The Islamic State’s Mesopotamian blitz has evoked a consensus for action among Americans not seen since the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicates a startling two-thirds of Americans support confrontation with the group. It is likely that only a threat so disturbing as the Islamic State (ISIS)could have compelled the Obama administration to backtrack on six years of established policy and initiate its own military operations in Iraq this past summer.
The more ISIS gains in strength, commits atrocities like the brutal and public murder of American journalists, and openly threatens the American homeland, the range of the policy debate over how to confront the terrorist group will narrow. In his address to the country last evening, the president repeated his promise to “degrade and destroy” the organization. The means by which we go about doing this, however, are arguably just as critical for American national security.
The president said the effort to defeat ISIS will consist of airstrikes, a “broad coalition,” and a number of other counter-terrorism efforts. He also notably stated we cannot rely on Bashar al Assad’s regime, and vowed to continue to support the Syrian opposition as a part of the effort. He said nothing, however, about, the regional actor that arguably has the most to say about the ultimate outcome of the fight if it so chooses: Iran.
Ever since ISIS seized Mosul in June, voices from across the political spectrum have increasingly suggested that we turn to a common enemy—Assad, Tehran, and the forces of Shia Islamism in the Middle East—to defeat ISIS. In June, Sen. Lindsay Graham publicly floated the idea of cooperating with Iran against the Islamic State, comparing it to Roosevelt and Churchill’s alliance with Stalin against Hitler. Writing recently in the New York Times, Northeastern University professor Max Abrams argued it would be foolish not to align with Assad against ISIS, granted that the Syrian dictator, unlike our common Sunni enemy, presents no direct threat to American civilians. Writing in Foreign Affairs, political science professor Mohsen Milani has argued that a joint struggle between the United States and Iran against ISIS would be a “positive step” that could conceivably enable the Obama administration to “turn a new leaf” with the Iranian regime, and “overcome 35 years of estrangement.”
Some, like Graham, see cooperating with Iran against ISIS as a simple question of realpolitik. Others, such as Milani, see it as an opportunity for a long overdue, full-fledged, strategic rapprochement between Washington and Tehran reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s overture to Communist China in 1972. The arguments for enabling the Shia Axis to do what must be done in the Middle East through a deft maneuver of Machiavellian-like statecraft are ostensibly compelling; unfortunately, however, they only offer Western policymakers honey laced with poison.
This Is Not the 1970s
The appeals to America’s historical precedents in cooperating with bad guys to beat other really bad guys, whether it be in the 1940s, or the 1970s, fail to account for the strategic endgame that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Nixon and Henry Kissinger pursued in the alliance with Stalin and rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), respectively. After the Big Three crushed Nazi Germany, the Atlantic Alliance formed almost immediately, and went about containing the advancing influence of the Soviet Union using all instruments of statecraft available, including the threat to use force, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe. Are U.S. policymakers prepared to treat Iran the same way following a hypothetical defeat of ISIS? Comparisons to the Nixon administration’s recognition of the PRC in the 1970s makes a similar miscalculation: Nixon and Kissinger’s decision to exploit fissures in the relationship between the two Communist giants assumed Beijing and Moscow would remain relatively powerful, and at each other’s throats. After a hypothetical rapprochement with Iran aimed at defeating ISIS, what other regional force would remain to contain Iranian power?
The president’s pledges to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS are refreshing. His qualifications as to how this will be accomplished, however, reveal their limits. Indeed, he has retained his promise that no American ground troops will see action. The last time a U.S. president set out to destroy a Sunni Islamist network that threatened the homeland, he dispatched military forces to Afghanistan, and declared without instigating much controversy that the nation would defend itself “at any price.” The contrast is noteworthy, and demonstrates that despite the surprising public support for military action, the current administration has few politically desirable options. After years of frustration fighting two wars in the Middle East, the prospect of yet another ground commitment to Iraq is still overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public.
If the history of America’s small wars has taught us anything, however, it is that there is no substitute for dominating contested territory in defeating groups like ISIS. Such is evident in the contrast between the surge in Iraq in 2006 and Operation Rolling Thunder against North Vietnam, or al Qaeda’s resurgence in the face of the CIA’s success in assassinating thousands of the network’s top lieutenants. No amount of power delivered from the air is alone sufficient to change the political realities on the ground. Without the willingness to fight ISIS for its political control of the territory it occupies, the White House will need to turn to others to finish the job it wants done. Hence the sudden attractiveness to some of the Iranian Mullocracy and its proxies in the Levant.
Who Will Contain Iran?
ISIS’ defeat without the presence of substantial ground forces that would check Iranian political influence would pave the way for Tehran to become the region’s most powerful actor. Prior to 2003, the job of containing Iran belonged to Saddam Hussein. After 2003, it belonged to the U.S. military. Since the American withdrawal from Iraq, it has increasingly fallen to the divided and volatile forces of Sunni Islamism. If ISIS is defeated on Iranian terms, then no other power will stand in the way of Iran dominating the Middle East. Indeed, there would be nothing to stop the so-called “Shia Crescent” from Tehran to Beruit that Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned about in 2004.
Some proponents of a rapprochement between Washington and Iran acknowledge this reality, and suggest it is a worthy tradeoff. Writing in the The Telegraph, Sir Malcom Rifkind noted that, unlike Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s alliance with Soviet Union in the 1940s, “Iran will never be a superpower or a global threat.” Some have taken the argument even further, and claimed Iran and the United States have the capacity to become strategic partners rather than mere temporary allies. In December of last year, David Patrikarikos argued in the New York Times that Iran’s support for terrorists, virulent anti American rhetoric, and enmity with Israel are more the product of historical animosity rather than ideological fervor. Thus, Iran’s leaders are rational, and would therefore respond to American overtures of friendship. Such cooperation could allegedly foster solutions between Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas; Iran could become a regional ally in countering Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East; and, most importantly, Iran would become an invaluable partner in fighting Sunni extremism. Both lines of reasoning rest on a hopeful yet unsound assessment of the Islamic Republic.
Rifkind is most likely correct that the Islamic Republic couldn’t possibly threaten Western interests in the manner of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East would mark the transfer of power over one of the world’s most strategically important regions to an avowed enemy of Western interests. It would prove a critical asset to Russia, and perhaps China, in their attempt to challenge American influence globally. Most of all, an Iran capable of projecting power from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean would present its chief rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, with few options of sorting through their differences other than war. Indeed, preventing Iranian hegemony in the Middle East is one of the key reasons both of those countries are allies of the United States in the first place. War between Israel, Iran, and the Gulf States would be a conflict in size and scope not seen in decades. It would be the sort of war that would call for involving outside powers, and therefore, not unlike the Balkans prior to World War I, catalyze conflicts between great powers elsewhere. Such a conflict would most certainly mark the end of “Pax Americana” that has fostered unprecedented peace and prosperity during, and after the Cold War.
Resetting Iran Is Fantasy
Proponents of rapprochement, such as Patrikarikos, however, argue that Iran would never seek to dominate the Middle East in the first place, and moreover, that it would likely become an American ally. The call for American policymakers to appeal to Iran’s better nature, however, has a striking resemblance to the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia. True enough, Iran’s leaders could surprise us all, and choose to become the strategic partners we would wish. It is delusional, however, to imagine that a foreign government will act in accordance with our wishes if nothing compels them to do so. After the Obama administration signed the START Treaty, withdrew support for a ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe, and conceded on other matters to Russia, Vladimir Putin was free to take Obama’s offer of a new strategic partnership, or leave it. Rather than do what the White House thought was in Russia’s best interest, however, Putin unsurprisingly decided to do what he thought was in Russia’s best interest. Those who claim Iran will drop the “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers, cease supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, and join the United States in stabilizing the Middle East in a manner friendly to Western interests, if only the United States were to make the first move in a rapprochement, base their analysis on nothing other than mere hope. It is nice to believe that Iran’s leaders would do what we want them to do; it is naïve to believe they will just because we think that they should.
The White House should remain resolute in its promises to destroy ISIS. It would be foolish, however, to do so at the cost of handing Tehran a strategic vacuum in the Middle East. This reality undoubtedly leaves the administration few options. If the United States is going to annihilate ISIS without Shia militias determining the final outcome, then it must find some other force that can do this. Whether this group consists of Iraqi Kurds, other Sunni forces, or some combination thereof remains to be seen. If the military determines such an outcome cannot be accomplished without U.S. ground forces, then so be it. The president’s pledge to cut Assad out of the equation is a positive development; he should remain committed to it as events unfold. ISIS brings war to America, and America should respond in kind. Before taking action, however, American policymakers should grasp how they want the ultimate resolution to look. If the United States seeks to prevent the state of affairs in the Middle East from becoming even worse than they already are, and, seeks to preserve its tenuous hold on Pax Americana, then paving the way to Iranian regional dominance is no answer.