How the U.S. and Iran Can Work Together to Help Iraq

The recent activity of al-Qaida-linked insurgents in Iraq's Anbar province presents an opportunity for closer cooperation between the three countries, argue Wisam Salih and Navid Hassibi.
By: , /
January 15, 2014
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A new opportunity is presenting itself in what seems to be a thawing in U.S.-Iran relations.

Last week, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) seized the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province, highlighting the growing threat posed by extremist militants in the region. This threat could potentially unite Washington and Tehran in their mutual objective of stability in Iraq and the broader Middle East and North Africa region.

For the U.S., which spent the better part of a decade in Iraq and sacrificed an enormous amount of human and financial capital to stabilize the country after the 2003 invasion, the country’s growing instability is threatening to reverse the progress that was made prior to the U.S. departure in 2011. And given the Iraq-Syria pipeline that crosses through Anbar province, sectarian violence has the potential to disrupt Iraq’s oil exports into global markets. Instability in Iraq is also adding weight to general assessments that U.S. influence in the Middle East is declining.

For Iran, a regional Shiite power, the extremist militants threaten its allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, which in turn threatens Iran’s sphere of influence and regional ambitions.

Building on the breakthrough nuclear deal in Geneva and the associated increase in bilateral engagement, the U.S. and Iran are well positioned to cooperate on broader regional issues. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry intimated that Iran could have a role on the sidelines at the upcoming Geneva II conference to address the turmoil in Syria. While Iran rebuffed being relegated to the sidelines at the talks, Kerry’s remarks indicate Washington’s willingness to cooperate with Iran on broader regional issues. Collaboration would not be unprecedented; Iran assisted the U.S. in its efforts in Afghanistan against the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 and proved to be a crucial partner in the Bonn Conference that forged a post-Taliban government in Kabul.

Despite being on opposing sides during much of the U.S.’s presence in Iraq, the two countries have an opportunity to cooperate on a cause of mutual interest: ensuring the stability of the Iraqi government and the territorial integrity of Iraq. The U.S. government says it’s committed to providing military assistance to Iraq, although there appears to be obstacles to the sale of Apache helicopters and F16 fighter jets. Similarly, Iran has offered to assist Iraq by providing military hardware and technical assistance.

Cooperation between the U.S. and Iran would certainly help stabilize the Middle East. Iran is an effective counterweight to Sunni extremism in the region. While arms, money, and fighters from U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and other petro-monarchies often end up in the ranks of al Qaida and its affiliates, as some believe, Iran’s allies and proxies have been fighting to limit their influence.

In practical terms, Iran’s commitment to opposing extremists in Syria and Iraq aligns it strategically with the U.S. Furthermore, Iran has shown itself to be a rational actor and can be an efficient partner. Given the current volatility in the region, the U.S. and Iran should consider aligning their interests. As the New York Timesputs it, “With Iran being an island of stability in a region plagued by violent protests, sectarian clashes and suicide bombers, there are not that many options left for Washington”.

For Iraq, increased collaboration with Iran must be done carefully. It is important for Prime Minister Maliki to show sensitivity to the concerns of Sunni communities, particularly in Anbar province. Iraqi Sunnis are already greatly mistrustful of the Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, which is viewed by many as a proxy of Iran.

For this reason, unilateral public Iranian involvement must be kept at a minimum and military hardware and assistance must be delivered through the appropriate Iraqi channels. But Iran could help improve its image by sending medical equipment and development assistance to the embattled Iraqi cities.

The U.S. could also look to Iran to increase pressure on the Maliki government to develop more inclusive policies that will engage the Sunni communities of Anbar province. Such policies should include a sizeable aid program to cool the flames of sectarianism. More specifically, it is imperative that Maliki provide an incentive for disenfranchised Sunni communities to cleanse their homes of extreme and foreign elements.

In the short term, Iraq must reestablish control over Anbar province. In the long term, Maliki must govern with more inclusion and political participation. If he does not, a heavily armed and incensed population will continue to undermine the national security of Iraq. If Iraq, the U.S. and Iran work together, both objectives can be met.