Helia Ighani is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Iraq appears to be coming apart at the seams. The Sunni terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has expanded dramatically across Iraq over the past few months and murdered more than fourteen hundred Iraqis in August alone, and Iran is one-upping the United States in efforts to regain control. Both countries are actively involved in Iraq’s crisis, but have differing objectives for the future of the country. As the Obama administration strategizes on how to address the threat of ISIS, it should continue to build a coalition and refrain from working solely with Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s leadership historically swore off working with the United States. However, on September 5, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that he is willing to coordinate military operations with the United States in Iraq. The two countries do not have a great history of operating in war zones together. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iran has increasingly exerted its influence in Iraq by helping train militias, which on occasion attacked U.S. troops prior to the end of the occupation in 2011.
This summer, the United States and Iran both began arming the Kurdish peshmerga in the fight against ISIS. However, Iran has gone further than the United States. The president of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous state, Massoud Barzani, explained: “We asked for weapons, and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition.” There are reports of Iranian soldiers fighting alongside Iraqi Shia, training and funding up to twenty thousand Iraqi militiamen, and backing several Iraqi Shia militias. Other reports indicate that hundreds, or potentially thousands, of Iranian soldiers have joined the Kurds to fight ISIS.
Meanwhile, the United States—which has launched nearly one hundred and fifty airstrikes on ISIS strongholds and sent more than four hundred advisors to train and advise the Iraqi military—did not “have a strategy yet” on how to deal with ISIS. President Obama clarified at the NATO summit on September 5 that the United States intends to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. He is expected to deliver a statement on his long-term strategy toward ISIS today.
While both countries wish to see a stable Iraq, they have different endgames in mind. The United States wants to ensure it has a strong, dependable partner in the Middle East that is free of Iranian meddling. It has spent approximately $1.7 trillion since 2003 on the Iraq war and lost many American lives, and does not want to see those efforts go to waste.
Iran, on the other hand, desires to keep a Shia government in power and play down Sunni influence in the region. As the largest Shia nation in the world, Iran continues to exert its dominance in Iraqi politics. Iraq has the second largest Shia population in the world at 65 percent, after Iran with 90 percent. The two countries also share a sizeable Kurdish population, distributed with about five million in Iraq and eight million in Iran.
As ISIS attempts to carve out a caliphate in the Middle East, the United States and other allies should find a way to push back ISIS’s territorial gains and help bolster Iraq’s newly formed unity government.
Rather than working solo with Iran and emboldening Shia domination of power in Iraq, the United States should continue to build its coalition—which so far includes Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Poland, and Denmark—and encourage Arab League members to join in a collective response to ISIS. Of the six countries that share a border with Iraq, Saudi Arabia is its biggest humanitarian donor, recently giving $500 million to help displaced Iraqis. The Saudis could serve as a counterweight in the sectarian narrative, helping to balance Sunni-Shia competition in Iraq. Additionally, longtime ally Jordan may have a role to play. It has borne the brunt of spillover from Syria’s civil war, has increased security concerns and is seeking greater assistance from the United States.
The Obama administration should continue to support the Iraqi government and help defuse religious and ethnic tensions. This can be achieved by working closely with Iraqi leaders to ensure a lasting power-sharing agreement between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, as well as the Kurds.
As ISIS’s reach and influence continues to pose a threat to Iraq’s territorial sovereignty and regional stability—with the group now estimated to have upwards of ten thousand fighters, including as many as three thousand foreign nationals—the United States should develop a comprehensive policy to dismantle ISIS and secure Iraq in the long term. By not addressing the situation swiftly and effectively, the United States will fall further behind Iran, ISIS will continue to make political and territorial gains, and sectarian narrative will continue to thrive.