The US and Iran have been at odds for decades in the Middle East over issues like the Iranian nuclear program, the second Iraq War, Syria, and Israel. Yet both the United States and Iran want the Iraqi government to beat back ISIS, and both countries are playing a role in the military campaign against ISIS. So the two traditional enemies find themselves unofficially cooperating, even as they remain at odds over the future of Iraq.
The Obama administration has long maintained that it isn’t cooperating with Iran in Iraq. But we know there’s a more tacit sort of cooperation going on. “American war planners have been closely monitoring Iran’s parallel war against the Islamic State ... through a range of channels, including conversations on radio frequencies that each side knows the other is monitoring,” The New York Times’s Helene Cooper reports. “The two militaries frequently seek to avoid conflict in their activities by using Iraqi command centers as an intermediary.”
This had to happen. Considering that both Iran and the United States are directly supporting and advising the Iraqi military, there needed to be some way to coordinate their efforts. That’s especially true given the critical role that Iranian-backed Shia militias are playing in the fight against ISIS: One way or another, US airstrikes supporting Iraqi advances will end up helping those militias.
Nevertheless, US-Iranian cooperation is hugely controversial: Critics of the Obama administration’s strategy derisively refer to US warplanes acting as “Iran’s air force” in Iraq. Iranian has long opposed the US in Iraq, and many of the militias the US is now relying on used to kill Americans during the US occupation of Iraq and ensuing civil war.
And empowering Iran and its militias now may backfire in the long run. Both Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and US policymakers believe Iraq needs to deal with Sunni-Shia divisions if it wants to address the roots of ISIS’s rise and prevent another Sunni insurgency in the future.
But Iran and Iranian-backed militias have an incentive to push Shia sectarianism, as that’s the core of the political appeal of the political parties attached to the militias. Working with Iran now will help defeat ISIS in the short run, but it might undermine Iraqi stability in the long run.