Analysis: Iran is no partner in the fight against the Islamic State


Qassem Soleimani (center) with his bodyguards near the frontlines of Tikrit.

Testifying on Capitol Hill on March 3, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey characterized the joint attempts of the Iraqi military, Iraqi Shia militias, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) at taking back control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State, as “a positive thing.” “Frankly,” General Dempsey said, “it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

General Dempsey’s caveat is an interesting one, since there is every reason to believe that Shia control of Tikrit will result in further sectarianism. While the US administration says in its most recent National Security Strategy that it desires to “degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL [Islamic State]” in an attempt to “support Iraq … free itself from sectarian conflict and the scourge of extremists,” Tehran is actively perpetuating the sectarian crisis in Iraq.

The threat of the Islamic State, coupled with American “strategic patience,” not only makes the Iraqi Shia more dependent on Tehran and legitimizes Iran’s military presence in Iraq, it also provides the regime in Tehran with another bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 Group.

In the past, the Iraqi Shia have demonstrated little interest in reducing themselves to puppets of Tehran. During the war with Iraq from 1980-1988, Iraqi nationalism trumped sectarian identity: the Shia constituted the rank and file of the Iraqi military, and Shia leaders in Iraq kept their distance from the regime in Tehran. After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraq became a sanctuary to Iranian clerics critical of the regime in Tehran, including Hossein Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic.

But Iraq did not remain a refuge for long. The civil war in Iraq, followed by the rise of Islamic State, forced moderate Iraqi Shia, who otherwise would have pursued a line independent of Iran, to become dependencies of Tehran. After being rebuffed by the US following the Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul in 2014, General Qassem Atta, head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, asked Tehran for help and received assistance within 48 hours. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi continues to press Washington for more support in his fight against the Islamic State and uses US hesitancy to justify reliance on Iran, which according to Vice President Iyad Allawi, only increases Iran’s influence in Iraq and could lead to dismantlement of the Iraqi state.

The Obama administration may desire to help secure the survival of the Iraqi state, but the small contingent of US advisers in Iraq is relying on a heavily Iranian-influenced Iraqi sectarian intelligence and security apparatus. The Iraqi security forces are predominantly Shia, and in addition, Shia militias and “advisers” from the IRGC Quds Force are now fighting as legitimate Iraqi forces. 

This creates an environment in which targeting operations developed by Iranian forces and the militias have primacy over those developed by the US, leading to the possibility that  Washington could be portrayed by Islamic State as complicit in the indiscriminate targeting of Sunnis. Such operations will be perceived the same way by the very Sunnis we need to fight Islamic State, thus undermining the US strategy to “support Iraq … free itself from sectarian conflict and the scourge of extremists.”

Any US reliance on Iranian support in the fight against the Islamic State is also likely to strengthen Tehran’s bargaining position in the nuclear negotiations.

Although both US and Iranian negotiators maintain that nothing but the nuclear issue is being discussed, this of course is fiction. On Sept. 22, Fars News, quoting an anonymous American source, reported that Secretary of State John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, discussed the nuclear issue as well as the fight against the Islamic State. And Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary, has also connected both issues. Clearly, Tehran’s cooperation with Washington in the fight against the Islamic State comes at a price, which Washington must pay at the negotiating table in Geneva.

Iran has Washington where it wants it. Iran wants a favorable deal, and the Obama administration is signaling that such a deal is forthcoming. US “strategic patience” is allowing Iran to increase its influence and presence in Iraq and Syria. Assad is waiting out the Americans and the international community, and Shia militias are now viewed as legitimate forces in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. But most importantly, US “strategic patience” signals to Iran an unwillingness to jeopardize the talks by linking them to Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. 

Iran benefits from the threat of an Islamic State, and if the US continues its courtship of Tehran, it may find the Islamic State replaced by an Islamic Republic.

Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Michael P. Pregent is a former intelligence officer and military adviser and now adjunct at National Defense University.

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  • martin smith says:

    As an interested layman and not a professional analyst, I am following the events in Iraq with some interest. I have worked with both both Muslims and Jews (lets not pretend Israel is not one of the issues) and talked to them at length about the Middle East. This article hits several issues squarely on the head. It seems to me though that Iraq is already a de facto partitioned state, and has been since the Kurds had to defend themselves primarily with their own armed forces (albeit with help from coalition airstrikes). Are the Kurds going to give up Kirkuk without the long promised and delayed referendum on self government? Probably not.
    Also regarding Iran’s nuclear program, I feel we’ve already missed the bus with Pakistan and North Korea becoming nuclear. The West should have taken action to prevent this; calling Russia and China’s bluff, neither of whom would have risked premature war. Now we are left in a bottom of the cliff situation.
    The crying shame is that Iran could have been pressured to develop a Thorium nuclear program, as Thorium will support fission but can’t be used for weapons, and they disingenuously maintained they didn’t want weapons. The U.S had an experimental Thorium reactor back in the ’60’s and Norway has one now, so it can be made to work.

    • Ian Bach says:

      Nice I agree with you @martin smith Throium is what we should have worked out a deal with Iran on. I do notice lots of people here at LWJ and the authors here often get a little to stuck on the sectarian issue. I think it is unfounded. Sure there are deep long battles and feuds between various clans and tribes. But the average Abdul Iraqi wants a stable government and not a bunch of nut jobs with many foreign leaders telling Iraqis what they can and can not do. Burning books cigarettes and musical instrument.

  • Greg Proctor says:

    In Iraq we have our enemies fighting our enemies. American soldiers serving in Iraq today are in as much danger (possibly more) from the Shia enemy as they are from the Islamic State barbarians.

    • mike merlo says:

      @G Proctor

      I couldn’t agree more. The Iranians are consummate ‘vipers.’ Venomous animals to be kept at kilometers’ length never to be trusted

  • Craig Thomas says:

    On the other hand, working together with Iran to defeat ISIS could help de-toxify the US-Iran relationship, help Iran to stop seeing the US as a threat, and lead to better understanding.

    This article reflects the interests of the parties that have worked very hard to ensure the US and Iran remain in conflict – Israel and Saudi Arabia, neither of which have *our* interests at heart, and both of which are great instigators and supporters of extremism and sectarianism.

    Engagement with Iran is a good thing.

    • kwg says:

      Engagement for normal people is a good thing. The mullahs of Iran are far from normal. I’m sure the “good feelings” are only short lived. We are still the Great Satan to the extremist moslem crowd.

  • kwg says:

    I’m sure it’s been said before but just in case it has not, you are seeing the re-birth of the Persian Empire. It started in 1979.

  • Cliff says:

    Iran is responsible for the deliberate targeting and murder of American soldiers, Marines, and civilian officials from the 1982 Beirut airport bombing to the TWA hijacking and murder of Robert Dean Stethem to the torture and murder of William Buckley to the Khobar Towers bombing to the training, arming, and funding of, and even participation in, attacks in Iraq from 2004-2011. Iran imprisons and tortures citizens daily at Evin Prison. It maintains a corrupt regime that ignores basic human rights. It has perpetuated the Syrian conflict through its support for Assad and exacerbated Yemeni instability through its support for the Houthis. Anti-Israeli rhetoric from Iran is callously used for political purpose, making Tehran more Palestinian than the PLO, despite a thousand miles of distance. How is engagement with this regime a good thing?

    • Alex says:

      It’s good because engagement can prevent conflict and promote understanding. The Chinese are worse-far worse in some respects-and we no longer bat an eye working with them. It’s just being realistic.

  • Freonpsandoz says:

    “…Tehran’s cooperation with Washington in the fight against the Islamic State comes at a price…” Cooperation is mutual, isn’t it? Does US cooperation with Iran in the fight against the Islamic State also come at a price? If not, why not?

  • mike merlo says:

    hopefully the Fumblelina’s is the US Intelligence Community have figured out a way to covertly arm ISIS/ISIL

  • Frivas says:

    “there is every reason to believe that Shia control of Tikrit will result in further sectarianism”

    “Tehran is actively perpetuating the sectarian crisis in Iraq”

    Please, I would love to know if there is any evidence that may support these statements. As far as we know, no kind of ethnic or religious cleansing has happened in any of the liberated areas near Tikrit, be it Al-Dour, Al-Alam or Hamreen.

    “if the US continues its courtship of Tehran, it may find the Islamic State replaced by an Islamic Republic”

    This statement is, at least, confusing. There is no comparison between a terrorist group that has imposed a terror regime even harsher than that of the Taliban, who has forced the Christians, Yazidis and every religious or ethnic minority into exile or death and that has tortured and killed in the tousands for even the slightest disagreement with their “religious” establishment. Iran, with all his faults, has never done anything even slightly similar (they even have special places reserved in their Majlis for Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians… which is propaganda, of course, but is way better than just killing them). But, reading the aforementioned statement, one gets the impression that Iran´s influence and IS´ influence is equally pernitious… which is not.

    P.S: I am sorry if I have comitted any grammar or spelling mistake, English is not my native language (European)

  • Although I would love to think one side is better than another in this battle, and would love to see Craig Thomas’ point come to pass with a renewed friendship with a moderate Iran – that seems like wishing on too many marshmallow flavored rainbow dreams… Perhaps the best analogy is to compare to the Nazi/Soviet division of Eastern Europe in 1939, in which the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy but we can treat one like an ally when convenient and hope that neither side comes out of it too strong and dominant. Unfortunately there seems to be no unity in “our” goals and what “we” want on this side of the Atlantic either.

  • Khamenei is reportedly dying, and lo and behold, Yazdi has just been elected the new chairman of the Assembly of Experts.

    That man front-and-center in the choosing of Khamenei’s successor fully supports the “Iran is no partner” thesis.

    If Saudi Arabia does, in fact, have the ability to call on Pakistan to supply a nuclear strike capability against Iran, I expect that Riyadh is at this moment making sure the phone number is close at hand.

  • irebukeu says:

    If this article was written in 1942 it would be entitled “The Soviet Union is no partner in the fight against Nazi Germany”.

    Although the article would be accurate in its facts the title would be misleading.

  • manus says:

    No one knows how things in this current Iraq situation will turn out for Iraqi Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Iran. But, right now, the fight is against ISIS and Iran and the Iraqi Shias are keeping their eye on the ball. In the end, Iran has an opportunity to create a milieu where they and their Iraqi Shia partners will become good neighbors. We will all just have to wait and see what happens.

  • martin smith says:

    It’s good to see a debate happening here. There is a chance that the excesses of ISIS have been so diabolical that various parties take a second look at their own behaviour and make a better decision. That being said it’s only a chance; and I will be disappointed but not surprised if we smash ISIS and revert to a status quo ante bellum after an appropriate period of superficial reflection.
    I’ve learnt not to dismiss gut feelings out of hand, and my gut message watching the intro to the ISIS video ‘Flames of War’ where it flashed the message ‘the fighting has just begun’ was that it is indeed the case. Even when ISIS is driven out of it’s present stronghold it may rise up somewhere else, or the reverberations from the present conflict will create others.

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