Intriguingly, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been quiet about the bombings and attacks in Iraq by what they call “The Great Satan” - the United States. President Hassan Rowhani, the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and state media also appear to be turning a blind eye to the American military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
If there has been any criticism, it is mainly concentrated on broader American objectives in Iraq rather than recent developments. U.S. officials have also been less critical of Iran’s military activities, its assistance to Baghdad, and its troops on the ground in Iraq. Tehran and Washington - perceived as rivals - are apparently operating in Iraq side by side, while attempting to quell ISIS and bolster the new prime minister and government.
Change of tone
A recent speech made by Khamenei, who has long had a reputation of being anti-American, projects a significant shift in his tone and position towards the United States. Although last week he repeated his rhetoric that talks with Washington are “useless,” he added: “Of course, we do not prohibit continuation of the nuclear negotiations.”
The United States and Iran have been tacitly cooperating since ISIS made remarkable military advances in Iraq. Tehran and Washington were influential in pressuring former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to resign. His departure was most likely followed by assurances to Maliki by Iranian and American leaders. Khamenei then publicly welcomed the appointment of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
This kind of cooperation between the United States and Iran is not new. Particularly after 9/11, Tehran and Washington closely cooperated and built security alliances on several occasions. This was initiated by holding bilateral, trilateral or multilateral talks.
Although publicly condemned by Washington, Iran offered assistance to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, with a symbolical handshake between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi at the U.N. headquarters. Iran also joined the United States to form a new government in Kabul.
In 2003, Tehran tacitly welcomed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s strategic rival. The Iranian Foreign Ministry offered assistance to Washington, out of its national interest and fear of being invaded by the United States. Tehran emerged as the winner of the invasion, dominating Iraq socially, politically, economically, and in terms of security, while the U.S. position weakened gradually.
In 2007, when the conflict escalated in Iraq, Washington permitted its ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, to meet with Hassan Kazemi Qomi, his Iranian counterpart.
In all the aforementioned cases of cooperation between Tehran and Washington, the underlying reasons lay in the convergence of political, economic and security interests outweighing their differences.
Influence on Iraq
If and when ISIS is pushed out of Iraq, Abadi and his government will be indebted to Washington and Tehran. As such, both countries will continue to wield significant political and economic influence in Iraq, while serving their own national, geopolitical, strategic and security interests.
Secondly, although this type of cooperation between Tehran and Washington might contribute positively to the nuclear talks and better diplomatic relations, the enemy of my enemy will not be considered my friend in this case.
There still exist significant gaps between American and Iranian regional and geopolitical objectives and ambitions. The underlying causes of tension are Iran’s stance towards U.S. strategic ally Israel, and Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University. He is president of the International American Council, and serves on the board of the Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at the Nonviolence International Organization, based in Washington DC. He has received several scholarships and fellowships, including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, the University of California Santa Barbara, and the Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council, conducted research at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at the University of California Santa Barbara through the Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. Rafizadeh is a political analyst and regular commentator for major American and international media outlets. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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