The U.S. and Iran: the enemy of my enemy is my friend

In a rare occasion, the United States and the Islamic Republic have become two odd bedfellows

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

As the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and other affiliated militant groups make remarkably rapid military advances across Iraq, and as more and more Iraqi cities appear to be falling under ISIS control, two countries - who are both foes - have shown great concern regarding their national interest in Iraq: the United States and Iran.

The Obama administration withdrew its forces at the end of 2011, and will be reluctant to send troops on the ground. Even if the United States did decide to send military assistance, the aid will take months and will not arrive anytime soon. This is a precarious situation for the U.S., as ISIS is making stunningly rapid advances.

What is the stance of the Islamic Republic? Although President Hassan Rowhani denies that the Islamic Republic is involved in Iraq, it is unfathomable to believe that Tehran is not assisting Iraqi government forces in the crackdown on ISIS and Sunni insurgents.

According to a senior security official in Iraq who spoke to CNN, the Islamic Republic has already sent approximately 500 forces from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to fight alongside the Iraqi government military and security forces in Iraq’s Diyala province.

Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, is now in control of this operation and he reports directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ratcheting up involvement

Realistically speaking, in order to keep its political influence in Iraq and in order to maintain its ally, the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Iran is likely to ratchet up its involvement in Iraq until it makes sure that Iraq is stable.

On the path to Iran-U.S. rapprochement on the nuclear issue, currently, the rapprochement is entering into a second phase after the nuclear talks. Tehran and Washington are starting a groundbreaking military cooperation in order to halt the Sunni fighters.

This is considered a dramatic turnaround for the two rival powers, who have had frozen diplomatic relationships for decades. Both the United States and the Islamic Republic are in the scramble to strengthen and bolster the Maliki’s beleaguered Shiite-led government.

It is also crucial to point out that this is not the first cooperation between the US and Iran. Tehran and Washington have previously cooperated on multiple occasions after 9/11 to fight with al-Qaeda.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

In a rare occasion, the United States and the Islamic Republic have become two odd bedfellows. The reason is that both Tehran and Washington share one common goal to serve their own national interests: a stable Iraq and keeping the oil to flow. Hamid Aboutalebi, Rowhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, tweeted recently that Washington and Tehran are the only two countries that can stabilize Iraq.

In the last two weeks, the Obama administration has been desperate to chart a way to halt the military advancement of ISIS, to crack down on this movement and to regain the territories. But the United States is not willing to send troops on the ground as it did in their 2003 invasion of Iraq. As a result, what is the best resolution? Cooperating with the Islamic Republic.

The United States needs troops on the ground as well as intelligence. America will likely use air strikes while boosting its advancement by the assistance of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ offensives on the ground and the help of Iran’s intelligence - a win-win scenario for both Tehran and Washington.

In Washington, both Democrats and Republican senators have desperately demanded the White House cooperate with the Islamic Republic to defeat ISIS. The United States has already delegated William Burns, its top deputy secretary of state, to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna.

But the United States is cautious about raising the concerns of other Arab countries in the region as well as the Sunni Iraqis. In addition, the Islamic Republic is making calculated remarks to not depict itself as a country that interferes in the domestic affairs of another Arab country.

Currently, the political and economic interests between the Islamic Republic, the United States and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seem to seamlessly align.

Coordination between two adversaries

In other words, the two enemies, the United States and the Islamic Republic, share significant national, strategic, and geopolitical interests in defending the Iraqi government and the status quo.

After the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Islamic Republic is currently considered to be the most influential foreign forces in Iraq. It is critical to point out that Iran’s current influence in Baghdad is only through militaristic, security-linked and political dimensions. Iran’s considerable amount of influence over Iraq also derives from social, economic, and religious realms as well as political and security frameworks

Rowhani is a realist and pragmatist. His apparent willingness in remarks to cooperate with the United States are a manifestation of this character.

Moreover, this is not the first time that Iran has assisted the Iraqi government to subdue Sunni insurgents or other opposition militants. Iranian senior officers have frequently offered assistance to Iraq’s central government in the fighting of Sunni insurgents.

Iran has close security, political, and intelligence ties with other powerful and influential Shiite groups including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the followers of powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s group as well.

With the new announcements today from Secretary of the State John Kerry and the White House, declaring that the United States is willing to cooperate with the Islamic Republic, Iran receives a green light and the legitimacy needed.

Secretive operations

Instead of secretive operations and assistances carried out by the Islamic Republic, the nation can now use the full-scale force of IRGC, its intelligence and the Quds forces to fight alongside Iraqi government forces and defeat ISIS.

Previously, the significant relationship between Iran’s Quds force and the Maliki government was kept secretive in order to project the picture that Iran is not publicly interfering and intervening in the affairs of other Arab countries in addition to Syria.

Second, Rowhani’s government was and still is attempting to send a message to other regional powers that Iran is not pursuing a sectarian foreign policy agenda in Iraq, despite the fact that Tehran’s policies on Iraq have so far been sectarian.

Finally, the military cooperation between the Islamic Republic and United States will boost Iran’s hegemonic power, domestically and regionally. In addition, the Islamic Republic will be capable of manifesting its regional power by depicting a situation where United States is dependent on Iran in the region.