June 23, 2014

Should U.S. work with Iran in Iraq? Yes, if it wants to take on the real challenge: China

To work with Iran or not to work with Iran? That’s the question dogging Washington as Iraq descends into chaos, reminding America that its mission there was never truly accomplished.

As Sunni militants move toward Baghdad, and Iran’s supreme leader condemns U.S. involvement in the conflict, reaching out to Iran is less about changing America’s regional alignments, and more about defining its primary goal in the Middle East: Does America want stability, or does it want domination?

A member of the Kurdish security forces takes up position with his weapon while guarding an oil refinery, on the outskirts of Mosul, June 22, 2014. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

If Washington’s goal is stability, then cooperating with Iran makes sense because Tehran needs a stable Iraq and has valuable intelligence and political influence that can advance U.S. security. Iran has invested heavily in maintaining Iraq’s geographic unity under a Shi’ite-led government over whom it holds significant influence. For Iran, a stable Iraq led by an ally is better than an unstable Iraq led by Sunni jihadists who hate Iran more than they hate America. For that reason, Rouhani and others in Tehran had expressed willingness to cooperate with Washington against the jihadists.

But working with Iran does not make sense if the U.S. objective is to reinvigorate America’s political and military dominance over the region, even at the expense of endless war.

Many neoconservatives — such as William Kristol — believe that Washington must sustain its dominance in the Middle East, regardless of cost. According to this outlook, stability ranks second to domination. If instability at times helps secure or sustain control in the region, so be it.

Some neoconservatives even have a name for it: “creative destruction.” According to neocon operative Michael Ledeeen, “creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad.” It’s a concept the neocons apply to both domestic and foreign policy.

This camp believes that in the case of Iran, collaboration — even against a common enemy — should be ruled out because the real threat to U.S. power is not the Sunni jihadists, but Iran’s challenge to the American order in the region. Tehran, the neocons argue, wants to replace the United States as the region’s top dog. That makes it a greater threat than the jihadists. In fact, if instability weakens Iran or drains its resources, then that serves the U.S., the reasoning goes. After all, it’s creative destruction.

Yet if regional stability is considered a higher priority than doubling down or dominating the Middle East, collaborating with Iran is a viable option — particularly if one puts the waning strategic importance of the Middle East in a global perspective. Pivoting away from the Middle East makes sense considering the cost of another ground war in the region, the U.S.’s growing energy independence, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that the real challenge to America’s global preeminence will come from China.

Indeed, stability in the Middle East is more important than dominating the region if one recognizes that China — and not Iran — is America’s true competitor. Persia may be a roaring lion, but China is a rising dragon.

Coordination with Iran can help stabilize and enable the United States to focus on higher priorities — whether in the east or at home — while avoiding getting re-entangled in the Iraqi mess.

After all, choosing domination over stability ultimately puts America in a permanent state of war in the Middle East. No wonder President Obama is resisting these neocon voices.

This piece originally appeared in Reuters.

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