Since the middle of last year, the U.S. outreach to Iran on the nuclear issue has been accompanied by an assumption in parts of the American foreign policy establishment that the two countries were on the verge of establishing a new political partnership covering the Middle East.
Last October, The Wall Street Journal even ran an article headlined: “U.S. Iran Relations Move to Detente.” It suggested that American policy toward Iranian proxies in the Middle East, from Hezbollah to Hamas, might change as well. Dr. Vali Nasr, who advised the State Department on Iran during the Obama administration, commented that “although we see Turkey and the Arab states as our closest allies, our interests and policies are converging with Iran.”
In the January/February edition of the influential journal The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan wrote more bluntly: “Whatever the eventual outcome of the long-running negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli interests cannot impede a warming of relations between Iran and the United States in the coming years, under either this president or the next.” Kaplan is an important figure on the American scene. He has advised the American security establishment on its long-term strategy. Indicating the importance of his essay in The Atlantic, ” PBS NewsHour” devoted a program to this subject, inviting important opinion-makers in Washington, including Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer.
The main development that has led to dramatic conclusions of this sort has unquestionably been the perception in Washington that both states are on the same side in the fight against Islamic State. Last fall, President Barack Obama wrote about the threat posed by Islamic State to the interests of both countries in a letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke openly about Iran having a “role to play” in defeating Islamic State. But the administration was careful not to go so far and characterize the new relationship as a military alliance. For example, Kerry rejected the idea that the U.S. would militarily coordinate with Iran in Iraq.
Does the war against Islamic State provide a basis for the kind of revolution in U.S. policy toward the Middle East that some commentators are describing? Would Iran really become a dependable partner for the U.S. in fighting Islamic State in Iraq, allowing Washington to reconsider its older Middle Eastern alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, as Kaplan is advocating? To answer this question, it is necessary to more deeply trace the historical connections between Iran and the movements in Iraq that evolved into Islamic State in recent years. While Iran and Islamic State are today at war, their hostility toward one another is not inevitable; for the two parties have been able to closely coordinate at certain times in the past.
Islamic State is tied to the jihadi networks established by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian commander of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. Today, the Islamic State magazine known as Dabiq frequently features quotes from Zarqawi that remind readers of the organization’s connection to his past. Prior to 9/11, Zarqawi ran a training camp in western Afghanistan, not far from the Iranian border. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime, instead of fleeing to Pakistan, like most of the senior leadership of al-Qaida, Zarqawi sought sanctuary in Iran, where he spent four months under the protection of the Iranian regime.
In August 2004, there were indications that Zarqawi developed cooperative relations with the Iranians. The London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported on August 11, 2004 that the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Sulaimani, admitted that Zarqawi had spent time in a training camp of the Revolutionary Guards near the Iraqi border. Sulaimani reportedly unveiled that he had provided military assistance to Zarqawi in that period. The same point about Zarqawi’s ties with Iran was made a few months later by Iraq’s interim defense minister.
The accuracy of these reports is difficult to ascertain. But one thing is certain: Zarqawi’s organization, which was fighting the U.S. Army in Western Iraq, was being resupplied from Syria. It is unlikely that the Syrians would acquiesce to this line of supply crossing their territory without obtaining the approval of their senior strategic partner, namely Iran. While Zarqawi became known in Iraq for his attacks on Shiite mosques, which seemed to run counter to the Iranian interest. But more importantly for Iran, Zarqawi’s forces were killing American soldiers, creating a sectarian war inside Iraq, and setting the stage for an eventual withdrawal of the U.S. from the resulting chaos in Iraq that he caused.
In October, 2004, Zarqawi swore his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and his organization became al-Qaida in Iraq. After his death in 2006, the organization changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq. Once it became involved in the Syrian Civil War, it changed its name once again to the Islamic State in Iraq and in al-Sham, or ISIS. And despite its new name, the group observed policies reminiscent of those that its mother organization established a decade ago. For example, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adani admitted in 2014 that it had not attacked the Iranians since the organization was established. That had been the policy of al-Qaida, when Islamic State was part of the al-Qaida network. And it was a policy that Islamic State, as an independent organization, was still reluctant to change, though it was being drawn into a more conflicted relationship with Tehran, for now.
Iran’s ability to create sudden partnerships with Sunni extremists, and also go to war with the very same groups, was not confined to the case of Islamic State. In 1998, Iran nearly went to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan who had slaughtered thousands of Afghan Shiites. Iran massed over 200,000 Iranian troops on the Afghan border.
After 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and some American diplomats began speaking about a new era of cooperation between Iran and the U.S. against their joint enemy, the Taliban. Diplomats from Washington and Tehran met in New York for talks at the U.N. However within two months, the CIA received information that the Iranians had switched sides and now were helping the Taliban. The Revolutionary Guards began moving weapons into Afghanistan to arm the Taliban against the U.S. It appeared that Tehran was initially pleased to see the Taliban defeated but it also did not want the U.S. Army along its eastern border.
The brief period of U.S.-Iranian coordination in late 2001 led to the emergence in the years that followed of a myth that U.S. and Iran had been on the verge of a major diplomatic breakthrough that was missed by the Bush administration. This idea was reinforced in 2003 when the Swiss ambassador to Iran sent a fax to Washington which contained a “grand bargain” that Tehran supposedly offered but senior officials in the State Department did not believe was authoritative. It appeared to be mostly the product of the imagination of the Swiss envoy rather than an initiative undertaken by the supreme leader of Iran himself.
Michael Doran, who once served in senior positions in the Pentagon and the U.S. National Security Council, just wrote a study arguing that these ideas about a possible American-Iranian rapprochement had been incubating in Washington in 2006, when they molded President Obama’s thinking about the Middle East just as he arrived in Washington as a senator. What is undeniable is that the mythology about Iran joining the U.S. in defeating Sunni jihadists in a new alliance has many important supporters in Washington who would like to get the administration to embrace their thinking.
What Iran’s history with Zarqawi and the Taliban demonstrates however, is that Shiite and Sunni extremists cannot be relied upon to be locked into a permanent state of hostility, contrary to the oversimplified analysis about how the politics of the Middle East actually work. Moreover, a survey of the websites of the key Shiite militias in Iraq, supported by Tehran, shows unmistakably that they still harbor strongly anti-American sentiments. They argue that ISIS was created by and is still sustained by the U.S. Reflecting the line they hear from their Iranian sponsors, they certainly do not sound like they are about to embrace Washington as their new ally.
The U.S. would be making a terrible mistake if it comes to believe that it can replace its old Middle Eastern partners with a revolutionary Iranian regime, along with its proxy forces. For it must always be remembered that Tehran’s purpose since 1979 has been to reduce American influence across the entire area from Beirut to Bahrain in order to pave the way for its own military domination of the region as a whole.