In 1979 – nearly 25 years after the CIA helped depose a democratically elected leader to prop up Shah Pahlavi – Iran became a radical Islamic state governed by a religious leader following Sharia law. This revolution facilitated the kidnapping of American diplomats and ignited a wave of anti-American extremism throughout the region, culminating in 2001 with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Iran now seeks to be the dominant power in the chaotic Middle East. As a Shiite state, Iran faces serious threats from Sunni militant groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (currently operating in a vast area occupying parts of Iraq and Syria). The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) presence in Iraq, a contiguous state to Iran, should provide an avenue for strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Iran.
Recently, relations between the U.S. and Iran have focused on the latter’s nuclear program. Ostensibly, Iran seeks to enhance its nuclear program as a means of scientific betterment and alternative energy exploration. Shrewd states, like the U.S. and its Western allies, realize the real ramifications of a nuclear Iran: a radical country with the capability to easily build nuclear weapons. So, as with any conflict-ridden relationship, open communication and cooperation on other tasks could help to resolve the current nuclear problem.
Obviously, an ISIS-controlled Iraq hurts the U.S. as well as Iran. For the former, the Islamic State’s presence in Iraq will foster the development of terrorist groups seeking to inflict damage on U.S. assets, both foreign and domestic. The success of ISIS could also encourage more young Muslims to join similar factions across the Muslim world.
Sharing a border with ISIS not only threatens Iran’s domestic security but also its ability to dominate the Middle East. The past decade has seen Iran transform itself into a regional hegemon. Its satellite group, Hezbollah, fights in Syria to bolster the strength of the Assad regime (and in Lebanon where it wreaks havoc against Israel). If Iran desires to continue its assent to full regional hegemony (Saudi Arabia and Israel are still serious contenders), it must eliminate, or at the very least mitigate, ISIS’s power.
According to a report in The New York Times by Tim Arango and Azam Ahmed, Iranian-backed Shiite militias (sent to support Iraqi Security Forces) and U.S. air support helped break the siege of ISIS-controlled Amerli. The Shiite residents of Amerli were facing persecution at the hands of their extremist occupiers. However, the Obama Administration vehemently denied the suggestion that U.S. military forces coordinated with the Iranian backed militias.
U.S.–Iranian cooperation in Iraq, combined with the recent election of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, could mark a rebirth in relations between the two countries. It would be naïve to think that a coordinated U.S.–Iranian offensive against ISIS would solve the two states’ deep cultural and political differences. However, with an increasingly liberal and socially active Iranian youth, Iran may be forced to change drastically in future decades. A repaired relationship with the U.S. may help make that transition easier. In the meantime, American planes and Iranian militias will continue to take the fight to ISIS with the hopes of rescuing millions of Shiites, Yazidis and several other ethnic minorities from ruthless persecution.