Iran collaboration may push US foreign policy boundaries too far

Prospect of unthinkable co-operation has split two of most hawkish Republicans

Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Sha cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during military-style training in the holy city of Najaf yesterday. Photograph: Ahmad Mousa/Reuters

Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Sha cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during military-style training in the holy city of Najaf yesterday. Photograph: Ahmad Mousa/Reuters

 

The proposition that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” might be too simplistic a response to the escalating sectarian crisis in Iraq that would prompt the United States to form an alliance with long-term foe Iran to halt the advance of Sunni ultra-extremists, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis).

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has already sent hundreds of troops from the country’s Revolutionary Guard force to Baghdad to support fellow Shia, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, while US president Barack Obama is reviewing “a range of other options” to support the Maliki government.

It should not follow that two hardened rivals with a common interest on restoring political stability to Iraq would readily agree a military pact, though both sides appear willing to at least consider some level of cooperation.

Constructive

Asked yesterday whether one of the options being considered by Obama for Iraq was military co-operation with Tehran, US secretary of state John Kerry said, “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.” The US would be “open to discussions” with Iran if a constructive outcome could be reached, he said.

The US military clarified matters further on a possible alliance with Iran, a Shia power in the region, when a Pentagon spokesman said that the Obama administration was open to political discussions with Iran but has “no intentions, no plans to co-ordinate military activities with Iran”.

On Saturday, Rouhani said Iran would be willing to look past the country’s stormy relationship with the US if Washington agreed to fight “terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere”. Iran, the world’s largest Shia country, is keen to protect the Shia population in Iraq and to prevent radical Isis fighters establishing an Islamic caliphate on its borders.

The prospect of some kind hitherto unthinkable co-operation between Iran and US has split even two of the most hawkish Republican Senators.

Collaborating with Tehran to push back radical Islamic fighters in northern Iraq would be “the height of folly”, Republican John McCain said yesterday, a day after party colleague Lindsey Graham said on a CBS Sunday talkshow that the US is “going to probably need their help to hold Baghdad”.

Obama’s foreign policy position is to act where American core interests are affected and to seek collective action with the support of allies when there are no direct threats to the US but where they had the potential to develop.

Last Friday the president said the rise of Islamic extremists in Iraq “could pose a threat eventually to American interests” but co-operating with Iran might push even his foreign policy parameters of what constitutes an acceptable ally.

Occupation

Iran, which was opposed to US involvement in Iraq during its eight-year occupation between 2003 and 2011, was blamed for arming Iraqi militias and their involvement in the deaths of hundreds of American troops in the war. Former US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey linked Iranian groups to as many as a quarter of the 4,400 American casualties during the conflict.

Foreign policy hawks argue that there are no common interests between the US and Iran, and permitting Iranian forces to dominate in Iraq would only swap Sunni extremists for radical Shia regimes backed by Tehran. “Put bluntly, the US interest is in creating democratic, stable and pro-western regimes,” wrote Max Boot, a foreign policy analyst at the Council for Foreign Relations think-tank, in Commentary magazine yesterday.

“The Iranian interest is in creating fundamentalist, terrorist-supporting, Shia-extremist regimes. There is no overlap of interest except when we make the mistake of backing Iranian-aligned interests such as Nouri al-Maliki.”