Collaborate With Iran Over Iraq? Don’t Do It, Analysts Warn

By Patrick Goodenough | June 16, 2014 | 9:22 PM EDT

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Tehran is an ally of al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government. (AP Photo, File)

( – As Secretary of State John Kerry voiced a cautious willingness Monday to talk to Iran about stabilizing Iraq, experts are urging strongly against cooperating with a hostile regime that leads the world in sponsoring terrorism.

Cooperating with Iran over the Iraq crisis would expand its influence in the region, bolster the Assad regime in Syria, and strengthen its hand in the nuclear negotiations now underway, they argue.

Kerry in a livestream interview with Yahoo News said the administration was “open to discussions if there’s something constructive that can be contributed by Iran. Asked whether that could include military cooperation against the Sunni jihadists controlling parts of northern Iraq he replied, “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability.”

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said subsequently while there may be bilateral talks on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna this week “there is absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activity between the United States and Iran.”

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman are Vienna this week, and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there was a possibility U.S. and Iranian officials may hold bilateral talks there on the Iraq situation. Citing unnamed sources, Reuters on Monday night reported that such talks had already begun.

As Sunni militias led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) seized territory across northern Iraq over the past week, Iran reportedly deployed units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force to help bolster its Shi’ite ally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

U.S. concerns about the jihadists’ advances prompted the talk about discussing with Iran ways to secure Iraq.

But as serious as the threat posed by ISIS is, some Middle East and foreign policy specialists are advising the administration against viewing Iran as part of the solution.

“Secretary of State John Kerry is absolutely right that the United States and Iran have a shared interest in Iraq,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin wrote a Commentary magazine column. “Then again, firefighters and arsonists have a shared interest in fires.”

“Let us hope that President Obama understands that it is a lot easier to bless Iran’s entrance into Iraq than achieve its exit,” he said. “If he has any doubts, he can just as the Lebanese, who have been struggling against an Iranian-created proxy group if not IRGC advisors for almost 32 years …”

“The al-Qaeda threat in Iraq is great, and the U.S. must take action against it,” AEI resident scholar Frederick Kagan and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard. “But backing the Iranians means backing the Shi’a militias that have been the principal drivers of sectarian warfare, to say nothing of turning our backs on the moderates on both sides who are suffering the most.”

“Allowing Iran to in effect extend its border several hundred kilometers to the west with actual troop deployments would be a strategic disaster,” Kagan and Kristol said. “In addition, the U.S. would be perceived as becoming the ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran against all of the forces of the Arab and Sunni world, conceding Syria to the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad, and accepting the emergence of an Iranian hegemony soon to be backed by nuclear weapons.”

Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said Iran was “clearly the strongest, most threatening power in this conflict,” describing it in a Fox News column as “the world’s central banker for international terrorism” for most of the period since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“Thus understood, it becomes perfectly clear that we should not aid our stronger adversary power against our weaker adversary power in the struggle underway in Iraq,” Bolton said. “There is little in it for us. The main beneficiary would be Tehran, especially if Obama, reprising Roosevelt’s World War II infatuation with Joseph Stalin, decided to do business with the ayatollahs.”

From left, Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Secretary of State John Kerry, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the P5+1 nuclear talks in Geneva on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)

Nuclear ‘leverage’

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said cooperating with Iran would be “extremely ill-advised.”

Speaking to Wall Street Journal Live, he noted that Iran has been a state sponsor of terrorism since 1983, backing Hezbollah, Hamas, and groups responsible for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq over the last decade.

“And now we’re asking them to help us bring calm to Iraq? This is actually somewhat laughable although it’s really nothing to laugh at now, because of course we’re involved with high-stakes nuclear negotiations with the Iranians,” he said. “Our asking them for assistance here is only going to give them leverage at the negotiating table.”

The National Iranian American Council, which advocates for U.S. engagement with Tehran, sees the Iraq crisis as an opportunity the administration should seize, however.

“For too long, institutionalized silence between the U.S. and Iran has prevented cooperation on issues of mutual interest and importance,” it said in a statement. “This silence has fed perceptions that Iran is the implacable enemy of the United States and vice versa.

“Now that the wall of silence has been broken by the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna, new opportunities to diplomatically resolve seemingly intractable situations – including in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan – could emerge.”

NIAC argued that this new situation could also boost the “P5+1” negotiations aimed at achieving a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

A senior administration official, briefing from Vienna on the nuclear talks on Monday night, said that any conversation on Iraq that may take place there would be “completely and separately apart from” the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow