The sheer speed with which ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham) took control of swathes of Iraq left domestic and foreign observers reeling. In the weeks that have passed since the group seized the city of Mosul and surrounding territories, western powers have been uncertain about how best to proceed. Much of the public discussion of the issue in Britain and the US has centred on the role of the unpopular 2003 invasion of Iraq in precipitating the current crisis. Three years after the last US troops left the country, there is little appetite for a return to war.
Despite this, governments are keen to prevent ISIS from achieving its goal of establishing a caliphate state across the Iraq-Syria border. One of the options put on the table early was that the US might work with its long-time adversary, Iran, to fight ISIS. US officials suggested that the option was still open, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that once his government knew what the Americans are planning in Iraq, he would “think about cooperation with them”.
This would not be unprecedented. The two nations – stuck in a deadlock for years over Iran’s nuclear programme – worked together in Iraq in 2010 to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stay in power. They also cooperated on intelligence in the aftermath of 9/11, when Iranian intelligence agencies assisted the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Both countries are pushing ahead in Iraq. The New York Times reports that Iran is directing surveillance drones over the country and supplying Iraqi forces with tons of military equipment and other supplies. Around 300 American Special Forces commandos have been deployed as advisers, assessing Iraqi troops. Simultaneously, a small number of officers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force have been sent to advise Iraqi commanders and mobilise Shiites in the country. However, officials on both sides have emphasised that these are merely parallel efforts, not a coordinated campaign. This week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “We don’t support any foreign interference in Iraq and we’re strongly opposed to US interference there.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned against the dangers of military involvement: “From our point of view, we’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension.” This points to a key division between the US and Iran. Washington holds Al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule largely responsible for the current unrest; his pro-Shia sectarian style of governing has alienated Sunni tribes and allowed space for ISIS to flourish. The US may be reluctant to involve Iran publically for fear of alienating the Sunni minority even more. Iran is also sceptical about Al-Maliki, but does not want to lose a key Shia ally in the region. It also has reason to distrust the US; despite offering assistance for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Iran was included on the “axis of evil” the following year.
While a “great rapprochement” between Iran and the US looks increasingly unlikely in Iraq, the current crisis provides a rare instance where the two adversaries share a common goal, in the short-term at least. This comes as the 20 July deadline for a nuclear deal approaches; some have suggested that Iran will use the Iraqi situation as leverage for a more lenient deal. However, as we have already seen, the common enemy of ISIS does not naturally translate into a common strategy. It also appears that the pitfalls of working together are, for the time being, outweighing the benefits. Judging from the initial steps that both Iran and the US have taken, it seems that Iran will focus on providing arms and mobilising Shia militias, while the US will offer strategic support and push for political change; action by both that is parallel but definitely not coordinated.