international analysis and commentary

The Iraq crisis and the conundrum of US-Iran cooperation


The international alarm caused by the capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had widespread resonance in Iran. As the crisis continues to unfold, with the radical Sunni militants strengthening their grip by seizing other cities in northwestern Iraq and triggering an internal refugee emergency, concern is growing within the Iranian leadership.

Similarly to the rest of the international community, Iran was taken by surprise by developments in Iraq. On June 12, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) convened a special session to address the events that are weakening Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, a key ally for Iran in the region. At the session, President Hassan Rouhani called for an international response to the ISIS offensive and the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, Marzieh Afkham, immediately expressed Iran’s readiness to help the Iraqi people and government in confronting terrorism. A few days later, however, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that Iran does not “support any foreign interference in Iraq” and is “strongly opposed to US interference there”.

Iran’s likely response to the evolving situation and the staggering option of collaboration with the US, which is equally worried about the advance of ISIS, have consequently become the subject of recent speculation. The collaboration between Tehran and Washington in 2001 in the overthrow of the Afghan Taliban by US-led forces, and the 2007 bilateral meetings in Baghdad focusing on improving Iraq’s security and overcoming the escalating violence, constitute instances in which cooperation on regional issues between two otherwise inimical countries has indeed taken place. Because of the mixed signals currently coming from Tehran and the apparent divisions within the regime, it is difficult to assess Iran’s stance with regard to a rapprochement with the US to deal with the current crisis in Iraq.

During a press conference on June 21, President Rouhani openly stated that cooperation with the US to restore security in Iraq and confront “terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere” will not necessarily be ruled out. Similarly, Hamid Aboutalebi, Rouhani’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Political Affairs, stated that “Iran and the US are the only countries who can manage the Iraq crisis”. Such claims have been corroborated by Secretary of State John Kerry, who stressed how the US is “open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran”, even including forms of military cooperation. Surprisingly, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham spoke about the need to talk to Iran, simultaneously to ensure that the country does not become “the biggest winner” of the crisis, but also to avoid a government collapse in Iraq – a somewhat contradictory mix. Recently, the visit of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to Vienna – where the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and Iran are negotiating on the nuclear issue – further strengthened the impression that Iran and US officials are having back-channel talks on Iraq on the side of the nuclear talks.

In any case, prospects for Iran-US cooperation over the threat of Sunni extremists in Iraq are a sensitive matter for both internal constituencies, and recently several officials and media outlets on both sides have dismissed it as a viable option. The Pentagon and a number of US officials quickly excluded the possibility of joint military coordination with Iran, insisting that any contact would be limited to informal discussions on the margins of nuclear talks and that until the nuclear issue is solved, “there cannot be any kind of fundamental change in this relationship”. Republican Senator John McCain also played down what his colleague Senator Graham describes as the necessity for a thaw in relations with Iran.

In Tehran, the divisions over a potential partnership with the US appear to be even sharper. The Secretary of Iran’s SNSC affirmed that speculations are “untrue” and a form of “psychological warfare”, adding that assistance to Iraq “will be bilateral and will not involve a third country”.  Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Hassan Firouzabadi also branded Iran-US cooperation to quell ISIS as “meaningless”, whilst Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated that Iran doesn’t have “any need to talk to the US about ISIS”. Hardline newspaper Kayhan argued against Iran’s help to the US, stating that despite collaboration in 2001, the Bush administration included Iran in “the Axis of Evil.”

Several Iranian officials not only ruled out engagement with the US, but also openly blamed the American administration for the ISIS attacks and for supporting other extremist groups in the region. The head of the Basij organization, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, and the spokesman for the parliament’s National Security Commission, Mohammad Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, accused the Saudis, but also the United States, of being responsible for the events in Iraq, whereas Deputy Commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Salami, said that terrorism in “various countries is the result of American and Western military interference.”

Importantly, a message that stands out from accounts in Tehran is that there is no interest in intervening militarily in Iraq and in deploying troops on the ground – an option that recalls the specters of Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq. Vice President Esagh Jahangiri, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and the head of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaedin Boroujerdi, all claimed that Iran is “ready to help Iraq if the Iraqi government requests it” and that the Iraqi government has the power to end ISIS’s terrorism and extremism on its territory. Senior Foreign Affairs Advisor to the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, also stated that Al-Maliki “will come out stronger than before and continue to run the country.”

Whilst boots on the ground are therefore unlikely, the Iranian leadership will rely on a small task force for the provision of intelligence, training and advice to the Iraqi government. To confirm these conjectures there are reports assessing that the shadowy commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, Qassim Suleimani, traveled to Iraq with dozens of his officers to reinforce Al-Maliki’s government. Suleimani, who is deemed to be the man responsible for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s success in regaining key cities and territories by pushing back rebel forces, might transfer Iran’s model of aid from Damascus to Baghdad, based on what Velayati referred to as Iran’s significant “experience in this field”.

The scale and nature of Tehran’s role in Iraq will also depend on the safety of the Shia holy shrines in Iraq (Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiva and Samarra), which Iranian officials vowed to defend at any cost from ISIS attacks and which therefore represent a red line for the regime. On the occasion of a recent Friday prayer, leader Mohammad Emami Kashani said “If we don’t defend our religious and holy sites in Iraq, we will have lost everything”. Even Rouhani, usually a moderate voice in his addresses, stated that should the sites be attacked, Iran will “put terrorists back in their place.”

Given these contradictory signs and the general caution adopted by most outside actors toward Iraq in recent months, it therefore remains to be seen whether an escalation of the crisis in Iraq will drive the US and Iran to cooperate to arrest the offensive of ISIS. Whatever the final outcome, the very fact that in both Washington and in Tehran such an option is likely being weighed is a very significant development.