FPI Bulletin: In the War on ISIS, Iran is Not a Reliable Partner

March 10, 2015

President Obama’s belief that Iran can serve as a reliable partner in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Tehran’s objectives. Iran seeks not to complement U.S. efforts to advance regional stability, but to project its own hegemonic ambitions. Through its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and the dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Tehran is fueling the sectarian violence in which ISIS thrives. If President Obama expects Congress to grant him a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), he must put forward a more compelling strategy.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Tehran has worked relentlessly to turn Iraq into a client state led by Shi’ite militants. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias filled the void created by the collapse of the Iraqi army, enabling Tehran to exert substantial influence in Baghdad and sponsor attacks on U.S. forces.

David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, wrote at the time that he was “considering telling the president that I believe Iran is, in fact, waging war on the United States in Iraq, with all of the U.S. public and governmental responses that could come from that revelation.” Thankfully, a surge of American forces along with a new approach to counterinsurgency enabled Petraeus to dramatically reduce the influence both of Iran and of Sunni extremists. By resisting both Sunni and Shi’ite extremism, the United States helped to usher in a period of stability in Iraq.

Unfortunately, after the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, the country again spiraled into sectarian conflict, just as the civil war in neighboring Syria was heating up.

It was not foreordained in the spring of 2011 that Islamist extremists would hijack the uprising against Bashar al-Assad.  But when it seemed that Assad might be overthrown, Tehran moved aggressively to prop up his regime by providing it with military supplies and training, and has dispatched members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to help guide the operations of Syrian forces. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and the terrorist group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy and a key ally of Assad, have also joined the fighting. As the conflict escalated, the fight against Assad became a magnet for extremists, fueling the rise of ISIS.

In this conflict, Iran seeks to defeat ISIS, but only as a means of consolidating its own influence in Syria. Meanwhile, the brutality of Tehran’s clients in Syria is forcing the country’s Sunni population to cooperate with ISIS as a desperate means of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has failed to recognize that U.S. and Iranian interests do not align. On the contrary, the administration has portrayed Tehran as an ally in the pursuit of a common cause. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported in November that President Obama had sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressing interest in working together to confront ISIS should the two nations reach an agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program.

Similarly, in December, President Obama said that success in nuclear negotiations with Tehran can enable the country to become “a very successful regional power,” which “would be good for everybody.” In the same month, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the “net effect” of Iranian attacks against ISIS “is positive.” In September, Secretary Kerry said, “The fact is there is a role for nearly every country in the world to play [in defeating ISIS], including Iran.”

President Obama’s flawed strategy for defeating ISIS is built around this misunderstanding of Tehran’s interests and motives. By presenting ISIS as an isolated problem that the United States can defeat while ignoring its regional context, the administration empowers Iran to pursue with impunity its true objective: hegemony over Iraq and Syria. It is precisely in this context that a bad nuclear deal would risk affirming Iran’s mastery over the region.

Iran’s hegemonic ambitions helped generate the regional conditions that made the rise of ISIS possible; opposing Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions therefore constitutes a prerequisite for any strategy to defeat it. If the United States fails to recognize this reality, it risks even further destabilizing the two countries as they succumb to the influence of their Islamist neighbor — an outcome that would be good for nobody.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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