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U.S. and Iran, Frenemies in Iraq

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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U.S. aircraft could soon be conducting strikes to provide close support to Iranian special forces in Iraq.

It may be confusing, but it's not as crazy as it sounds.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation run by Shiite Islamist extremists that the U.S. considers sponsors of terrorism, is seriously alarmed by the advance of Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq.

Both Iran and the U.S. consider this group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS), to be terrorists. To counter the threat ISIS poses, both Iran and the U.S. are supplying weapons to the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq.

The Iranians already have some Revolutionary Guard personnel fighting in Iraq and may send more, just as they have to combat ISIS in neighboring Syria. The Iranians say they are willing to cooperate militarily with the U.S. ("The Great Satan"). The U.S. is considering airstrikes. So if President Barack Obama gives the green light, the U.S. military will be working with the Iranian military.

To make sense of this, it helps to focus on the goals and interests of each party:

  • The U.S.: ensuring a stable, unified Iraq that pumps oil and isn't under Iranian control.
  • Iran: ensuring Iraq never again poses a military threat, as it did during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; controlling Iraq and making sure the U.S. doesn't.
  • The Iraqi government: maintaining control as well as Shiite dominance in Iraq; avoiding becoming a colonial province of Iran or the U.S.
  • ISIS: creating a Sunni caliphate carved from Iraq and Syria, governed by an extreme interpretation of sharia; gaining control of some oil fields that are mostly in areas with Shiite and Kurdish majorities.
  • Iraqi Kurds: controlling all the northern oil fields; creating a de facto independent state.
  • Ordinary Iraqi Sunnis: creating stability and jobs; ending sometimes lethal persecution of Sunnis by Shiites, including Shiites in the military and government.

Many of these interests are reconcilable. For example, it should be possible to match Iran's desire not to be threatened militarily and not to have the U.S. in control of Iraq with the U.S. desire not to have Iran in control of Iraq. That would also match with what Iraq's government wants.

Other interests are not reconcilable. For example, it isn't possible for Iraq's Shiite-dominated government to assert full control over either the Kurdish or Sunni areas while providing the security and stability ordinary Iraqis want.

So the government will need to equitably share power and oil revenues, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused to do.Today, Obama sent a clear message from the White House lawn that he won't order airstrikes until al-Maliki commits to an inclusive government.

None of ISIS's goals are compatible with those of anybody else.

A caliphate requires carving out a new ethnically cleansed Sunni entity, safe only for those who adopt the group's radical version of Islam, as ordinary Sunnis under ISIS control in Syria have discovered. Building such a radical caliphate would involve a long period of war against Shiites, regional instability (see Syria), and disruption of oil flows from the world's No. 6 oil exporter.

Thus, the threat from ISIS creates a convergence of interests that could see the U.S. providing air support not just for Iran's Revolutionary Guard but also for the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish peshmerga as all three fight ISIS.

U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Iraq could have the side benefit of drawing some of the paranoia out of the relationship between the two. That in turn could improve their ability to conclude a final deal on Iran's nuclear program or reach agreements to abate the conflict in Syria. Cooperating with Iran may be the best option the U.S. has in Iraq.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

Editors: Marc Champion, Lisa Beyer

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at