Nothing demonstrates more vividly the mess Iraq has become than the prospect of Iran and the U.S. discussing whether they can cooperate to fix it.
The U.S., after all, has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. As recently as 2011, the State Department accused Iran’s al-Quds force of training and equipping Shiite insurgents in Iraq to kill U.S. soldiers. In neighboring Syria, the U.S. and Iran are backing opposite sides in President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to crush a Sunni rebellion. Indeed, the militant Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant now rampaging across much of Iraq operates on both sides of the border.
And none of this takes into account the U.S.-Iranian conflicts over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or the risk of alarming moderate Sunnis in Iraq and U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia at the thought of U.S.-Iranian collusion. So no wonder U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said military cooperation is not currently being considered — which didn’t stop Republican Senator John McCain from calling any cooperation with Iran “the height of folly.”
Yet if the last decade-plus of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the U.S. anything, it is that even its military might cannot stabilize fractured states if neighboring powers are working to prevent it. Ignoring that lesson would be the greater folly: The U.S. has vital interests at stake in Iraq and very limited options.
The least bloody way to stabilize Iraq is for the U.S. to bring all sides — Sunni tribal and political leaders, Shiites, Kurds — together to fight ISIL with the promise that the government in Baghdad will offer more autonomy and power-sharing. This strategy is likely to succeed only with Iran’s cooperation. The U.S. and Iran will not become friends or allies, but if they can work together on Iraq, they should.
There is a precedent, albeit a brief one: The two countries shared intelligence to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, their common foe at the time, in 2001. ISIL is their common foe now.
Talking with Iran could also help the U.S. solve the problem that is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is currently playing Iran and the U.S. against each other. Both the U.S. and Iran have called on Maliki to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds in order to isolate ISIL, but he is instead militarizing Shiites and relying on their numerical majority to prevail.
Given Maliki’s persecution and alienation of Sunnis over the past few years, any successful appeal across Iraq’s sectarian divide would have to come from a new prime minister. The Iranian regime is in the best position to convince him of the wisdom of resignation.
The bigger question isn’t whether the U.S. should try to work with Iran, but whether it can. Events are moving so quickly that the chance for a political settlement may soon pass. ISIL is boasting of executing 1,700 Shiite soldiers in a transparent attempt to provoke the Shiite retaliation that would inflame moderate Sunnis and ignite a Syria-style civil war. Hard-liners in Tehran may also prefer to replicate their success in propping up Assad in Syria, pouring gasoline on the fire rather than work with the Great Satan in Iraq.
McCain’s usual partner in foreign-policy adventurism, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has it right. Working with Iran to stabilize Iraq, he said, is akin to the Allies working with Stalin to defeat Hitler in World War II. Then, as now, the U.S. had to prioritize threats and try to work with any willing partner to counter them — even when that partner was an enemy.
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