The Afghan Precedent: Why Iran Will Cooperate with the US Against the Islamic State

11/11/2014 04:43 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry as
ALTERNATIVE CROP Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry as they stand next to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) after a statement early on November 24, 2013 in Geneva. World powers on November 24 agreed a landmark deal with Iran halting parts of its nuclear programme in what US President Barack Obama called 'an important first step'. According to details of the accord agreed in Geneva provided by the White House, Iran has committed to halt uranium enrichment above purities of five percent. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington's natural ally in the war against the Islamic State may well be the one country that it has been fighting for the past 35 years: Iran. But as policy wonks are debating whether this is wise move for Washington, or a fatal misstep, who's asking if Tehran is really interested in working with the Americans in its own backyard?

Iran has much at stake in defeating IS, a radical Sunni jihadist group whose hatred of Christians, Yazidis and Kurds only rivals its loathing for Shias, whom it considers to be apostates. In June, IS slaughtered as many as 1,700 Iraqi Shiite soldiers in one of the most gruesome massacres of the war it has been waging in parts of Syria and Iraq. The risk of IS infiltration in Iranian territory, notably in the Sunni or Kurdish-populated regions, is minimal for now, but could pose a greater threat in the future, if IS establishes a durable stronghold in neighboring Iraq.

To be sure, Iran did not wait for the West to send its own elite troops to fight IS. Hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) operatives are believed to be supporting Shia militias in Iraq. For once, Iran has made no secret of its engagement, displaying the military successes of Qassem Suleimani, chief commander of the Quds force, the Guards' special forces responsible for foreign operations, with an unusual level of publicity.

The question of whether Iran will effectively be amenable to cooperation with the US remains open. Public opposition by the Supreme Leader amid evidence of limited US-Iranian cooperation already happening on the ground, are sending confusing signals to Western observers.

However, a close look at history reveals that if need be, Iran may not shy away from partnering with the United States against a common enemy. The most potent -- yet still largely unknown -- instance of such partnership took place in 2001 in Afghanistan. As recounted by Jim Dobbins, the top US diplomat who negotiated the post-Taliban transition, the Iranians offered substantial help to the Americans to take Afghanistan from the control of the Taliban (whose deep-seated hatred of Shias and brutal methods are reminiscent of IS). Iran leveraged its extensive knowledge of Afghan territory to provide crucial intelligence to American troops on the ground, and members of the IRGC are believed to have cooperated with the CIA and US Special Ops to bring down the Taliban.

This historical precedent in US-Iran relations provides us with some insights into the motives of Iran's leadership when it comes to working together with the West.

First, Iran will be ready to cooperate against a common enemy if that means letting the West do the bulk of the work (including air strikes and ground operations), and avoiding participation in a full-fledged conflict. No Iranian politician is eager to engage the country in another war: a substantial war effort would deplete the Iranian economy of its remaining forces, in a country where the society is still reeling from the devastating effects of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

That's why the US-led war effort in Afghanistan in 2001 was a substantial favor to the Islamic Republic. By overthrowing the Taliban, the US removed one of Iran's archenemies and spared the Islamic Republic another war, just as it (the US) was getting dragged into one. History repeated itself in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam, realizing what Iran did not manage to achieve in eight years of a bloody conflict in the 1980s.

This time Iran, is already engaged with hundreds of Quds operatives fighting in Iraq, but it is not clear that it would be able to defeat ISIS on its own. To that end, limited intelligence-sharing and courteous rules of non-aggression would not cost Iran much, while it watches the US and its allies deploy air power in Iraqi skies.

Second, it is unlikely Iran will refuse to lend a hand if the outcome of its cooperation with the West fits into its vision for a regional power structure. Saddam and the Taliban not only threatened Iran's security, but also undermined its interests in the region. Both Saddam and the Taliban brutally oppressed their respective Shia populations, and Saddam's claim to leadership of the (Sunni) Arab world constituted a challenge to Tehran's vision for expanding its sphere of influence in the region.

To defeat the Islamic State today is also to protect Iran's role in the Middle East, increase its popularity with the Shias and the Kurds, (possibly) contribute to a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, and enhance its status throughout the region.

Finally, history shows us that Iran is actually more likely to engage with the West if it sees an opportunity or an opening towards more cooperation. Accounts from American diplomats who worked with their Iranian counterparts to bring down the Taliban in 2001 show that beyond the tactical short-term gains, the Iranians were eager to use this unique opportunity of (successful) partnership with Washington as a basis for increased cooperation on a wider range of issues.

It is also just after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, as Iranian and American interests were again converging in the region, that the Iranian leadership sent a fax to Washington- an remarkable move for in US-Iran relations. Conveyed by the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, this fax offered the US a 'grand bargain', a roadmap that would essentially lead to the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and the US.

In both cases, Iran saw limited cooperation on strategic grounds as the potential starting point for dialogue with the West. Although Rohani's election brought an unprecedented thaw in US-Iran relations, opening the way to effective détente between the two foes, this way is narrow, as the next deadline for the nuclear negotiations is approaching.

Cooperating with the West against the Islamic State -- albeit in a limited scope -- will not buy Iran a way back into the international community on its own, but it could well contribute to ease the process.