The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Frenemy?

As more evidence surfaces of Iranian forces joining the conflict in Iraq, the WSJ reports that the US and Iran will now engage in direct talks toward resolving the crisis:

The U.S.-Iran dialogue, which is expected to begin this week, will mark the latest in a rapid move toward rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over the past year. It also comes as the U.S. and other world powers try to reach an agreement with Iran by late July to curb its nuclear program. …

The U.S. officials said it wasn’t certain yet which diplomatic channel the Obama administration would use to discuss the Iraq situation. One avenue could be through Vienna, where senior American and Iranian diplomats will convene starting Monday as part of international negotiations aimed at reaching a comprehensive agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

Over the weekend, Rouhani himself expressed an openness to working with the US to confront ISIS:

“If we see that the United States takes action against terrorist groups in Iraq, then one can think about it,” he said, despite the lack of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington for more than three decades. “We have said that all countries must unite in combating terrorism. But right now regarding Iraq… we have not seen the Americans taking a decision,” Rouhani added.

But a Foreign Ministry spokesman also mixed that signal by suggesting Western intervention would only complicate a situation Iran believes it can handle all by itself. Ian Black surveys the debate:

Commentators in Tehran and Washington have argued that these old enemies share significant interests in defending the status quo in Baghdad: for example, both had urged Maliki to act more inclusively to stop alienating Sunnis for fear of empowering Isis. “Iraq is one of those places that contradicts the popular notion that Iranian and American interests constitute a zero-sum game,” the analyst Kenneth Pollack, a CIA veteran, commented on the eve of the April elections. “There, what is bad for Iran is often just as bad for the United States and what they want to see is often what we want to see as well.”

Whether those common interests will extend to actual, as opposed to de facto, military coordination – US air strikes or drone intelligence in support of Iranian revolutionary guards, or Iranian-advised Iraqi units – remains to be seen. It is fascinating too to speculate whether any cooperation could impact on the ongoing talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, a month before the deadline for a deal.

Meir Javedanfar thinks through the ramifications for Rouhani:

In the short run, President Rouhani also has much to gain. The ISIS victories will make Iran look like an attractive partner to the United States in the fight against ISIS. Should the West decide to cooperate with Iran, this would boost Rouhani’s position domestically, as he could say his moderate approach toward the United States made the country dependent on Iran for help. Rouhani could then use such help as a bargaining chip in the P5+1 talks to extract further concessions.


There could also be domestic repercussions against Rouhani’s interests.

The head of the Basij organization, Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, has already accused the United States of being behind the ISIS attacks. The spokesman for parliament’s National Security Commission, Mohammad Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, has publicly accused the Saudis (as well as Israel and the United States) of being behind the ISIS attacks.

The longer the ISIS crisis continues, the more difficult it will be for Rouhani to create a diplomatic rapprochement with the United States, as this crisis could strengthen the hand of Iran’s conservatives, who are against such a scenario. The same applies to Rouhani’s aspirations to improve relations with the Saudis.

Stepping back, Keating tries to sum up the bizarre intersection:

Relations between Iran and the U.S. have improved since Hassan Rouhani became president last year, but this hasn’t been a great couple of weeks. Nuclear talks have hit an impasse over the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain for nuclear enrichment. It now seems unlikely that a deal by the July 20 deadline set by negotiators. It seems like it should be possible to compartmentalize the nuclear issue while the two sides work together on another pressing priority.

But the bigger obstacle may be Syria, where Iran has been one of the primary international backers of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Iran views ISIS as the inevitable consequence of American, Arab, and Turkish support for anti-Assad rebel groups. The U.S. view is that Assad’s brutal response to the moderate Syrian opposition led to the growth of radical opposition groups. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around a situation where the U.S. and Iran are fighting as allies on one side of the porous Syrian-Iraq border and essentially fighting a proxy war on the other side, but all bets are off when it comes to Middle Eastern geopolitics at the moment.

Robin Wright has some important reminders:

In 2010, James Jeffrey, the U.S. Ambassador [in Iraq], estimated that Iran was linked, through its surrogates, to the deaths of more than a thousand American troops. “My own estimate, based just upon a gut feeling, is that up to a quarter of the American casualties and some of the more horrific incidents in which Americans were kidnapped … can be traced without doubt to these Iranian groups,” he said.

Even after Washington announced its intent to leave Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates charged that Iran’s support for Shiite militias was intent on “killing as many as possible in order to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that, in effect, they drove us out of Iraq at the end of the year.” When the United States ended its combat mission, in 2011, it did not leave even a residual force behind, because Iraq—under Iran’s strong influence—refused to sign a Status of Forces Agreement granting immunity to U.S. troops for acts deemed criminal under Iraqi law.

Marc Pyruz adds that Iran’s current strategy against ISIS will need to change from how it tried to fight the US:

[Quds Force] direction of battle in Iraq is set to differ in key respects from the period of American military occupation. During that period, the American military relied on combat aviation, overwhelming firepower and a heavy logistical presence. The current situation in Iraq is very similar to what is taking place in neighboring Syria, where IRGC-QF tactics have been developed against determined, hardy Jihadist fighters dug often in built-up or urban environments, with IRGC-organized militias often times proving more motivated and reliable in combat.

One of the weak links for Iraq is the lack of a capable air force. The Iranian air forces’ fixed wing combat aircraft– IRIAF and IRGC-AF –are not in a state of fit and lack the numbers of operable aircraft for sustained operations, and any potential losses can not be replaced with additional acquisitions. To some extent, this might explain certain Iranian officials’ public statements of floating the idea of a shared role [with the US] in stabilizing the military situation in Iraq.

That idea seems to have piqued the interest of even Butters, who yesterday, while calling Iran the Stalin to ISIS’s Hitler, nevertheless endorsed some kind of collaboration:

“The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure that Baghdad doesn’t fall. We need to co-ordinate with the Iranians and the Turks need to get into the game.”

“We should have discussions with Iran to make sure they don’t use this as an opportunity to seize control of parts of Iraq. They’re in this, we need to put a red line with Iran.” Graham said the US should “sit down and talk” with Iran. “To ignore Iran and not tell them ‘Don’t take advantaged of this situation’ would be a mistake,” he said.

Jessica Schulberg sees no other choice:

While there are political barriers to an outward alliance with Iran, the U.S. needs to recognize the influence that Iran has in the Middle East, and harness the cooperative gains made in the nuclear negotiations to wider cooperation in dealing with Syria and Iraq. … While it is not clear what form their intervention will take, collaborative effort with the Iranians, whether overt or covert, is necessary in stabilizing Iraq.