In recent months, relations between Iran and its longstanding enemies in Britain and America have thawed somewhat. Earlier this year, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani and US president Barack Obama had a historic direct phone call. This week, Rouhani met British Prime Minister David Cameron, the first direct meeting between the heads of the two countries since the 1979 revolution.
One of the things expected to be under discussion was the campaign against the militant group ISIS, or Islamic State, which controls vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Cameron was expected to explore options for Iran to support the fight against the group. This follows statements from other world leaders about a possible role for Iran in the fight against ISIS. “There’s a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran, whose foreign minister is here today with us,” said Secretary of State John Kerry on 19 September, as he presided over a UN Security Council session.
Yet for all this talk of cooperation, Iran was not allowed to attend recent talks in Paris on building an international coalition against ISIS. This is hardly surprising: the country has also been excluded from all talks about the conflict in Syria over the last three years. This is despite the fact that Iran is one of the main allies of president Bashar al-Assad, and therefore it is unlikely that a diplomatic solution to the civil war would be reached without its support. It is partly this unwavering support of Assad that complicates the possibility of Iranian-western cooperation to fight ISIS.
Rouhani has been virulently critical of the militant group – which attacks Shi’ites, who make up the majority of the population of Iran. But although this makes ISIS a common enemy of Iran and the west, there are several areas of disagreement. Cameron was expected to say in his meeting with Rouhani that Assad “created the conditions that have allowed terrorism to flourish” and to demand that Iran drop its support for the regime. It seems unlikely that this will happen, to say the least.
Last week, following Iran’s exclusion from the international conference in Paris, Rouhani described the US-led coalition against ISIS as “ridiculous”. Speaking to NBC News, he criticised the campaign of airstrikes. “Are Americans afraid of getting casualties on the ground?” he said. “Are they afraid of their soldiers being killed in the fight they claim is against terrorism?” A week later, after US launched at least 14 airstrikes in Syria at ISIS targets, Rouhani told journalists that the strikes were illegal because the US had acted without authorisation from the UN or the Syrian government. He said that it was different to strikes in Iran, because the Iranian government had asked for support in tackling the military group, whereas Syria had not.
But despite this critical rhetoric, it is notable that Rouhani stopped short of condemning the airstrikes outright. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei has ruled out cooperating with the US to tackle ISIS. Indeed, overt partnership between the two nations would be politically impossible; it certainly would not go down well with the public in either country. But behind the scenes, some reports suggest that a level of cooperation may already be happening. There have been signs that contact between Iran and the west is at a far higher level than it has been since the 1979 revolution. An anonymous senior Iranian official told Reuters that the US informed Iran in advance of its intention to strike ISIS in Syria, reassuring Tehran that it would not target Assad’s forces. A US State Department official partially confirmed that this communication took place. “We communicated our intentions, but not specific timing or targets, to the Iranians,” said the official. “As we’ve said, we won’t be coordinating military action with Iran. And of course we won’t be sharing intelligence with Iran either.”
According to some reports, Iranian officials have said that Tehran would work with western powers against ISIS in return for concessions in the nuclear talks – which are ongoing at the UN this week. The White House has said it would not connect nuclear talks with the fight against ISIS. But this bargaining chip is a reminder of the many complex layers of the relationship between Iran and western powers such as the US and Britain. While the shared enemy of ISIS may necessitate a higher level of cooperation than usual, it seems unlikely that this will come out of the shadows for the time being.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.