In Obama’s ISIS Speech, Iran Goes Unspoken: Ally, Adversary or Both?

In President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation last night on the vicious struggle underway in the Middle East, one key player went unrecognized — Iran. Although Tehran has already played a crucial role in the early efforts to roll back progress by the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL), Obama conspicuously avoided any reference to Iran’s Islamic Republic as he announced that Washington would lead a broad-based coalition to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the group.

Domestic politics and diplomatic exigency required such an artful dodge. But implementing a strategy requires far more than merely delivering a speech, and discretion won’t resolve the conundrum of how to handle an influential adversary whose interests in an ongoing conflict both overlap and antagonize our own. As Obama begins to mount a more assertive campaign to combat the violent extremists who have gained influence and territory in Syria and Iraq, Washington will be forced to contend with the paradoxical intersection of US-Iranian interests in the heart of the Middle East.

The president didn’t mention Iran for the simple reason that Tehran will not be a formal component of any American-led coalition against IS. The fact that the Islamic State group represents a common threat to both Iran and the United States is not sufficient to overcome the decades of ideological antagonism as well as the institutional obstacles in both countries to any explicit partnership. The hopes of an unspoken alliance between the two old adversaries are fanciful.

Still, the question of Iran looms large over any discussion of the administration’s next steps in Iraq and Syria simply because of its outsized role in both arenas. Inevitably, there will be some synergy between our efforts and those of Iran. This was already demonstrated in last month’s defense of Amerli, an Iraqi town whose Shi’a residents were under siege by IS; the combination of U.S. air strikes, ground operations by Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, Kurdish peshmerga forces, and the regular Iraqi army succeeded in repulsing the terrorist group and preventing another sectarian massacre. Neither Washington nor Tehran sought direct cooperation in the campaign, instead tacitly relying on official Iraqi forces to coordinate the actions of their estranged patrons.

Still, the Amerli success belies a host of other risks at stake in this odd arrangement. Iran’s involvement on the ground in Iraq will surely subvert Washington’s broader ambitions there, particularly the absolutely vital tasks of tempering sectarian hostility and reviving the functional coherence of the Iraqi state. Tehran would prefer the preservation of Iraq’s territorial integrity and a competent central government, but the Iranian leadership will never view Iraq’s Sunni community without a residual sense of the threat posed to Iran and to Iraq’s Shi’a minority during Saddam Hussein’s reign. By the same token, no action in Iraq that is undertaken or supported by Iran’s avowedly Shi’a government can be devoid of sectarian consequences in Iraq’s precarious inter-communal balance.

And in Syria, the dissonance between Iranian and American objectives is even more profound. Obama’s announcement last night of stepped-up efforts to arm and train the Syrian opposition will intensify these contradictions. Washington and Tehran have long aligned themselves with opposing sides of the devastating conflict in Syria, but until now the American operational role has been marginal at most. To date, that has contained any prospect of direct Iranian-American military engagement over Syria.

However, if the president’s plans for bolstering the Syrian opposition are implemented in robust fashion — and there remain many skeptics on that point, even among my Brookings colleagues — that will change. Washington will now assume a prominent, public role in strengthening the very forces that Tehran is helping its longstanding proxy in Damascus to rout.  

Moreover, the choice of Saudi Arabia as Washington’s lead partner to assist with this effort further empowers Iran’s most resourceful and determined regional rival, and will be read in Tehran as Washington’s endorsement of the Kingdom’s more ambitious aims, namely the overthrow of Bashar Al Assad’s brutal regime and the weakening of Iran’s regional influence and possibly even its domestic stability. For Iranians, this was all part of the plan from the start; many are convinced that IS is a creation of Washington, or least of its regional allies, as part of an effort to undermine Iran.

In other words, Obama’s amorphous new strategy deepens our operational alignment with Iran’s campaign against IS even as it escalates the prospects for a direct clash with Tehran in or over Syria. Pointing this out should not be read as an argument in opposition to Obama’s new strategy, but simply a recognition of a gaping hole in its logic as presented to date.

It is impossible to predicting how this will play out on the ground, although there are disparate precedents to draw upon. We have conducted wars against Iran in the past, most notably throughout much of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict, when Washington directly assisted Saddam Hussein and engaged in skirmishes with Iranian forces in the Gulf. And we have fought wars with tacit Iranian cooperation in the past as well, including the first two Gulf Wars as well as the earliest stages of the Iraq and Afghan campaigns. Only in Iraq have we been forced to contend with both simultaneously, and there, Iran’s actions inflicted a high cost on both Iraqi stability and the security of American troops. This hardly augurs well for avoiding conflict with Iran in the sprawling, unpredictable battle against IS, especially if the new U.S. strategy includes neither coordination with Iran or contingency planning for unexpected escalation.

Beyond the battlefield implications of Obama’s new strategy, there is of course the question of what it will mean for the increasingly uncertain process of negotiations over the Iranian nuclear issue. As they approach their final weeks, those talks will surely sink or swim on their own merits, and on the still-unproven capability of Iran for significant compromise in its nuclear ambitions. Still, there can be no doubt the emergence of IS and the public dithering by the Obama administration about how to respond has strengthened Iran’s hard-liners and reinforced their determination to defend their equities and their ideology.

It is fitting, in many respects, that this new strategy was unveiled on the eve of September 11th. Those attacks were also the precipitant for the last serious round of U.S.-Iranian regional cooperation. The cooperation, which was limited to Afghanistan, did not endure, thanks to Tehran’s proclivity for sowing violence even while pursuing diplomacy and the Bush Administration’s self-defeating determination to isolate Iran. That breakdown of the brief U.S.-Iranian cooperation did not advance either side’s interests, nor did it benefit Afghanistan. Obama’s speech last night left no real clues about whether a similar outcome can be avoided in navigating this latest crisis.