America and Iran can save Iraq

To save Iraq from Sunni extremists, Iran is mobilizing its allies in Iraq and promoting collaboration between Iraq’s government and Syria. Washington, meanwhile, has dispatched military advisers to Baghdad. On their own, these efforts are valiant. But without coordination, they won’t be fruitful.

Iraq was until recently a battleground between Iran and the United States. A string of American military commanders battled Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of foreign operations for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, for influence. At the height of the American occupation, Iran’s handful of men in Iraq wielded more power than the 150,000 American forces stationed there.

Despite their largely adversarial past, the two countries can now save Iraq if they act together. History has shown that Iran and the United States are capable of pulling Iraq away from the abyss. The civil war that plagued the country from 2006 to 2008 offers lessons in how to stop the current bloodshed.

 Back then, Iran was the only country that could pressure Syria to block the Sunni jihadist pipeline, while reining in the Shiite death squads that were bent on ridding the Iraqi capital of Sunnis. And the United States, as an occupying power, was able to approach and co-opt rebellious Sunni tribes. Without coordination, these efforts would have failed.

The head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq at the time, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and President Jalal Talabani struggled to get Washington and Tehran to work together. Despite the collapse of the nuclear negotiations that were then taking place between Iran and the European Union, the United States and Iran managed to cooperate.

The first crucial step toward ending the violence was tacit American-Iranian support for Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. After becoming prime minister, Mr. Maliki returned the favor. Within a year of his inauguration, in the summer of 2007, Iranian and American diplomats met in his office — the first senior-level meeting between the two adversaries in almost 30 years.

Mr. Hakim and Mr. Talabani are no longer on the political stage. But Mr. Maliki is. Despite his authoritarian tendencies and his failure to integrate Sunnis into the political process, he remains the least unpopular Iraqi politician today. His success in the April 30 election is proof of that.

And Iran and America still agree on keeping Mr. Maliki in power — largely for lack of better options. Despite rumblings in Congress, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has stated that “the question of whether Maliki should step down is an internal Iraqi matter.” And President Obama didn’t hesitate to send military personnel back into Iraq.

The outcome of the Sunni offensive is predictable. ISIS will fail in holding and governing captured territory because Iraqi Sunnis are unwilling to conform to the visions of state and society espoused by ISIS. America’s earlier success in turning some Iraqi Sunnis against militant extremists is proof, and Mr. Maliki knows this. While Sunni political integration is crucial, violence should not be rewarded with concessions. ISIS and its allies must be repelled from major urban centers and border crossings before any talks with pragmatic militants can occur.
Iraq’s Sunnis must either accept the realities of the country’s new political order, which is dominated by Shiites and Kurds, or condemn themselves to the perennial instability and violence brought on by the extremists in their ranks and the foreign fighters who have joined them.