Author: Ashby Henningsen, UMBC
The past few months have witnessed a frantic effort by the Obama administration to assemble a broad united front in order to counteract the mounting threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As of late, this coalition has comprised of actors in the immediate region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as traditional Western allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany . The United States is also elevating its own efforts against the extremist group, having recently decided to send 1500 additional military “advisors” to support Iraqi military and security units . Yet even as the U.S. is eager to bolster its coalition against ISIS, it may be moving to accommodate an actor with arguably more complicated baggage. Iran, long a target of scrutiny and hostility by both the U.S. and the region’s Sunni Arab states, has quietly but steadily built up a campaign against ISIS militants in Iraq, and may be poised for a greater role in the broader multilateral strategy. Already, Iran’s subtle anti-ISIS strategy has further muddled an already complicated network of interests in the Middle East’s latest major security crisis.
Although not as highly touted by the U.S. as the support by other states, Iran’s military contribution to Iraqi military efforts against ISIS has quietly proven effective. It began in June, when a small force of Revolutionary Guard operatives under the command of General Ghasem Soleimani entered Iraq and began leading Iraqi troops as well as local Shiite militia against ISIS fighters . In August, Tehran sent a tank division into northern Iraq in response to ISIS’ capture of the town of Jalwala, only 20 miles from the Iranian border . Since then, Revolutionary Guard troops under Soleimani have helped defend a number of strategically significant Iraqi towns, trained Iraqi troops and Shiite militants, and prepared for future initiatives in reclaiming territory from ISIS. Reports even suggest that operatives from Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported militant organization in Lebanon, have conducted small-scale operations in Iraq, hinting that Iran may be influencing the group to join the fray .
Iran’s vested interest in containing ISIS and pushing them out of Iraq cannot be denied. It tacitly trained and equipped armed Shiite groups in the country throughout the most recent Iraq War, and has tried to support Shiite political figures in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. That Iran would escalate its presence in the beleaguered country to ward off and, eventually eliminate a ruthless Sunni terrorist movement is perhaps an inevitable progression of events. The more complicated aspect of this chapter may be its effect upon the U.S.-Iran relationship. Prime Minister Hassani Rouhani has not been shy in publicly critiquing U.S. and Western involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign . Privately, on the other hand, Washington and Tehran seem to be attempting to coordinate with one another’s tactics, without directly communicating. The fact that operations involving U.S. airstrikes and Iranian ground forces have yielded few Iranian casualties from air attacks may also imply that heavily concealed intelligence sharing–of some sort–has occurred between military leaders of both countries .
Could the U.S. and Iran, then, eventually move to embracing–or at least openly acknowledging–their shared interests and de facto alliance in Iraq? At the very least, they may soon reach a point of conceding their reliance upon the other against ISIS, if the revelation of a recently disclosed letter from President Obama to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, concerning the terrorist front is any indication . One ought to consider that foreign policy collaboration between the two countries is not as far-fetched as it may sound today: Iranian influence upon the Northern Alliance was key to U.S. efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. And while any cooperation between Washington and Tehran will hardly dispense of years of mutual distrust and acrimony, it could present a new opportunity to revitalize ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions . However, surmounting opposition to a shift in the relationship, from both Republican members of Congress and the U.S.’s Sunni Arab allies, presents a daunting prospect in and of itself. Republican legislators have already mounted a fierce rhetorical assault against the president, citing U.S. security concerns and the possible repercussions upon America’s relations with Sunni states in the region . And while Iranian officials have given little indication of their reactions to the recent letter from Obama to Khamenei, one can hardly expect the conservative faction surrounding Khamenei and Rouhani to willingly work with the U.S. .
At the heart of this increasingly complex picture, one looming truth has gradually emerged: Iran is in as advantageous a position as any other state–perhaps even more so–in combating ISIS and restoring order to Iraq. Any outcome to the growing ground campaign against the terrorist front, for better or for worse, will unalterably involve Iran. While there remains more ambiguity than certainty–concerning the possibility of explicit U.S.-Iranian collaboration in Iraq, the reactions of Sunni coalition-members, and the impact upon the perpetual nuclear negotiations–events are steadily reflecting the old maxim that war can make for peculiar bedfellows.