“Politics makes strange bedfellows.” And this is no less true when it comes to how countries conduct their foreign policies.
So, it should be no surprise then that, last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told the United Nations Security Council that in the fight against the Islamic State, “There is a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran.” Just forty-eight hours later, Kerry met face to face with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in New York to talk not only about Iran’s nuclear program but also the threat posed by the Islamic State.
Foreign affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria has written that working with Iran would be “a strategic game-changer” and the only hope for destroying the Islamic State. But Iran’s game will not change. It will exploit any partnership to advance its sectarian Shia agenda, further enflaming the region.
The argument in favor of a partnership with Iran in dealing with ISIS has two components, both of which are captured in the answer Sen. Lindsey Graham gave to his own question of “Why did we deal with Stalin?” “Because he was not as bad as Hitler. The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn't fall. We need to coordinate with the Iranians.”
But it is crucial to remember that our partnership with Stalin during World War II was one that arose from desperation. After Pearl Harbor, an unprepared nation found itself at war with two powerful and well-prepared adversaries. To save the West from Nazi rule, it was arguably necessary to align ourselves with the Kremlin.
However, partnering with Tehran would not be driven by such necessity. Although the Islamic State is a difficult foe, there is no question that the U.S., in conjunction with Iraqis and other allies, have more than sufficient military capacity to roll back and defeat it. Aligning with Iran would, at best, be a matter of trying to accomplish the goal at a lower cost to ourselves.
Although President Obama pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, he has sworn unequivocally, “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” In contrast, Iran might welcome an invitation to put “boots and the ground,” which would greatly amplify its political influence.
Fareed Zakaria imagines that Tehran will use that influence to encourage moderation in Baghdad and even Damascus.
The reality is that Tehran’s polarizing influence in Damascus and Baghdad contributed greatly to the rise of the Islamic State to begin with. Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime left many in Syria with a choice between a grisly death and submission to the Islamic State. And in Baghdad, Iranian influence encouraged the very sectarianism stoked by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and, in turn, made many Iraqi Sunnis open to siding with ISIS.
Indeed, partnering with Iran now, even if ever so slightly, has the potential to undermine the new Iraqi government’s effort to overcome the very sectarianism that the Obama administration has insisted had to be addressed before any significant help military help could be offered it.
A partnership with Tehran will also complicate American efforts to negotiate an end to the Iranian nuclear program. Right now, the White House is clinging to the remnants of the interim agreement it signed last November, which gave Iran billions of dollars of relief from sanctions without committing Iran to dismantling any significant aspect of its nuclear program.
In theory, the US could re-impose the lifted sanctions if it cannot reach a permanent agreement with Iran. Yet how much more difficult would that step be if Iran were to become a nominal partner in what the president admits is a conflict that may last several years? Both here and abroad there will be arguments—not unreasonably—in favor of postponing the imposition of any new measures lest we upset cooperation against the Islamic State.
For some, the possibility of a grand coalition of the leading Sunni states (Saudi Arabia and Turkey) and the leading Shia state (Iran) working together with the West to defeat the Islamic State is a goal in itself. But it ignores the real costs such a coalition brings.
In World War II, Washington and London had to work with Moscow. And while victory was the ultimate objective, the alliance did come with a terrible price after the war—the substitution of one tyranny for another in most of Central and Eastern Europe.
In the case of the Islamic State, the United States does not need Iran to win. And the last thing Washington should do, in exchange for some possible help on the battlefield and the thin veneer of regional cooperation, is give Iran’s role in the region even more credibility and wider scope for its ambitions.