America’s Last Best Hope for Defeating the Islamic State Is… Iran?

U.S. firepower alone can't defeat the Islamic State. It needs to work with Iran, whether it likes it or not.

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

When President Barack Obama’s secret missive to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was leaked to the media, the reactions were predictable: Israel was furious. Saudi Arabia was livid. And Mitt Romney was dumfounded. Speaking at the Israeli American Council, Romney called Obama’s action "astonishing" and "an enormous error." The former Republican presidential nominee added: "To suggest that we might somehow work together [with Iran] is something which is so far beyond the pale, I was speechless as I heard about it…. I simply can’t understand it."

Let’s help Mitt Romney understand.

In the now much-ballyhooed letter, Obama urged Iran’s Supreme Leader to make compromises with respect to the nuclear negotiations and reach a comprehensive deal with world powers, which in turn would enable U.S.-Iran cooperation in the fight against Islamic State (IS). For 35 years, U.S.-Iran relations have been marred by miscommunication and mistrust, and sabotaged by a cohort of spoilers (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and U.S. regional allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), who fear that any normalization of relations with Tehran will be at the expense of their own strategic relations with Washington. From Israel’s perspective, any U.S.-Iran cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State weakens the West’s ability to extract maximum concessions from the Iranians in the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Obama’s engagement with Iran will surely exact a high domestic political toll on the president (and perhaps his party), a breakthrough in the nuclear talks would potentially transform the geopolitical landscape of the entire Middle East, a quagmire for Obama and his predecessors. It possesses the potential to be nothing short of a game-changer.

Obama’s letter, as evidenced by its timing just three weeks before the deadline for nuclear negotiations, tests the waters for a possible breakthrough by speaking directly to the Supreme Leader, who possesses the final say on Iran’s national security policy. After a decade of failed nuclear talks, world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) signed an interim nuclear deal with Iran a year ago. Since the interim deal was reached, diplomats engaged in the subsequent rounds of nuclear negotiations have attempted to seal the deal by the Nov. 24 deadline. The latest round of talks — a last-ditch-effort taking place in Oman, with officials from the United States, the EU, and Iran — has struggled to chalk up anything like notable progress.

For both Iran and the West, resolving the issue of Iran’s nuclear dossier could be a shared diplomatic success. It would alleviate present concerns over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, which the Iranians say is for peaceful purposes and the Americans fear is geared toward building a weapon. A diplomatic resolution could also begin to drain the swamp of U.S.-Iran hostilities, and open the door for broad dialogue and engagement between the two countries on issues from stabilizing Iraq and Syria to socioeconomic development and energy security in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Obama’s most recent overture to Tehran is an indication of the administration’s urgency to get the nuclear issue off the table and move on to tackling other major differences between Tehran and Washington, with the possibility of cooperation in areas of core mutual interest.

What are the core mutual interests of two adversaries embroiled in an essentially noxious diplomatic relationship for more than three decades? At the top of the list are regional stability and the "war on terrorism" (or "terror" if you’re so inclined). The Islamic State isn’t the first bad actor in the neighborhood to force the United States and Iran to cooperate to control regional chaos. Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States sought Iran’s support in overthrowing the Taliban — a mutual enemy of both countries. Iran provided accurate intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan and mobilized the Tehran-backed Northern Alliance to support the U.S. effort, and eventually helped form an Afghan national unity government under the auspices of the United Nations in Bonn in December 2001. Two years later, in 2003, after ousting of Saddam Hussein, the two countries once again worked together to establish a representative government in Baghdad and assist with training Iraqi forces and counterterrorism efforts. In Iraq today, the core interests are even more aligned, as both Iran and the United States are vested in backing the current government in Baghdad — the alternative, the disintegration of Iraq, would be disastrous for both.

Today, the Islamic State poses the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East, and the ugly truth of the matter is that defeating such extremism — and stanching the fires it has ignited across the region — requires more than just American firepower. Washington seems to know this, which is why Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other regional players have been brought into the US-led Coalition (even though many of these countries have previously funded, trained and equipped IS forces and now seek redemption). Nonetheless, one key regional power is missing: Iran. Obama’s request to Ayatollah Khamenei for closer cooperation on the fight against IS is an effort to fill that strategic gap — and indicates a realization that without Tehran’s, help the coalition will almost certainly fail.

Just what makes Iran so critical to any lasting solution? To begin with, Iran was the first government to come to Baghdad’s aid, deploying the Quds Force to train Iraqi forces fighting IS, and further success on the Iraqi battlefield has proven Iran’s constructive role. The recent fight over the strategic town of Amerli in eastern Iraq — where the Quds Force fought alongside Kurdish Peshmerga while the U.S. struck the Islamic State from the air, pushing them back — has been one of the most important battles of this campaign. Battlefield success at Amerli is an example of the type of U.S.-Iran cooperation, which could be scaled-up if the nuclear matter is resolved. Iran is also capable of playing a diplomatic role that the United States can’t or won’t, As a key backer of the Syrian government, Tehran can liaise with Assad, speaking credibly to his self-interest, and the natural affinity between Iraq’s and Iran’s Shiite communities gives it a deal-making clout that Washington can only salivate over.

Indeed, as the Obama administration now recognizes, Iran — with deep-rooted influence in multiple regional conflict theatres — can be the cornerstone to stability and security across the region.

The time for détente is now and Obama has an historic opportunity to achieve a major feat in U.S. foreign policy by bringing the nuclear matter to a close and setting down the path towards a normalization of relations — for the benefit of both countries, the region and beyond. While over three decades of mistrust can’t be dispelled overnight, past cooperation in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the most genuine, serious, and unprecedented ministerial level (Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif) negotiations on the nuclear issue have proved vital for direct engagement to pragmatically tackle pressing regional issues. The window for engagement remains time-sensitive, however. And if either country hopes to halt and reverse the current trajectory towards further sectarianism, extremism, and terrorism spreading throughout the Middle East, they have to act fast.

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