Countering the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the common goal of two old adversaries, the US and Iran. Both are increasingly worried about ISIS' rapid progress in Iraq as it plows through towns and cities in northern and western Iraq. Still, it appears they cannot find a way to cooperate.
Both the US and Iran provided military advisory teams to the government of Nouri al-Maliki, but neither one has directly entered this war -- not yet anyway.
US officials are claiming that Iran provided Maliki's government with surveillance drones and military equipment but Iran has insisted that its forces "do not have a presence in Iraq" -- that's according to the latest statement by Marzieh Afkham, spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry.
It's important for Iran to stay away from what ISIS has called a "Sunni-Shia confrontation" even if the developments in Iraq are important for Tehran and its national security.
For the United States, it is also important to stop ISIS before it succeeds in overthrowing the Maliki government and fan the sectarian violence, which can sweep the entire region into a ball of fire.
Despite the expectations that Iran and the US might hold serious discussions over Iraq on the sidelines of the nuclear talks with P5+1 last week in Vienna, nothing special was reported from the meetings about the subject.
It's obvious that both sides are proceeding with caution over any bilateral cooperation involving Iraq.
There is no doubt that the war on two frontiers -- in Syria and now in Iraq -- will be costly for Iran if not impossible. Iran's presence in Iraq can raise sensibility among Sunnis, which may see it as Iranian involvement in a Shia-Sunni war.
For the United States, joint cooperation with Iran, a rival to some regional ally of the US, would making them angry as they have been asking for US military involvement in Syria for the past three years and have been refused.
Moreover, Tehran's mixed signals have not assured the Maliki government either. Two weeks ago, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said if the Iraqi government seeks Iran's help, Iran might consider working with the US. At the same time Hamid Abutalebi, Rouhani's deputy chief of staff for political affairs, tweeted that Iran and the US are the only two countries that can bring the crisis in Iraq to a peaceful end. However, he said that cooperation has not been ruled out.
While all on the ground were speaking of Tehran's wishes to work with the US on Iraq, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed himself in a different way. Last week, Khamenei accused the United States of "seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges."
"We are strongly opposed to US and other intervention in Iraq," the official IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying. "We don't approve of it, as we believe the Iraqi government, nation and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition." If Ayatollah Khamenei does not wish to see a US presence in Iraq, what is the alternative for Iraqis to defeat ISIS before Iraq becomes another Syria?
For sure Iran is not madly in love with Prime Minister Maliki to do everything in order keeping him in power as what they done with Bashar al-Assad. Iraq is a Shia-dominated nation and as long as the country is not getting engaged with a civil war, having an ally in power is guaranteed and al-Maliki's departure might be a solution for this political deadlock. If Iran can use its influence on Maliki and other Shia political factions to nominate another prime minister on July 1st when the new government talks are meant to begin, it would be a great success and an achievements without military present. If that is going to happen in Iraq, the achievements can astonishingly shows the change in Iran's foreign policy.
This article first published in arabic at Sharq Awsat newspaper on Saturday June 28, 2014.
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