The words “The Islamic Republic of Iran” almost reflexively conjure up the “Axis of Evil,” the term coined by President George W. Bush in 2002. This axis, made up of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, was meant to define the enemies of the United States and, by implication, of the West.
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Iraq was dropped from the list after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, though North Korea is still a member. Iran, after 12 years, is being recast, and not only because of the interim agreement on its nuclear program.
On Friday, the BBC’s Farsi service reported that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had approved the coordination of the fight against the Islamic State with the United States. Spokesmen for the regime denied this – an insincere denial.
A week and a half ago, Khamenei declared that “the Islamic State is a creation of the Zionists and Americans,” but an Iranian source told London-based newspaper Al-Hayat that “Iran will spare no effort in assisting Iraq, even if that means cooperating with the Americans, as happened in 2007. Any such cooperation would be done in consultation with Iraq.”
In 2007, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, held talks with Iranian officials in an attempt to calm the security situation in Iraq. A few years before that, Tehran told Washington that it could assist American troops in Afghanistan by providing medical services.
The BBC also reported that American and Iranian officers had met in Kurdistan to discuss possible strategies for fighting the Islamic State. As Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi put it recently, Iran and the United States have a common interest in fighting the Islamic State, but there are no signs yet of a need to cooperate.
It is known that Iranian and American advisers are in Kurdistan to coordinate among forces, and that Iran recently supplied advanced weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
The unofficial cooperation between Iran and the United States is occurring in parallel to President Barack Obama’s efforts to set up a Western coalition; there’s also the initiative by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to establish an Arab military coalition. All sides realize the difficulties in aligning the U.S. and Iranian approaches to the Syrian regime.
The rapprochement between Tehran and Washington worries the Saudis, who fear that Iran’s deep involvement in Iraq will prevent them from achieving their goals in Syria and undermine their attempts to get closer to Iraq.
But so far the concerns about the Islamic State are apparently pushing aside such differences. Iran, which views Al-Qaida and the Islamic State as threats to itself and its Mideast allies, is in the same foxhole as the United States on the Iraq front. Neither Tehran nor Washington wanted Nouri al-Maliki to stay on as Iraqi prime minister, but for lack of choice they had to congratulate him when he won the election.
These congratulations were quickly followed by an unprecedented step. Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was replaced as head of operations in Iraq. In his stead was appointed Gen. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who served as defense minister during the term of President Mohammad Khatami.
Iran officials hold Soleimani responsible for the failure in Iraq, for not foreseeing the rise of the Islamic State, and for the weakness of Iraq’s army. Soleimani is now only in charge of the Syrian front, where no strategy has been crafted for combating the radical Islamists.
This gathering and organizing of forces does not guarantee efficient collaboration between the Western powers and Iran, since all foreign forces will have to rely on the Iraqi army. The army’s troops suffered an embarrassing failure when they ran for their lives without putting up a fight against the forces of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader.
Not only will the Iraqi army’s questionable abilities be a hindrance, the absence of an agreed-on government overseeing the army and coordinating a campaign makes the operation of an international coalition doubtful.
Without the cooperation of Sunni tribes, who demand a full partnership in Iraq’s government, Iraq’s military, even with foreign air support, won’t be able to wage a successful ground campaign.