For U.S. agencies focused on Iran, a big week looms. Events of the past few days mean that the Obama administration now has no alternative to acting very closely with Iran, and must decide the conditions for dealing with our newest and most significant military ally. Much more difficult will be the chore of keeping that alliance secret from much of the world, including U.S. lawmakers.
The near-collapse of the Iraqi military leaves the Americans precious few alternatives. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) does not presently have the capacity to occupy Baghdad, unless an attack is accompanied by mass risings of the city’s Sunni areas. In coming months, though, it presumably will strike more widely, strangling what remains of the Iraqi state, and threatening Kurdish areas. We would have to imagine an ISIS state covering much of Iraq and (at least) Eastern Syria, with huge oil wealth, and inheriting most of the military supplies that the U.S. left in the region.
The results for Iraqis themselves would be catastrophic. Within that country, ISIS draws its support entirely from the Sunni Arab minority, perhaps a fifth of the total population, and it could only rule larger ethnic groups through vicious terror and forced depopulation. It is an intolerable prospect.
So how does the U.S. respond? Politically, a direct U.S. military presence is unthinkable, leaving only the option of proxy forces. Neither Turkey nor Iraq-Kurdistan has the will or means to launch the full-scale invasion that would be required to suppress ISIS. To the contrary, Kurdish regions themselves could be targeted heavily.
Fortunately, though, there is one wonderfully placed potential ally in the region, an experienced military power with a deep commitment to the present Iraqi regime, and an intimate cultural bond with the nation’s large Shia majority. That nation is Iran, which is optimally placed to fight ISIS and to protect threatened Shia populations. Considerations of brotherhood apart, the last thing the Iranians want to see is the arrival of millions of Shia Iraqi refugees on their territory. Already, Iran has sent some thousands of soldiers to help the Baghdad regime, but much more is needed to achieve any lasting effect.
The U.S. knows all this very well. It also knows that the West has succeeded in a lengthy campaign to make Iran an international pariah, and years of sanctions have degraded the country’s once-mighty military capacity. Somehow, the U.S. has to balance two irreconcilable goals: destroying ISIS and containing Iran. One of those goals now has to end, at least for the foreseeable future.
At first, expect a stealth U.S.-Iran alliance, without public statements or Rose Garden diplomatic love feasts. Probably, the U.S. would begin with limited aid in the form of intelligence sharing and surveillance images. We might also expect to see the growing Iranian forces in Iraq to be surprisingly well-equipped, not of course with U.S.-made weapons or transport, but Washington would be the ultimate benefactor. Contractors and middlemen would handle such equipment transfers, providing some small degree of deniability.
We would also expect coordination between the two sides in launching air strikes or drone attacks. If ISIS leader X
is a particular bane to Iran’s forces, U.S. drones will conveniently remove him. Also, don’t be surprised about the exposure of major al-Qaeda-linked terrorist plots in coming months, as the Iranians share what information they have about international threats by ISIS partners.
Perhaps such efforts would be enough at least to contain ISIS, but if they are not, far closer collaboration would be needed. The U.S. would de facto concede Iran’s informal rule over the Shia regions of southern and central Iraq.
In the short term, the question is not whether the U.S. will ally with Iran, but how far that connection will go. I have no doubt that contacts between the two sides have been intense in recent weeks, albeit through indirect channels.
I hope that U.S. participants in particular will be reading their history books closely as they make their decisions, because in a sense, we have been here before. Although it’s a very long story, we might begin in September 1980, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, beginning an eight year war that killed a million people. The war spilled over the globe, as both nations were in desperate need of money and weaponry. As neither side could achieve its goals through the law courts, it did so by extra-legal means of international terrorism and hostage taking, intended to put pressure on governments and corporations. Without that Iran-Iraq context, we cannot understand the appalling wave of terrorism that characterized the 1980s.
Part of that global nightmare came close to bringing down a U.S. president. By the mid-1980s, Iranian-linked guerrillas in Lebanon controlled some twenty Western hostages. Ronald Reagan’s administration famously reached out to Iran, trading weapons for hostages, and subsequently diverting funds from the deal to anti-Communist forces it was supporting in Central America. The exposure of the deals in 1986 made impeachment a real possibility.
In so many ways, the present situation is utterly different, and the potential nature of U.S. involvement would be less compromising. Even so, a battery of federal laws now stringently limits U.S. relationships with Iran, at all levels of government and commerce, and any violations would be deeply dangerous.
The main danger with any such covert alliance is that there is little chance of keeping it covert. A key player here is Israel, which desperately fears the strengthening of ISIS, but which at the same time regards Iran as an existential threat. Perhaps Israeli administrations and intelligence agencies could be persuaded to keep quiet about U.S.-Iran ties for a while, but the dam would eventually break. At that point, watch for a significant blowback in U.S. domestic politics.
The modern U.S. nightmare with Iran began with the taking of American hostages in Tehran in 1979, half a lifetime ago. That nightmare might still not be wholly ended.
Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.