September 18, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Friction with Iran on the Islamic State Threat

• The United States and Iran have a common goal in defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS), but they differ sharply over how to pursue that goal

• Iran and the US will again discuss the IS crisis at the margins of the next round of P5+1-Iran nuclear talks today, but these discussions have not led to any substantive US-Iran coordination in Iraq nor narrowed differences over Syria

• Key Sunni Arab states which are pivotal to defeating IS—and the ideology which feeds it—oppose any Iranian role in a broad anti-IS coalition

• Iran is wary that any strategy against IS might involve US efforts to oust the Syrian al-Assad regime, even though it is also fighting IS.

The United States and Iran both see the self-declared Islamic State (IS) as a threat to their national security and both are committing significant resources to its defeat. The US has identified IS as a potential terrorist threat to the homeland and European allies, and as a threat to the stability of key regional states.

For Iran, the threat might be even more acute than it is for the US because IS’s easternmost positions in Iraq are only about 40 miles from the Iranian border. Iran realizes that the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is supported by Sunni Arabs who view the Iraqi and Syrian governments as tools of Shi’a Iran.

The common goal of defeating IS has presented opportunities for US-Iran cooperation. Both countries support the government of Iraq in its battle against IS and Iran supported the replacement of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki with the more inclusive Haydar al-Abadi—even though al-Abadi is less well-known to Tehran than Maliki was. Based on that Iranian shift in Iraq, US officials perceive an opportunity to perhaps persuade Tehran to press Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to yield to a transition government. US officials see the potential for cooperation with Tehran—or at least an alteration of Tehran’s policies—as significant enough to discuss these issues at the margins of recent talks on Iran’s nuclear program with the US and P5+1 partners (UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany). Even though Secretary of State Kerry said such talks on regional issues have not produced any concrete results to date, US and Iranian diplomats are expected to discuss the IS threat again when the next round of P5+1-Iran nuclear talks resumes today. But, US officials insist they will not trade any Iranian cooperation against IS for a softening of US and partner demands in the nuclear negotiations.

Gulf Arab allies of the United States echo—with treble effect—the US caution about expanded coordination with Iran against IS. The Sunni Arab states seek to deny Iran any additional leverage in the region. On September 10, President Obama articulated a broad strategy in which the US would build and lead a multinational coalition in a multifaceted effort to defeat IS. Kerry subsequently visited key US allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in a relatively successful effort to recruit them and other Sunni Arab powers, to the coalition. The success in recruiting the Sunni states was a product, at least in part, of US insistence that Iran would not be invited to join this coalition.

For their part, Iranian leaders, particularly the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suspect that the US seeks to use the anti-IS fight to enhance its own influence in the Middle East. Iranian leaders said they would not join this US-led coalition, even if asked. On September 15, Khamenei called US statements on fighting IS “absurd, hollow, and biased.”

Any US-Iran coordination against IS is limited by contending US and Iranian visions of the desired power structure for the Middle East. In Iraq, Iran seeks to ensure Shi’a domination of a central government that rules throughout Iraq. To Tehran, US firepower against IS is useful for restoring Baghdad’s dominion over all lost territory. Iran sees empowerment of Iraqi Shi’a militias as a legitimate tool to support Baghdad-controlled forces, ignoring the arbitrary killings and abuses of Iraqi Sunnis committed by the Shi’a militias. The US seeks to empower moderate Sunnis in Iraq to help oust IS and retain influence within an inclusive, democratic central government and unified armed force. Such an outcome will ensure that Iraq remains aligned with the US and moderate Arab states in the Middle East, and not with Iran.

In Syria, the US and Iran remain fundamentally opposed. Washington believes that Assad’s brutality has created Syrian Sunni support for IS and that Syria’s dictator, like Iraq's Maliki, must be replaced as part of a political solution for broader regional issues and to ultimately neutralize IS  and like extremist groups. Iran seeks to maintain the status quo and regional influence via the Assad regime and its protégé Lebanese Hizballah. Tehran is providing Damascus with advice, arms, funding, and facilitation of involvement on Assad’s defense via Hizballah.

The Obama Administration’s threat of airstrikes in Syria targeted at IS and its push to militarily equip and train certain Syrian rebel forces has alarmed Tehran, even though any effort that weakens IS could potentially benefit Assad. The moderate rebel forces may at times find themselves fighting IS, but their primary target is the Syrian regime. Tehran is concerned that US support will greatly increase rebel effectiveness against Assad’s forces.



The US and Iran will likely continue to discuss the IS crisis when nuclear talks resume today, but the two countries will also continue to differ on anti-IS strategy and tactics. However, they will tacitly cooperate to weaken IS in Iraq. Iran will look to wean new Prime Minister al-Abadi from his dependence on US firepower and back into Tehran’s orbit.

Iran will seek to ensure that any US action in Syria, including airstrikes and rebel support, is targeted against the IS-controlled areas and not the Syrian military. Tehran will also look for ways to encourage the United States to cooperate with Assad against IS.


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