The United States is facing a catastrophe in Iraq. Sunni Islamic extremists — The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — have conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists now have a large swath of territory on which to train for the next 9/11. They also control oil fields in northern Iraq that are helping fuel ISIL’s drive into Baghdad.
The U.S. faced a similar situation in Afghanistan after 9/11, and to respond, the U.S. should do what it did a decade ago in its fight against the Taliban: Take a realpolitik approach and cooperate with Iran. The caveat to this approach is that U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq must not come at the expense of resolute U.S. action to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program at all costs.
Can such a compartmentalized approach work? There are good reasons to believe so.
During the Afghanistan war, Iran provided assistance to the Northern Alliance and played a constructive role after the war, pledging to respect Afghanistan’s independence and territorial integrity.
In fact, former U.S. special envoy James Dobbins said that of all the U.N. member states cooperating with the U.S. in post-Taliban Afghanistan, “none was more [helpful] than the Iranians.” The Iranians, according to Dobbins, actually urged that the new Afghan government commit itself to both democracy and the war on terror.
At the time, the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was consistent with Iranian interests. Similarly, the Shiite state of Iran and the U.S. share an interest in preventing the fall of the Shiite regime in Iraq to Sunni extremists.
Iran also has extensive intelligence capabilities in Iraq that can save U.S. lives if President Barack Obama sends more than just a few hundred American advisers to defeat ISIL. Is cooperating with Iran not worth a higher chance of victory with fewer American casualties?
It’s also worth noting that the Iranians are active in Iraq even without U.S. cooperation. At least a coordinated effort with Iran may reveal intelligence on the Iranian network in Iraq that will benefit the U.S.
However, a realpolitik approach can only work if Obama aggressively confronts Iran on its nuclear program while cooperating with Iran in Iraq. The U.S. can do both.
Again, history is instructive.
While cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush did not hesitate to label Iran as a member of the “axis of evil” for its determination to seek nuclear weapons. It was after Bush used the term in his 2002 State of the Union address and the invasion of Iraq one year later that Iran made an overture to the U.S. (via Swiss intermediaries) to seek comprehensive bilateral talks. Unfortunately, the Bush administration neither took the opportunity to speak with Iran nor enacted severe sanctions to enforce its strong words against the regime.
Similarly, President Ronald Reagan actively worked against Iran during the early years of the Iran-Iraq war, fearing that a victorious Iran might threaten weak oil-producing Gulf sheikhdoms. During the middle of the war, when U.S. interests shifted, the U.S. sold weapons to Iran. Still later, Reagan reverted to open conflict with Iran with the 1988 Operation Praying Mantis, effectively helping to end the Iran-Iraq war.
The Reagan and Bush policies provide historical precedent that suggests we can both cooperate with Iran in Iraq and hold it accountable on its nuclear weapons program.
However, if Obama wants to use Iranian assistance in Iraq, he must do a better job to convince his critics that he will take the necessary action, including military, to protect the United States from an Iranian nuke.
While Obama did sign significant sanctions legislation, those laws came about despite, not because of, his leadership. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat, said the Obama administration “rebuffed [sanctions] every step of the way” and was “leading from behind” on Iran.
Obama also has relaxed sanctions, to the tune of more than $20 billion, while negotiating with Iran, revealing a severe miscalculation of the Iranian psyche. The Iranians do not share the same “mutual gains approach” to negotiations that the president may have learned at Harvard. The Iranian bazaar approach perceives concessions during or before negotiations as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.
History has shown that when Iran feels threatened and the U.S. is sitting at the door, it seeks dialogue and cooperation. Yet, gains by Iran are viewed as a loss to the U.S. and only strengthen Iran’s determination to extend the talks, while reaping the economic benefits of relaxed sanctions and continuing its march toward a nuke. The current six-month round of negotiations ends on July 20. Don’t be surprised if negotiations are extended for another six months.
Foreign relations are not like personal relations. Countries have an obligation to pursue their strategic objectives in one arena with actors who have similar interests, while being prepared to act against the very same actors in another arena where interests collide.
While Iran is a notorious human rights violator, sponsors terrorist groups and seeks to export its Islamic Revolution — areas where the U.S. must act staunchly to oppose Iran — it has also proven to be a rational actor. Indeed, sanctions would not have brought Iran to the negotiating table if the regime did not calculate the threat to its survival; similarly there would be no space for U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
The volume on sanctions must be increased to present Iran with a sensible choice: regime survival or nuclear weapons. At the same time, we should use our mutual interest with Iran to defeat an Islamic Sunni threat in Iraq that is preparing for another 9/11.
David Peyman is senior sanctions legislation adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran and was an editor for the Harvard International Law Journal. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Southwestern Law School.