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How Obama's secret letter to Iran's supreme leader could backfire

Iraqi Shia militia fighters after combat with ISIS near Amerli, Iraq.
Iraqi Shia militia fighters after combat with ISIS near Amerli, Iraq.
(Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama wrote a secret letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to discuss the fight against ISIS, their mutual enemy, according to a news-breaking story in the Wall Street Journal. The official American position is that the United States isn't cooperating with Iran against ISIS, because the US government nominally sees Iran as America's greatest strategic threat in the Middle East, but the latter seems to complicate that position, if not contradict it outright.

Viewed in the bigger picture, though, this news is actually not shocking. When it comes to ISIS, the United States and Iran are fighting on the same side, in the same theater. Some degree of discussion between the two nations was probably inevitable. The dangerous question for the Obama administration is whether this cooperation will corrode its broader approach to ISIS — and its simultaneous efforts on Iran.

Why Obama might want to talk to Iran's leader about ISIS

Shia militia Hamdar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images Hamdar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Shia militia. (Hamdar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images)

According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama's letter "described a shared interest in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria." It is not clear exactly what that means in practical terms, but it's true that the US and Iran are both fighting ISIS and both worried about its rise.

The governments of Iraq and Syria both have strong ties to Iran. Iraq's heavily Shia leadership has close relations with Tehran despite the historical enmity between the states; elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Suleimani is coordinating the Iraqi fight against ISIS. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is an Iranian client, dependent on Tehran and its proxies for his very survival.

In Iraq, the US and Iran are running strategies so closely aligned they practically overlap. The American plan is to support and train Iraq's military forces until they're capable of clearing and holding the territory currently occupied by ISIS. With Iran deeply involved in the Iraqi government's counter-ISIS campaign, it'd be very hard for the US to avoid contact with Iranian forces.

ali khamenei

Ali Khamenei. (Sajed.ir)

A major part of the Iraqi government's counter-ISIS force is made up of Shia militias — armed sectarian groups outside the official Iraqi military. These militias have tight links to the Iraqi internal security forces; some of them have political wings inside the Iraqi government coalition. And many of the most important ones, like the Badr Organization, are Iranian proxy forces.

"Iran has led the way in developing Iraq's Shia militias," Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland expert on these organizations, writes. "These groups not only benefit from Iran's patronage and organizational capabilities — they also all march to Tehran's ideological tune."

The bottom line is that both the US and Iran are, for their own reasons, not just opposed to ISIS in Iraq, but heavily underwriting the Iraqi government's campaign against the group. So they have a lot in common in terms of both what they want to achieve in Iraq and how they want to achieve it, which explains why Obama would want to at least talk to Khamenei about ISIS in Iraq.

There are real concerns about this approach

khamenei poster

A poster of Khamenei. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

But there are real risks with such high-level discussion. As Smyth explains, Iran isn't supporting Iraq's government and funding Shia militias for humanitarian reasons. Iran is using these groups to strengthen its influence in the Iraqi government — which, given Iran's violent and anti-American track record throughout the Middle East, is worrying.

So Obama, by reaching out to Khamanei about cooperating with Iran's efforts in Iraq, would seem to now be taking some level of Iranian involvement in Iraq as a given. Maybe he has no other choice if he wants to defeat ISIS in Iraq, but it's a heavy price tag for US interests in the Middle East.

The letter has other worrying strategic implications. According to the Journal, "Mr. Obama stressed to Mr. Khamenei that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran's nuclear program by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline." In other words: you play ball on nukes, we'll play ball on ISIS.

This is new: the American position has been to keep a nuclear agreement with Iran distinct from any counter-ISIS cooperation. "Linkage between nuclear agreement and future regional security cooperation" is a "US reversal," International Institute for Strategic Studies fellow Emile Hokayem writes.

Obama's goal is probably in part to use this letter, by setting up linkage with Iran between nukes and ISIS, as a incentive to make Iran more willing to strike a nuclear deal. But Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, thinks the linkage idea could make ISIS cooperation needlessly harder to get. Maloney argues that if the US-Iran negotiations had stayed on two separate tracks, nuclear and ISIS, the success of one wouldn't be dependent on the success of the other. But once Obama's position is that the US needs nuclear concessions in order to consider ISIS cooperation, then getting ISIS cooperation becomes harder.

But cooperating with Tehran on ISIS might be a bad goal in itself. In Syria, Iran's principal objective isn't destroying ISIS: it's defending Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime. Making a deal with Iran would likely mean an at least implicit degree of alliance with Assad, which might actually end up making ISIS stronger. This is more possible than you think, and underscores just how dangerous a game Obama is playing with Khamenei.