack jets delivered at short
notice in early July were almost certainly supplied to Iraq by
Tehran, London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said
after examining assorted photographs.
With the launching overnight of the first U.S.-led air strikes
against Islamic State targets in Syria, Washington may be counting
on Tehran to ensure that Assad keeps his air-defense system in
The campaign against Islamic State offers further prospects for the
United States and Iran to take advantage of a tentative thaw in
relations that started last year with Obama’s diplomatic outreach to
Tehran, which resulted in the latest rounds of nuclear talks with
But some Washington-based analysts caution against placing too much
trust in Iran’s intentions or its willingness to help ease the
Islamic State crisis.
“If the Iranians really wanted to do something substantive, they
would have done it long ago,” said James Carafano, a military
analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. “A
better U.S. strategy would be focusing on minimizing Iranian
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Peter Apps; Additional reporting
by Phil Stewart; Editing by Toni Reinhold)
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