By Donald Sassano
Special Contributor to In Homeland Security
Currently, the nascent U.S. effort to combat ISIL by enlisting commitments from moderate Arab friends is veering into farce, not diplomacy.
Last week, Secretary of State Kerry met with the foreign ministers of 10 regional players in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia only to come away with vague pledges of support. Items discussed included intercepting fighters from joining the cause at their respective borders, stemming financial contributions by citizenry sympathetic to ISIL, and efforts to support the new government in Iraq.
Cairo made it clear that it was in no position to contribute troops as it appears to be fully engaged in rooting out those it considers terrorists closer to home (i.e. supporters of the deposed former government composed of the Muslim Brotherhood). NATO ally Turkey will limit its efforts to humanitarian relief only, and will not permit U.S. airstrikes to emanate from its territory. Jordan, a weak state perhaps most at risk from ISIL, will contribute its “nonpareil” intelligence capabilities according to according to former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Masher.
We know that pure unilateral U.S. action—boots on the ground—is not part of President Barack Obama’s playbook. However, rather than assemble another weak coalition of the dubious, it is high time Washington change track once and for all. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and with the possible exception of ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna (the jury is still out on that), the U.S. has disdained serious negotiations—let alone anything that smacks of accommodation that reasonably acknowledges Iran’s strategic interests.
But now, thanks to ISIL, those interests have yet again veered into alignment with ours. The U.S. should immediately seek to rejigger its ISIL policy only after serious engagement with Iran. And given Supreme Leader Khamenei’s statements of September 15 disdaining Iranian cooperation with the U.S. over ISIL, it seems we will only obtain Iranian assistance if engagement covers a wide range of regional issues that Tehran deems important.
The strategic logic of practical cooperation with Iran is extremely compelling. For starters, ISIL would just as soon chop off the heads of innocent Iranians as it would innocent Americans (perhaps more so), so we have a common enemy. Moreover, the U.S. is unlikely to sit down with President Bashar al-Assad to hammer out a politically derived cessation of the Syrian civil war (“Assad Must Go!”). But if the U.S. can see its way to accept Iran as interlocutor, diplomacy could bring about Iranian efforts to ease the brutal Baathist from power, especially if that outcome is tied to strict U.S. assurances of a new footing committed to diplomacy and improved relations with the West. And that is surely one of the outcomes Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif (with the certain acquiescence of Supreme Leader Khamenei) have sought to bring about as a byproduct of the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.
U.S.-Iranian goals have intertwined before, if not always by design. After quick ISIL victories in Iraq earlier this year and months of U.S. efforts to pressure Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to relinquish office, Iran backed his successor, Haider al-Abadi. Only then was the Iraqi government crisis brought to a conclusion. We’ll never know if the U.S. ever thanked Iran for its efforts, but it should have.
As illustrated by the historical record since 9/11, Iran has often cooperated with the U.S. when they perceived the potential benefits of outreach. Tehran has responded positively when Washington sought help, often rendering assistance in the hopes of forging a more constructive relationship. Unfortunately, it’s been the self-defeating habit of the United States to leave Iranian diplomats high and dry. The pattern of Iranian outreach followed by U.S. disapprobation has been a major reason why there is continued mistrust between the two nations and the probable cause of Khomeini’s remarks.
What about our Arab allies? Will not accommodation with Iran drive away our would-be partners in the fight to degrade ISIL? As usual, buck-passing allies are all too content to let the United States military do the heavy lifting while decrying the lack of American “leadership.” But how many times should we repeat the failures of the past before trying something different?
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