Even as diplomats from around the world were meeting to launch a new campaign against violent extremists in Iraq and Syria, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the American-instigated effort yesterday and insisted that Tehran will not cooperate with Washington against the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS.) His statements conformed to his unswerving hostility toward the United States and every aspect of its security policies in the Middle East, and further underscored the improbability of even tacit cooperation between Washington and Tehran on the regional crisis.
Khamenei sought to rebut recent U.S. statements that suggested Tehran was deliberately excluded from the early efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition. He called the reports “amusing” and insisted in some detail that several American officials — including the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Secretary of State John Kerry — have repeatedly pursued Iran’s participation in the campaign against ISIS. “They are all lying,” he reproached in the somewhat unusual interview, which took place as Khamenei left a Tehran hospital after a week-long stay for prostate surgery.
Khamenei went on to describe the U.S. regional initiative in contemptuous terms. “Before this, they created a coalition against Syria with a lot of propaganda. They brought together 30, 40, 50 countries and couldn’t do a damn thing against Syria. It’s the same with Iraq.” He added that Washington, the Iraqi people, and ISIS itself understand that the recent defeats inflicted on the group were not achieved by U.S. action, but rather by “the Iraqi people, the Iraqi army and the popular forces who have learned how to fight [ISIS]” — and that these same contingent will succeed against ISIS in the future.
The supreme leader’s injunction was echoed today by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who like Khamenei, voiced an underlying disbelief in U.S. intentions in both Syria and Iraq and a longstanding conviction among many Iranians that Washington was responsible for the creation and expansion of ISIS. Rouhani declaimed that “terrorism is a growing global threat but the satirical part of this story is that the countries which have trained, equipped and supported the terrorist groups financially are suddenly today thinking about fighting these terrorist groups.”
Khamenei’s unprompted declaration of disinterest has already generated media speculation and a variety of attempts at interpretation, some bordering on the absurd. Was the Supreme Leader simply responding to a perceived American snub? Was he doing the bidding of hard-liners who hope to subvert Rouhani’s sotto voce efforts to strike a new compact between Washington and Tehran?
Here’s my take: anyone who was surprised by the Supreme Leader’s statements hasn’t been paying very close attention to his politics over the course of the past 35 years. Khamenei’s hospital declaration on the anti-ISIS coalition was entirely consistent with his every prior utterance on America’s regional role. Even before he assumed the office of the supreme leader, Khamenei was repeatedly on record as opposing any type of dialogue with Washington, and he routinely fulminates against any security cooperation in the region, from the 1991 U.S.-led (and United Nations authorized) coalition to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait to the past decade’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why would anyone have expected his views to have modulated this time around?
As Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, Khamenei holds veto power over Iran’s foreign policy, but on the issue of ISIS he is likely reflecting broad consensus among the security establishment as well as many others within the political elite. Tehran appreciates better than any other actor the overlap between the threat of violence and state disintegration in Iraq and the Syrian civil war. But the rise of ISIS only feeds into the official Iranian narrative on culpability for the Syrian tragedy, and there is little fresh evidence of any internal debate on this approach. Despite his apparent interest in and mandate for securing a nuclear deal, Rouhani is neither empowered nor inclined to alter Iran’s longstanding commitment to preserving the Syrian regime.
The barrage of official Iranian repudiations should dash expectations of U.S.-Iranian cooperation against ISIS. As I’ve written before, such a partnership was never in the cards — whether it was to be some serendipitous ‘team of rivals’ assembled to take on a common threat as posited by advocates of engagement or a furtive “alignment” that sacrifices Syria to Iran in exchange for Tehran’s assistance in stabilizing Iraq. The simple reality is that the confluence of a common enemy cannot overcome the array of logistical, institutional and ideological obstacles to teamwork among the two old adversaries. So long as our objectives in the region diverge, there will be no convergence between U.S. and Iranian policies in the Levant.