The White House is mulling whether Tehran can help it defeat the jihadi threat in Iraq. But a U.S.-Iran alliance would be a disaster for Washington and the Middle East.
- By Bernard Haykel<p> Bernard Haykel is professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Giacomo Luciani is an energy expert and Global Scholar at Princeton University. Eckart Woertz is completing a book on Middle East food security and is a senior research scholar at Princeton University. They are all members of a Princeton University project entitled "Oil, Energy, and the Middle East" that explores the political, economic, and environmental dimensions of Middle East hydrocarbon reserves. </p>
The United States is now exploring whether to cooperate with Iran in the fight against radical Sunni jihadists in Iraq. Such an alliance would be a grave mistake: It would alienate Sunnis throughout the region and confirm a prevalent conspiratorial view that the United States is bolstering the Shiites, a minority in the Arab world, against the majority Sunnis, playing an old imperial power game to control the region and its natural resources.
Violent jihadi sectarianism is only part of the story in Iraq today. Iran, like President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, is making the case that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries of the Persian Gulf are the real problem — the wellspring of terrorism in the region — and that Iran is therefore the natural ally of the United States.
But this is only half-true. Iran has also nurtured Sunni jihadists when it was convenient to do so, and it has also spent years cultivating Shiite sectarianism. In its effort to dominate the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran fostered staunch Shiite chauvinists, first in Iraq and more recently in Syria. By doing this, Tehran gave up completely on an earlier ecumenical attempt to make Shiism acceptable to Sunnis under the banner of joint resistance against the "forces of global arrogance" — that is, the United States, Israel, and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf.
Iran’s policy began in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Tehran’s protégé and anointed leader, led the country in a blindly sectarian and brutally authoritarian fashion, singling out Sunni rivals for persecution. Iran’s anti-Sunnism was further revealed when it backed the Assad regime in Damascus. Here Tehran mobilized significant financial, ideological, and military resources, including Shiite paramilitary forces such as Hezbollah, to fight for Assad’s survival while he wantonly continued to kill and brutalize Syria’s Sunni population. The net effect is that Iran has alienated the Sunnis of the Arab world, some of whom now express support for the most extreme forms of Sunni radicalism.
Twitter is ablaze with Sunnis from across the Arab world praising the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) for "liberating Mosul" and defeating the "Safavids," a pejorative term for Shiites. Such sentiments are a manifestation of the exasperation Sunnis feel and should not be construed as genuine identification with jihadism. The Sunni mainstream realizes that the jihadists are as much a menace to them as the jihadists are to the rest of the world.
Having now lost the Sunnis, Iran needs the United States to help secure its gains in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Washington shouldn’t give Tehran what it wants. Several facts have been obscured in the dominant narrative about what is taking place in Iraq today, which doom any potential joint U.S.-Iranian "war on terror."
First, the uprising in Iraq and Syria is not exclusively a jihadi effort but rather a general Sunni revolt against political disenfranchisement and persecution. The radical Sunni jihadists, who form a part of this uprising, are also equally brutal toward other Sunni Muslims who don’t share their beliefs and politics — ISIS aspires to conquer Riyadh as much as Baghdad. U.S.-Iranian cooperation in the fight against ISIS would consolidate all the Sunnis under the jihadi banner and would confirm the jihadi narrative that the "Crusaders" and the "Persian Zoroastrians" are conspiring to destroy Islam, a confirmation that would help boost recruitment to the jihadists’ cause.
Second, Iran and Syria can be expected to embrace these jihadists when it serves their short-term interests. Both countries have had dealings with radical Sunni jihadists in the past, as when the two countries set them loose to fight U.S. troops in Iraq. More recently, Assad emptied his prisons of jihadists and has focused his military offensive on more moderate brigades to encourage the radicalization of the Syrian opposition.
Finally, Iran and Iraq’s army and Shiite militias don’t need the help of the United States to fight this war, which is not only about defeating jihadists but also about keeping Sunnis disenfranchised. Helping the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces and Shiite militias do battle with Sunnis — even if they are radical jihadists — is not America’s concern.
America’s concern should be stopping ISIS from moving its forces south toward Saudi Arabia. ISIS’s jihadi proto-state, which has been recruiting successfully in the kingdom, could attempt a push into northern Saudi Arabia from Iraq’s Anbar province — and from there, it is only a few hundred miles to the oil fields or to Riyadh. Such an attack would test the mettle of the Saudi armed forces.
ISIS’s ideologues consider the Saudi royals to be apostates and enemies of God as much as the Shiites. The group’s propaganda videos highlight Saudi recruits tearing up their Saudi passports and identity cards, an act meant to deny the political legitimacy of the kingdom as well as the boundaries of the territorial nation-state. And many of ISIS’s recruits hail from Saudi tribes (Otaibah, Shammar, Harb, among others) whose tribesmen also form the core of Saudi Arabia’s military units. This raises questions about the Saudi army’s reliability in battle.
Securing the oil reserves of the Gulf is in America’s national interest — heeding Iran’s siren call to secure its regional domination and sectarian clients is not. Tehran has been as complicit as the jihadists in the sectarian violence that has gripped the Middle East. An American alliance with Iran will be seen as a war against the Sunnis and will condemn the region to an imperial politics of a past era, when outside powers bolstered minorities at the expense of the rights and privileges of the majority — a recipe for endless rage and strife.