“It is often forgotten that ever since the Iranian revolution, and the ousting of the Shah in 1979, there have been several occasions when the Iranians have been working, informally, with the Americans, though neither side found it convenient to draw attention to it. Whenever this has happened it has not been because of hypocrisy or double standards on either side. It has been because their national interests have coincided on specific issues, and cooperation has been an entirely logical consequence.” So said Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee at the British Parliament, in a recent article in the Daily Telegraph.
Rifkind suggested that the US government should cooperate with Iran to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. It’s an unrealistic suggestion, not because cooperation with Iran is forbidden, but because the value of this cooperation is equal to zero in the equation of the struggle with ISIS.
Sir Malcolm, these are the basics of politics in this region: Muslims, like Christians of all different sects and doctrines, accuse each other of infidelity, and there’s a long history of bloodshed and warfare between them. On the one hand, Iran is a state ruled by an extremist Shi’ite religious regime, and on the other hand, ISIS is an extremist Sunni organization in Iraq and Syria. So, how can Shi’ite Iran help America fight a Sunni insurgent group? It’s like saying Britain, with a Protestant majority, must help fight a Catholic group or state during a sectarian dispute!
The West could cooperate with Iran to curb the terrorist activities of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, since it is a Shi’ite organization. The West could also cooperate with the Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani to pressure dictator Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down, since he is an ally of Iran and he belongs to a non-Sunni minority. The US could cooperate with Iran to ensure the handover of Sunni Al-Qaeda leaders who live in Iran and work from there—including infamous terrorist Saif Al-Adel—and those who are under the protection and care of the Iranian regime. These are areas where the West could try its luck cooperating with its rival Iran. However, I am confident the West would not achieve any success, considering the nature of the Iranian regime, which is similar to Al-Qaeda: the former is an extremist religious regime, just as the latter is an extremist religious group.
Enlisting Iranian help to fight against groups such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front outside of Iran is doomed to failure. This is because these groups will not submit to Iran’s authority; they don’t follow its religious doctrine and consider Iran to be their enemy.
Rifkind’s suggestion is the worst possible advice Washington could have received, especially given that it considers Britain the most experienced country with regards to Middle Eastern affairs. A US alliance with Shi’ite Iran against ISIS would push Sunni moderates to align with terrorist organizations. This would be the worst possible scenario because Sunnis are the majority of the 1 billion Muslims across the world. It would make the US a target in a sectarian war, and it would bolster the position of terrorist groups. During the previous war against the Sunni Al-Qaeda between 2001 and 2010, the US’s major allies were Sunni-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan. This represents a logical approach in international relations, and is similar to the situation in which the US agreed with the Iranian regime to remove Nuri Al-Maliki from the Iraqi premiership, as Iran’s regime is Shi’ite and the Iraqi premiership is a post reserved for Shi’ites.
Sir Malcolm could benefit from the experience of US Gen. David Petraeus when he was a military officer fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Gen. Petraeus altered his approach towards managing the crisis in Iraq, away from seeking to destroy enemies towards making allies. In September 2007, he reconciled with Shi’ite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr and cooperated with him in Shi’ite-dominated areas where he had considerable influence. Also in 2007, he struck deals with leaders of the tribes of Anbar, the Sunni province plagued by Al-Qaeda, and recruited more than 100,000 Sunni tribesmen to fight the terrorist organization.
The lesson to be learned from the story is that, with Iran against the Sunni insurgents of Iraq or Syria, this will open the doors of hell and grant ISIS a new lease of life after it has come under siege by Anbar’s Sunnis and Kurds who are pursuing it and fighting it on Iraq’s mountains and plains.