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#4698, 16 October 2014
Cooperating against the Islamic State: A Nuclear Bonus for Iran?
Majid Izadpanahi
Research Intern, IPCS, and Ph.D Candidate, Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
E-mail: majid.izadpanahi@gmail.com

Since the 1979 revolution, the Iran has accused the US interference in the West Asia as the root of regional instability. But there are cases when Tehran has cooperated with Washington when their interests coincided.

The Islamic State (IS) has ambitious political, economic, military and ideological plans, and continues to occupy territories and seeks recognition. The IS has captured oil-rich areas in Iraq and Syria and is smuggling oil via Turkey. It has beheaded journalists, has inflicted heavy casualties and human tragedies in Iraq and Syria’s Kurdish areas. The IS has become the richest and most powerful terrorist group ever, and now is marching towards Baghdad.

Today, the IS is considered a national security threat both by Iran and the US. Its movement towards the southern Iraqi cities of Samarra, Najaf and Karbala is Iran’s red line. Also, its anti-Shia policy and its military operation near Iran’s border directly threaten Iran. The US considers the IS as a threat to its citizens, and especially its approach and plan to seize Iraq’s oil rich areas in the south, as dangerous.

Iran and the US have a history of cooperation in tackling common enemies. First, it was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and second, Saddam Hussain’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq. Iran fully supported the US attack on the Taliban regime in 2001, and collaborated to establish political order in Afghanistan during the Bonn Conference. But immediately after that, the then US President George Bush labelled Iran as “Axis of Evil” shocking Tehran and embittering the bilateral. During the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran once again supported the US led coalition and provided them with intelligence inputs. Subsequently, however, the “all options are on the table” and “the regime change” option had extremely adverse impacts on the reformists’ bid to improve relations with Washington. 

Today, once again, there is a convergence of interests between Iran and US over Iraq. The IS is marching towards Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan, and southern Iraq, threatening Shia-majority areas and the oil-rich Kurdish regions of the country. An overthrow of the central government in Baghdad is neither Iran’s interest nor the US’. 

At present, Iran supports all groups involved in fighting the IS inside Iraq and Syria. Iran provides military advice to the Iraqi government, has military cooperation with the Kurds and covers the news of the developments in Iraq.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in his recent visit to Iraq, reflected Iran’s approach towards Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government by conveying Tehran’s support to him. By visiting President Masoud Barzani of the Iraqi Kurdistan, he proved Iran’s support to them by providing arms, ammunitions and intelligence.

The US also gives moral, material and logistical support to the Iraqi government to keep the IS out of Iraq. Therefore, given how Iran and the US are trying to eliminate the same enemy, it is pragmatic for the two to come closer. However, there are several reasons for Iran preference to fight the IS alone instead of joining the US-led coalition. To begin with, Iran was not invited for the Paris Conference, organised to create a coalition West Asian countries – that included a number of corrupt regimes – to defeat the IS. Saudi Arabia is accused of supporting the IS and other terrorist groups such as the Taliban. Turkey helps the IS in selling oil – the latter’s main source of income – via plastic pipelines and other routes. Iranian officials denounce this conference as a farce and state that they would rather fight the IS alone.

Despite not being invited to the Paris Conference, US leaders have admitted to the importance of Iran in eliminating the IS. On August 21, Deputy Spokesperson, US State Department, Marie Harf, stated, “there is a positive role Iran can play.”
At home, in Iran, after three decades of chanting anti-American slogan, distrusting the US and being accused of sponsoring terrorism and building nuclear weapons by the US, incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate administration is being pressured by the conservatives to continue the war alone.

Building the Iraqi army, supporting the government of Iraq, supporting the integrity of Iraq, Iraq’s stability and security and eliminating the IS are goals both Iran and the US are attempting to achieve. Iran supports US air strikes on the IS because it can help the cause: defeating a very dangerous enemy in Tehran’s neighbourhood.

Destroying the same enemy still could not form a coalition that includes both Iran and the US. Iran is now more conscious of its actions and foreign policy because it still remembers that after its unconditional cooperation with the US in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, not only they did not get the results they expected but their overtures too were rejected; and the reformists and moderates were defeated in the subsequent presidential election.

Despite the fact that the US’ elimination of the IS serves Iranian interests, it seems that the Iranian government now wants a nuclear bonus in return for coalition in order to reduce the conservatives’ pressure.

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