Watching mainstream media get into a tizzy about the prospect of "groundbreaking military cooperation" between Iran and the US, is quite pathetic. Aside from US official statements, the basis of this misplaced enthusiasm is the much trumpeted Rouhani press conference where he declared that “If we see that the United States takes action against terrorist groups in Iraq, then one can think about it [cooperation]”. What is omitted in most news reports is the specific context in which the Iranian President made this statement.
According to the Telegraph’s translation, Rouhani was asked if Iran was prepared to cooperate with America in Iraq. He replied that “All countries need to embark on joint effort regarding terrorism. At the moment, it’s the government of Iraq and the people of Iraq that are fighting terrorism. We have not seen the US do anything for now. Any time the Americans start to take action against terrorist groups, we can consider that.” He then blamed the US for funding ISIS in Syria:"Where did these terrorist groups emerge from? They came from Syria," he said. "The problem is, why should Western countries, why should America, support terrorist groups? We warned them a year ago that these terrorist groups were a danger for the whole region. [But] they sent them arms – or their colleagues in the region sent them arms."
A closer reading reveals that Rouhani was both dismissive and suspicious of the US’ declared intent to strike in Iraq the very organization it had spent millions arming and funding in Syria via its Arab allies. This explains his assertion that the US wasn’t doing anything to combat terrorism “We have not seen the US do anything for now”. When Rouhani affirmed “Any time the Americans start to take action against terrorist groups, we can consider that,” he was challenging the Obama administration to give up support for ISIS, not inviting it to co-stage a military attack on the group. In other[less diplomatic] words, you will be a great help if you simply stop supporting ISIS.
Rouhani’s appointee, National Supreme Security Council chief Ali Shamkhani said as much when he dismissed any US-Iran cooperation over Iraq: “That is part of a psychological war, and is totally unreal,” Shamkhani said, denouncing “information published in the West’s media. As we have already said, if there is an official Iraqi request we will be ready to study it under the framework of international rules, and this concerns no other country.” Moreover, the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, was quoted by ISNA as rejecting US military intervention in Iraq: “Iraq has the capacity and necessary preparations for the fight against terrorism and extremism. Any action that complicates the situation in Iraq is not in the interests of the country nor of the region,” Afkham said.
Rouhani’s diplomatic language reflects not so much a desire for ingratiating Iran with the US, but a means of leveraging the Islamic Republic’s influence in Iraq for political concessions in the nuclear talks with the West. The US clearly needs Iran’s help, but this is need is hardly mutual. To assume that Iran’s security concerns require military cooperation with America is downright absurd. In the first place, any cooperation with the US which transcends the political level would be tantamount to political suicide on Iran’s part and a violation of the anti-imperialist, justice-seeking principles which the Islamic Revolution constitutionalized and institutionalized in its foreign policy. Secondly, US military support for Iraq’s Shia can only backfire on both Iraq and Iran (not to mention the US itself), insofar as it would incite even mainstream Sunnis against the region’s Shia and plunge it further into the sectarian abyss. Third, in practical terms, US aerial bombardment will achieve little militarily beyond killing scores of Iraqi civilians who happen to reside in areas controlled by ISIS and its allies. The unconventional nature of ISIS’ militia-cum-terrorist warfare requires unconventional tactics which is the forte of Iran’s Quds Force.
Any military cooperation or coordination with the US would be an act of folly for Iran, which is much better served strategically and in terms of its security by supporting the Iraqi army with Quds Force advisers and trainers, while facilitating a political settlement between aggrieved Sunnis and the Maliki government. And by serving its own interests in this manner, Iran can score political points with the US assuming the latter is indeed genuine about stamping out ISIS and stabilizing Iraq. Dialogue with the US on Iraq will most likely provide Iran with a means for uncovering the latter’s intentions.
There is no doubt that ISIS’ takeover of Mosul and Tikrit requires an Iraqi-Iranian coordinated military response to prevent the fragmentation of Iraq, secure Iran’s borders, and ensure that none of the hard-won military gains made by the Syrian Army and Hizbullah in neigbouring Syria are reversed. But any security strategy is doomed to fail so long as we remain oblivious to the fact that the Maliki government is little more than a mirror image of its Syrian opposition nemesis: sectarian, weak, corrupt, divided, treacherous, and above all, eager for the US to drone its enemies into submission. That 75 per cent of of Lebanese Shia respondents did not view the Shia- dominated government in Iraq as a legitimate national entity, according to an opinion poll I conduced with the reputable Beirut Center for Research and Information in 2007, testifies to this perception.
If we are to learn anything from the circumstances which enabled 1500 ISIS fighters to overun a 52 000 soldier garrison, it is that Sunni (Baathist and Nashqabandi) sympathies for the attackers, both within and outside the army, can no longer be ignored nor can their long-held grievances, irrespective of the sectarian machinations of ISIS’ Saudi backers. Just as Maliki squandered away Sunni tribal [Sahwa] support with his sectarian discourse and negligence, he has succeeded in alienating Sunni officers in the US-funded and trained army, and antagonized mainstream Sunnis with his oppressive rule and aggrandizement of power.
At the end of the day, we in the Resistance Axis are strategically aligned with a regime born of the very same invasion and occupation we are attempting to thwart in Syria. While we can rationalize this alliance on strategic and pragmatic grounds, we need to call for its drastic reform, beginning with a new social contract between Sunnis and Shia, as Nasrallah proposed in the midst of the US invasion of Iraq. In the absence of such a contract, any military offensive risks degenerating into a full-scale civil war which will drag our region even further into the sectarian morass so desired by the US-Israel-Arab Gulf.