The nuclear deal struck between Western powers and Iran earlier this week may herald more open cooperation between Washington and Tehran in the fight against Islamic State extremists, analysts say.
President Barack Obama told reporters Wednesday he did not foresee formalizing any ties with Iran in the fight both countries are waging in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State. He did appear, however, not to rule out coordination with Iranian military advisers and Tehran-linked Shi'ite militias — if they are working under the command and control of the Iraqi military.
“The one thing you can count on is that any work that the U.S. government does, or the U.S. military does in Iraq with other partners on the ground is premised on the idea that they are ... under the chain of command of the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces,” Obama said at a news conference Wednesday at the White House in which he defended the Iran nuclear agreement.
His remarks now raise the possibility of more open, albeit informal, coordination, argues Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies, a Washington DC-based think tank.
“Informal cooperation with Iran in the fight against IS has been Obama's policy in the months leading up to the signing of the deal. It will remain Obama's policy, and it will be bolstered by the nuclear deal, despite not having a formal set of agreements,” he maintains.
But Schanzer warned, “The president fails to see that the more Iran is involved in the fight, the more IS will be able to recruit Sunni extremists who see the war in Syria and Iraq as a sectarian one. It's a simple equation. An empowered and aggressive Iran will inexorably lead to more mobilized Sunni jihadists.”
Awkward, secret coordination
The unusual confluence of interests in both Iraq and Syria, where traditional rivals Tehran and Washington find themselves battling a shared enemy, has prompted a degree of secret — and often awkward — coordination between the American military and Iran’s.
In order to avoid any mid-air incidents, Iraqi officers have served as intermediaries between the Americans and Iranians, informing each side of upcoming airstrikes, an Iraqi military official confirmed to VOA.
That coordination appeared to break down in March when Iranian-linked Shi'ite militias fighting to recapture the Iraqi city of Tikrit claimed they had been hit several times by misdirected U.S. airstrikes.
Tehran said two of its advisers were killed. The Pentagon vehemently denied the accusations, but the claims and counter-claims highlighted the fragility of the makeshift alliance battling to dislodge the militants of the so-called Islamic State from northwest and central Iraq.
Both sides have consistently played down any cooperation — even if coordination is through a third party.
In December, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Brussels: “I think it is self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place and it’s confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact... the net effect is positive. But that’s not something that we’re coordinating.”
However, U.S. officials have noted publicly their concern that Iran’s high-profile military role in Iraq may backfire and stoke the sectarianism dividing Iraq and add to the country’s instability.
Last year, Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press spokesman, said, “Our message to Iran is the same today as it was when it started, and as it is to any neighbor in the region that is involved in the anti-ISIL activities. And that’s that we want nothing to be done that further inflames sectarian tensions in the country.”
Suspicions on both sides
The U.S. and Iran have pursued parallel, but at times complementary efforts, in Iraq. Washington has waged mainly an air war against the Islamic State, while training the Iraqi military and backing the Kurdish Peshmerga forces; Tehran has supported and directed Shi'ite militias. With the collapse of the Iraqi army, the Shi'ite militias have proven to be the crucial fighting force.
But there are signs of cross-over. U.S. soldiers and Shi'ite militia groups have been using the Taqqadum military base in Iraq’s Anbar province, prompting criticism last month from some U.S. lawmakers.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who served in the U.S. Army and fought in Iraq, noted Iran had backed Shi'ite militias and supplied the bombs that killed U.S. troops in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of the country.
“It's deeply troubling that the president now finds it acceptable to share a military base with this enemy,” Cotton said.
The Taqqadum military base is where the Pentagon is dispatching 450 additional U.S. military advisers to help train Iraqi military units.
Suspicions on both sides mark the makeshift alliance. U.S. officials — and Iraqi Sunnis — fear the Shi'ite militias will draw Iraq further into the Iranian orbit and expand Tehran’s clout and influence on its neighbor.
And Shi'ite militiamen bristle at the American role in Iraq. In March some militia leaders withdrew their forces from Tikrit’s front lines in protest of the American participation.
Some U.S. officials say they worry about the vulnerability of U.S. military advisers, if Shi'ite militiamen decide to target them.
Obama also raised the concern Wednesday, saying: “We’re not going to have our troops, even in an advisory or training role, looking over their shoulders because they’re not sure of what might happen to them.”
The president also noted, though, “Clearly, Iran has influence in Iraq. Iraq has a majority Shia population. They have relationships to Iran.”
Speaking at a U.S. think tank in Washington Thursday, Gen. John Allen, Obama’s envoy to the global coalition fighting IS, urged caution against viewing the conflict in over-simplified sectarian terms. He noted that Anbar Sunnis opposed to the Islamic extremists have praised the contributions of Shi'ite fighters.
“They recognize that there is a distinction to be made between many of the Shia hardliners under the influence of Iran and the large number of Shia who answered Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s call to defend Iraq last summer,” he said.