Last week, as lawmakers convened a hearing with top administration officials to discuss US strategy in the Middle East, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met in Tehran to discuss Iraq’s crumbling security. Rouhani pledged Iranian support for Iraq’s fight against ISIL, noting that Iraqi security is intertwined with that of Iran.
On the Hill, however, the message was one in which the US must simultaneously counter a dual threat from both ISIL and Iran. “Iranian malign influence in the region is the other major challenge in our strategy in the Middle East, besides ISIL,” according Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. The strategy outlined seemed to be one at cross purposes with itself: the US would counter ISIL while at the same time countering Iran–the one country that is, arguably, most committed to defeating ISIL.
Iran already has a palpable presence in Iraq. Not only can Tehran’s influence be felt in Baghdad’s political arena, but the US and others have known of Iran’s support for Shia militia in terms of ammunitions, training, aircraft, and leadership for quite some time. Though often seen as an insurmountable challenge, Iran’s presence in Iraq has been a detriment to ISIL, and many of their interests in the country overlap with our own. Though collaboration on issues important to both Iran and the US has been a non-starter, the imminent nuclear deal could pave the way towards cooperation on issues of mutual importance, and lead to the establishment of diplomatic channels to address areas of challenge.
The dominance of the Iran-backed Shia militia within the security apparatus of the Iraqi state has likely lead to a marginalization of the Sunni, in such a way that the US now feels that empowering Sunni tribesmen is the only way to win back Iraq’s security. “The reality is that some of our Sunni partners both within and outside of Iraq are more worried about the Shia and Iranian hegemony than they are about ISIL,” said General Dempsey. Secretary Carter and General Dempsey explained the advancements in current US plans to recruit Sunni tribesmen in Iraq at the new installation at Taqaddum in Anbar province, and stressed that fresh Sunni recruits would be “essential” and “vital” to the effort to ultimately eliminate ISIL. But Carter admitted that the US had fallen short in its recruitment efforts, having trained just 7,000 Sunni Iraqi tribesmen, as opposed to the 24,000 it had hoped for.
Regardless of whether this effort proves effective, merely attempting to prop up Sunni forces is not a sufficient strategy for long term stability. For that, Iran will need to be brought into discussions on a path forward. Dr. Paul Pillar, of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic Studies, has outlined for Politico how engaging Iran on regional issues could lead to gains over ISIL territory in Iraq, increased security over sea trade in the Persian Gulf, and a decrease in the volatility of the region overall. Ambassadors Ryan Crocker, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering outlined in a piece last year for the Washington Post that a deal on the nuclear issue could open up “a new strategic relationship between the United States and Iran [that] may seem impossible and risky, yet it is also necessary and in the interests of both.” Continuing to ostracize Iran will limit strategic cooperation on regional issues that could be paramount to slowing the “deteriorating trend” in the region lamented by committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX).
While opponents of a nuclear deal in congress are many, a deal with Tehran would undoubtedly open diplomatic channels that could be leveraged to increase coordination on a host of geostrategic issues. Allowing a deal to go forward would improve diplomatic relations, open up avenues for further discussions on issues such as human rights, combating narcotics trafficking and extremism, as well as mediating Iran’s perceived destabilizing influence in the region. By including Iran in a solution to the region’s problems, the US can address any “long-term threat” posed by current Iranian posturing and work with Iran to counter ISIS, combat narcotics trafficking and organized crime, and secure a more stable Persian Gulf region. While some in Congress may be keen to focus only on opposing a nuclear deal, true strategic thinking suggests that a nuclear deal can be a gateway to actually beginning to resolve the challenges in the region.Back to top