In Iraq Crisis, a Chance for Iranian and Western Rapprochement?

As more reports and graphic videos emerge depicting the Sunni militant group ISIS’ mass executions of Iraqi Shia throughout the country, the United States must seriously and quickly weigh its options on how to address the ever growing complexity of the Iraqi crisis.

This past week, President Obama announced that he will send 275 troops for the safety of American personnel in Iraq and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. In the same announcement, President Obama indicated that the possibility of American airstrikes as a means to prevent further ISIS advancement remains on the table. The U.S. military has already re-positioned equipment throughout the region and sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. On June 18th, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced to Congress that the Iraqi government requested US air strikes

The situation in Iraq is rife with sectarian-violence, has the potential to create volatile regional implications, and prompts serious questions about the feasibility of Iraqi national unity. Despite the foreboding future of Iraq, some have found a glimmer of a silver lining amid all the chaos.

While many experts across the international community question whether Iran and the P5+1 can meet the rapidly approaching July 20th deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, the current crisis in Iraq could provide a new platform for tentative rapprochement between Tehran and the West.

The United States and Iran are united in their desire to prevent “devolution or fragmentation,” but they diverge in their reasoning for a potential intervention. The United States “wants to see an inclusive democracy take root while Iran is focused on protecting Iraq’s Shias and shrines” while bolstering its own regional stature in a predominately Sunni neighborhood. 

Departing from rhetoric of skepticism for the success of a nuclear deal, Secretary of State John Kerry voiced optimism regarding the possibility of collaborating with Iran. He stated that the United States is "open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and ability of the government to reform."

On Monday, June 16th, American and Iranian officials met in Vienna to discuss the potential for collaboration vis-à-vis shared security concerns in Iraq. This marks the first time in the past decade that the two nations have conferred on a topic other than Iran’s nuclear program.

While Monday’s talks have been described as short and inconclusive, there still lies the potential to lessen the gap between Iran and the West. One expert from the Royal United Services Institute in London predicts that “the pattern of U.S. and Iranian 'cooperation' will comprise parallel but separate action against ISIS and in support of Iraqi security forces.”

American and Iranian officials were quick to note that there would be no American-Iranian military alliance moving forward. A senior State Department official noted that “these engagements would not include strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” Officials also noted that any cooperation on the Iraq issue is completely separate from the nuclear issue and does not indicate a new romance between Tehran and Washington.

The United States is not alone in its historic move to consider collaboration with Iran. Over the past weekend, British Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke about the Iraq crisis with Moammed Javad Zarif, his Iranian counterpart. On Tuesday June 17th, Britain announced that Britain would reopen its embassy in Tehran as soon as possible.

The potential for cooperation with Iran has met significant criticism. Collaborating with the Shia-ruled state could convince America’s Sunni allies in the region that the United States is aligning against them, leading Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to increase support for extremists such as ISIS.  

Other experts are concerned about how Iranian tactics could play out in Iraq. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and “Shiite extremists are notorious for kidnapping and torturing Sunnis and those same groups stand on the front lines today of Shiite resistance to ISIS.” Furthermore, these same groups have a decades-long history of attack American personnel.  

While the real grounds to normalize relations between Iran and the West still lie in the nuclear negotiations arena, the recent events highlight a new and important aspect in Iran’s relationship with the West.  Despite Iran’s ties to extremist elements and its stance on the nuclear issue, the potential for collaboration indicates to the West that Iran is perhaps vacating its position in the ‘axis of evil.’ Ultimately, Iran’s importance in regional politics and its strategic positioning are being openly acknowledged in an unprecedented way.

Whether or not any coordination in Iraqi policy actually takes place, the fact that Iran is legitimately being considered as a pseudo-partner highlights both the Western desire to take Iran out of the international community’s doghouse and Iran’s willingness to rejoin the international community.