Strange bedfellows and the fight against IS
Footage has recently emerged which suggests that the Iranian airforce is targeting IS locations. This should not be surprising considering the rapacious, brutal nature of the para-military group and its increasing proximity to Iran’s western border. But what is interesting is the resulting alignment of interests, if not alliance, between Iran and the US. After all, these are two countries that have had almost no diplomatic relationship since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Worse, they have been engaged in serious political and military clashes. These include the hostage crisis of 1979-81 and US support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its protracted, bloody war with Iran which lasted the majority of the 1980’s. But we could add: Iran’s continued sponsorship of Hizbollah, the Lebanon based group – proscribed as terrorist by the US and the UK – that menaces Israel’s borders; its reticence and intransigence on the subject of its nuclear programme; its designation by George W. Bush as a member of “the axis of evil”; and its appalling record on human rights.
However, the US is well versed in the use of realpolitik in the region (its support for Saddam Hussein rather than Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980’s is an example of this), and it is clear that IS represents the more imminent threat to the region. That threat is twofold: IS seeks to undermine the very structure of the Middle East by demolishing borders that have been in place for almost a century and carving up the local population according to the most extreme and exacting religious criteria. In a region as combustible as this one its actions are cause for urgent concern. But this is not a parochial issue. IS, horrifyingly, has a limited but global appeal, drawing recruits from across Europe and elsewhere. A recent poll of young Britons (by Populus) found, bafflingly, that as many as 1 in 7 felt favourably towards IS.
A tentative, cautious alignment of interests then, seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement for both Iranians and Americans. However, according to The Times, neither government is willing to publicly confirm any kind of close cooperation; indeed, the “prospect remains unconscionable to [Iranian] hardliners”. Israel and Saudi Arabia would also strongly disapprove of any official alliance between Tehran and Washington. The former has warned it may strike Iranian nuclear reactors if it feels under threat (possibly even without American approval); the latter is an ally of the US and a Sunni state keen to earn itself a dominant role in the Muslim world and promote its own brand of Islam throughout the region.
Obama, then, finds himself in an unenviable position: Iran is a powerful country with considerable military clout. Western leaders have repeatedly expressed their desire to recruit the assistance of a regional power to help defeat IS, thereby discrediting the colonialist narrative that has plagued Western intervention in recent years; with Turkey dragging its feet somewhat, Iranian cooperation could add legitimacy as well as hard power to the fight. And yet, any suggestion of improving relations between the two countries would alienate a section of Obama’s colleagues, who are determined to have nothing to do with Iran (or indeed to try to weaken it with sanctions) until it unilaterally disowns its nuclear programme. In addition, support for Israel is such an emotive subject in American politics that any rapprochement with the Iranian regime could cause real outrage, both in Tel Aviv and Washington.
The diplomatic variables in the Middle East and the countries around it have been unpredictable and volatile for decades. The emergence of IS lays them bare but also presents an opportunity to surmount them. Pragmatism and realpolitik are often derided as unprincipled and shady. An example of this, constantly rehearsed, is the observation that the US supported the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against Soviet encroachment during the Cold War. Elements of the Afghan resistance later evolved into al-Qaeda. But this should demonstrate the complexities of foreign policy, not the US’s hypocrisy.
If the US and Iran are joining forces in the fight against IS, however informally, we should not take this as an endorsement of the regime in Tehran. The world is more complicated than that.