A critical moment of the TAC-sponsored New Internationalism conference occurred when Daniel Drezner said that a key debate in the months ahead will be over whether Washington fears more an ISIS state in parts of Iraq and Syria (or even an ISIS seizure of Baghdad) or the rise of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. If I had been quicker to the microphone, I would have asked how could this even be a debate? One hears echoes of the phrase “moral clarity,” a neoconservative catchword of the Cold War era, which always made less sense when they sought to apply it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But though a polemical term, it’s not meaningless, and what would it mean here?
It should be obvious: Iran is complex country, with both secular and religious leaders, a semi-democracy whose rulers are influenced by public opinion, where there are meaningful competitive elections. It is certainly not free, there are far too many political prisoners and arbitrary arrests, but its level of democracy compares favorably to, say, China. It is quite modern, has a middle class, a scientific infrastructure, is a producer of world-class films and cuisine.
ISIS is by contrast barbaric, the ideological offspring of those who brought down the twin towers. The group wants to introduce sharia to the regions it rules, and commits mass murder and brags about it. Iran has been long been accused of sponsoring terrorism, but Shi’ite terrorism has always been a different animal than Sunni terrorism, less suicidal, less messianic, more like the terrorism of say, the IRA—brutal means against specific targets for concrete political aims.
People who know the Mideast better than I argue that American air strikes and drone strikes won’t bring the end of ISIS—and there is rightly no desire to re-send an American army to seize and try to hold hold the major Sunni population centers of Iraq. Joint Iranian-American military action would potentially play into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda—alienating the many Sunni Muslims who are right now politically on the fence. When Hillary Mann Leverett, the former NSC aide and State Department official, and as outspoken an advocate of American outreach and detente with Iran as exists in Washington, pours cold water on the idea of American-Iranian military cooperation, I tend to listen. Retired ambassador and Mideast expert Chas Freeman makes a similar point: America has no good military options. Rushing arms to Maliki’s government would ensure that they eventually get used against us, captured and/or sold by corrupt Iraqi forces.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow—there is a visceral impulse to want to do something, in an area where the United States has spent trillions of dollars and shed a fair amount of blood; this impulse arises in some—myself for instance—who opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. But there is little militarily we can do that wouldn’t make things worse. The answers, if they exist, are almost certainly political: Sunni Iraqis are for the most part going to resist any effort to impose Sharia law, by ISIS or anyone else, and Iran has enough influence in Baghdad to get Maliki either broaden the Sunni representation in his government, or to encourage formation of an alternative government. We should welcome Iran’s role in the crisis, do nothing to thwart it. Perceiving it as a de facto stabilizing and anti-jihadist force in the Gulf, which it actually is, would probably make it easier to end the sanctions and come to reasonable nuclear agreement.
When I asked Dan Drezner who in Washington would support the Sunni jihadists rather than an increased role for Iran, he replied that our traditional Mideast allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia) would make any change of course difficult. Freeman also acknowledges this: the Israelis fear Iran’s nuclear program (though they themselves have nuclear weapons), and the Saudis get hysterical about the rise of Iranian influence in the region. But a great deal of responsibility for America’s disasters in the Mideast can be laid at the feet of excessive deference to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Sound and cooperative relations with Iran would do more to ward off a deepening catastrophe in Iraq than any policies suggested by Tel Aviv or Riyadh.