This commentary comes courtesy of Major Ben Fernandes, U.S. Army, a CFR term member and PhD candidate at George Mason University. He argues that the issues of Iranian nuclear weapon development and the anti-ISIS effort cannot be viewed in isolation. A push to arm “moderate” Syrian rebels without Iranian consultation could quickly antagonize Iran, whose leaders do not draw the same distinctions between the Sunni militant groups. This could result in a renewed Iranian push for nuclear deterrent—and increase the risk of regional destabilization.
Recent media coverage and U.S. policy pronouncements focus heavily on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without effectively addressing how it relates to other regional security concerns. Many foreign policy experts and senior U.S. officials acknowledge that ISIS, Iranian nuclear weapon development, and regional instability threaten U.S. interests. However, several foreign policy experts seem to misunderstand Iran and the underlying causes for security problems in the Levant. Furthermore, senior U.S. officials including Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, understand that preventing Iranian nuclear weapon development represents a “number one goal.”. Regardless of which challenge is greatest, failure to prioritize and link the various issues makes defeating or containing ISIS less likely, Iranian nuclear weapon development more likely, and declining regional instability almost assured.
The current U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS unintentionally incentivizes Iran to build a nuclear weapon by increasing Iran’s perception of external threats and a need for the protection afforded by the possession of nuclear weaponry. The U.S. intent to arm “moderate” Sunni groups in Syria to fight ISIS will simultaneously (if inadvertently) increase the “Sunni threat” to Iran and Iranian allies like the Assad regime. Iran perceives all Sunni groups in the Levant as threatening regardless of a Sunni group’s views of the United States as the enemy. Just as Saddam Hussein prioritized potential threats from Iran and internal dissidents far above the threat of external attack from the United States, Iran acts similarly towards internal dissidents, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni groups vis-à-vis the United States.
ISIS credibly threatens regional stability, Iranian interests, U.S. interests, Iraq, and many others. As such, there may be a way to find common ground with Iran in the fight against ISIS. Iran will not become a reliable U.S. partner, but can be a transactional partner for specific issues of mutual interest just as the U.S. partnered with the Soviets in World War II. A grand U.S.-Iran bargain over Syrian governance, ISIS, Iranian nuclear weapons, and sanctions may be more practical than dealing with each of these issues in sequence, per the current “ISIS first” approach discussed in GEN Dempsey’s testimony. While Iran wants Assad to remain in power, Iranian leaders might be willing to discuss Assad’s departure with the right incentives and assurances protecting Iran’s high priority interests in Syria. After all, the Assad regime’s brutality helped create ISIS, which is not in Iran’s interests. In a grand deal that puts the various issue on the table holistically, both sides can give more on issues of less importance while holding firm on their highest priorities. This assumes different prioritization by each side, which has potential in this case.
Both sides seem to recognize the need to cooperate, but are having a hard time finding the right means. Iran openly rejected U.S. invitations to cooperate, but then were insulted when they were left off the Paris summit guest list. U.S. overtures to Iran have been somewhat contradictory as the U.S. indicates a willingness to talk with Iran (which Iran rejected) but unwillingness for Iran to attend the Paris talks.
Successful cooperation with Iran will be difficult and a grand deal may fail. However, achieving U.S. goals in the region and defeating ISIS is even less likely than successfully negotiating with Iran due to the constraints of questionable partners, “no U.S. ground combat troops,” and little ability to address the root causes for ISIS’ rise. The Obama administration has rightly noted that long-term success against ISIS requires an inclusive Iraq government. There is no guarantee the new Iraqi government will be more inclusive than Maliki’s administration. Additionally, Iran will play a significant role in all future Iraqi governments and likely have influence with Shiite militias.
Although working with Iran may fail, dealing with the various regional issues separately offers even less chance of success and hinders the U.S. ability to pursue an integrated regional strategy. The United States has worked well with Iran in the past. After 9/11, thousands of Iranians held a candlelight vigil and Iran was working to overthrow the Taliban long before 9/11. Furthermore, during the 2001 Bonn Conference, Iran supported U.S. policy in Afghanistan, suggested the idea of democratic elections, and helped secure the U.S.-desired Karzai government. Relations with Iran declined precipitously after the U.S. labeled Iran as part of the “axis of evil” and proceeded to surround Iran with military forces by invading Iraq (another “axis of evil” member) on what Iran likely perceived as fabricated evidence.
The U.S. should view Iran as a state with its own interests, domestic politics, and perceptions. As a state, the United States can negotiate with Iran on items of mutual interest, accepting that Iran has different interests and will continue competing with the U.S. on many fronts. There are risks, but also rewards. Nonetheless, there will be issues where a negotiated settlement will benefit both parties.
U.S. policy should prioritize and link the Levant issues (nuclear weapons, ISIS, Syrian governance, and Iraqi governance) and make Iran part of the way forward where interests align to advance the highest U.S. priorities, which may come at the expense of less important interests. The United States will achieve far more at a lower cost by working with others whenever interests align and properly focusing our efforts on the most important issues. Ultimately, in the Gulf Region, the United States has no permanent allies or enemies—only permanent interests of varying import.
Major Benjamin Fernandes, U.S. Army, is a CFR Term Member and PhD student at George Mason University. His studies focus on security assistance, principal-agent theory, and grand strategy. He is currently assigned to the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, U.S. Army, or ARCIC.