Hicham Bou Nassif

The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend

Allying with Iran against ISIS is neither America's wisest nor its only option

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on Youtube on February 19, 2014, allegedly shows militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) parading over an armoured personell carrier at an undisclosed location

The Iranian regime is being rebranded overnight as the world’s best hope to stem the tide of Sunni extremism, in the wake of recent ISIS victories in Iraq. In the last few days, there has been a flurry of political commentaries calling on the United States and Iran to set aside their differences in order to reverse ISIS gains. In a tendentious piece in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins maintained that “America now needs Iran's help to clear up the shambles in Iraq.”  Simmons College Professor Kirk Beattie argued that ISIS advances should be viewed as an “opportunity” for the US to reset its Middle East policy in an Iran-friendly orientation, while Juan Cole dubbed Iran a “natural ally” in the fight against ISIS. Robert Fisk, for his part, castigated Saudi Arabia for bankrolling Sunni extremism, and reminded his readers that leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Assad – both of whom are backed by Iran – are staunch enemies of the Sunni juggernaut that has set the region ablaze.


Other examples are legion. The emerging consensus is quickly coalescing over a seemingly reasonable claim: ISIS is hostile to both Iran and the United States. An alliance de revers between the two countries is thus the natural response to the latest developments in Iraq.


But rebranding Iran as a bulwark against Sunni jihadism would be a terrible mistake. For ISIS to be defeated, the Sunni community in Iraq has to be on board. This is counter-insurgency 101: winning is a function of driving a wedge between insurgents and the communities whose backing they need in order to flourish. Insurgents depend on coreligionists and co-ethnics for intelligence, recruitment, supplies, and overall support. The moment local communities turn their back on insurgents, the insurgents are doomed. Consequently, the struggle against movements like ISIS is fundamentally political in nature. The central condition for the success of any counteroffensive against ISIS is to deal with the root cause of the problem, and that is Sunni malaise in Iraq.


Rapprochement with Iran is misguided because it would inevitably further radicalize Sunnis in Iraq and the Middle East at large, and for good reason. Throughout Maliki’s tenure, Sunni leaders have been kept on the political margins. Sunni provinces have been deprived of investments and sometimes basic state services, while Sunni youth have suffered from joblessness as de-Baathification became a perfect alibi to deny them employment in the public sector. That Maliki is deeply unpopular among Sunnis is a matter of fact. But it should be equally remembered that Sunnis generally perceive Maliki to be a stooge of the powerful Iranian puppeteer in Iraq. Since Sunni rage is no less directed against Iran than against its local cronies, how would an American rapprochement with Iran help defuse Sunni anger?


The plain fact is that it will not. Quite to the contrary: rapprochement would corroborate ISIS’s ideological message of a “World vs. Sunnis” dichotomy, and more Sunni youth would flock to join the insurgents.


Lest we forget, the Obama administration has already antagonized Sunni public opinion in the Middle East by failing to act decisively against the Assad regime in Syria. In less than ten years, America destroyed a Sunni regime in Iraq, and then stood watching as an Alawite dictator slaughtered Sunnis in neighboring Syria. Should the Obama administration support Maliki’s counteroffensive, America will consolidate its “anti-Sunni” image in the region. This holy alliance with Iran would create a bitterness among Sunnis that would be a perfect incubator for additional radicalism, with potentially dangerous consequences for American national security.


It should also be kept in mind that the latest victories in Iraq do not belong exclusively to ISIS. In its successful onslaught against Maliki’s forces, ISIS was able to solicit the help of Sunni tribesmen, parochial leaders, ex-army officers, and former Baathists. In order to separate ISIS from its unnatural newfound bedfellows, legitimate Sunni grievances in Iraq need to be recognized and addressed. This cannot possibly begin by giving Iran even greater leeway to dominate Iraqi politics – with public American support this time – and certainly not by inviting Iran to invade Iraq, as some have recently called for.


This is not to say that ISIS must not be confronted. The movement is too extreme to be allowed to continue to dominate the large swathes of land it now controls between Iraq and Syria. But enlisting Iran’s help in the battle with ISIS would only entrench it deeper within its Sunni constituency, and thus make it harder to defeat. Simply put, Iran is not the partner to seek if the aim is to break the fledgling Sunni unity around ISIS in Iraq.


An alternative strategy might consist of identifying and engaging non-ISIS elements in the Sunni opposition (e.g. The Anbar Military Council of Tribal Revolutionaries, the Association of Muslim Scholars, and even the Naqshbandi Army), in tandem with stepping up support for the Free Syrian Army, which is battling both Assad and ISIS in Syria. Put differently, the United States should seek to deprive Iran from an opportunity to transform ISIS victories into an excuse to project additional power in Iraq, while simultaneously confronting ISIS through Sunni proxies and, possibly, the Kurds.


Both the Iranian mullahs and Sunni extremists play destructive roles in the Middle East. Rather than rapprochement with Iran, a better strategy for the United States in Iraq would be a new version of dual containment, this time directed against the Iranian regime and ISIS. 


Hicham Bou Nassif is finishing his PhD in political science at Indiana University this year. He will join Carleton College, Minnesota, as Assistant Profesor in the political science department in August 2014.

The common enemy. (AFP Photo/Handout/YouTube/Nasr al-Mujahideen)

“Sunni rage is no less directed against Iran than against its local cronies.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Again and again, US foreign policy is always a reaction to events, it can never imagine to go beyond the immediacy of these crises which the State Department idiots can never foresee (even though it is their job), and it swings from one enemy to the other depending on the moment without regard for what to do 5 years or 10 years hence. Thank you, Mr. Bou Nassif for trying to set the ignorant a-holes of foggy bottom on a reasonable track. They can't do it by themselves. You see, their training as foreign affairs experts is just like the training of kindergarten infants or of workers in an assembly line: They get their step-by-step SOPs to follow, each in his or her own corner of abject ignorance of the world, and while they dress sharp and learn to talk drivel to the cameras and write insipid reports which they plagiarize from 19th century colonial vintage books they pick up at their local library, they fail at comprehending the world as it is, and they are incapable of creative diplomacy. They think that because they are the products of some lost college in the boonies of America, and because they are endowed with "manifest destiny", anything they do is by definition superior and divine.

    June 19, 2014