Iran remains our biggest challenge
As the United States begins its campaign to destroy ISIS, many voices will call for cooperation with Iran. Among those has been Secretary of State John Kerry, who insisted that Iran’s exclusion from the Paris Conference “doesn’t mean that we are opposed to the idea of communicating to find out if they will come on board, or under what circumstances, or whether there is the possibility of a change.”
This may seem sensible, as both Washington and Tehran have an interest in defanging a militant Sunni group. But the Islamic republic is not a normal nation-state seeking to realize its legitimate interests. It is an ideological entity mired in manufactured conspiracies. A persistent theme of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speeches is that the United States is a declining power. In today’s disorderly region, Iran sees a unique opportunity to project its influence and undermine the United States and its alliances.
In Afghanistan, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the misapprehension was born that the United States needed Iran’s assistance to rehabilitate its war-torn charge. Iran’s tactical assistance was largely motivated by its fear of being the next target of U.S. retribution. Once it was disabused of that notion, Iran lacerated U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by providing munitions and sanctuary to various militias. Tehran also sought to subvert America’s allies in the Persian Gulf and to undermine the security of Israel.
Today, Iran’s stake in Syria has been made clear by its provision of money, oil, arms, advisers and Hezbollah shock troops to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. U.S. interests, meanwhile, strongly argue against working with Iran against ISIS lest we lose the Sunni support that will be necessary to eradicate the group.
In Iraq, the only way President Obama’s objective of not only “degrading” but also “destroying” ISIS can be achieved is by taking back much of the territory it seized in Nineveh and Anbar provinces. This will require not only airstrikes in support of the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi security forces but also significant buy-in from the Sunni tribes who formed the backbone of the uprising against al-Qaida during the surge. In addition, essential to the administration’s policy is an inclusive Iraqi government that can draw support from neighboring Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both will be unattainable if there is a perception that the U.S. is seeking an alliance with Iran.
During the past decade, the United States has been effective in estranging Iran from its European and even Asian customers. But Washington has not affected Iran’s position in the Middle East to the same degree. Instead of pursuing the chimera of cooperation with the likes of Khamenei, Washington should contest all of Iran’s regional assets.
The United States and Iran stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of Middle East politics. The Islamic republic’s ideological compulsions and sheer opportunism make it an unlikely ally for the West. The coincidence of mutual opposition to a radical Sunni terrorist group should not blind us to the enduring threat that the mullahs represent.
Eric Edelman, a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, served as undersecretary of Defense for policy from 2005-09. Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was special assistant to the president for the Middle East and South Asia from 2009-11. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.