The Devil You Know

By Nicole Calande, ’16

In US politics and foreign policy, is there any other state we love to hate as much as Iran? Not really. But this may have to change if the US wants to find a local ally ready and willing to commit in the fight against ISIL and other extremist or destabilizing elements in the Middle East in the future.

It doesn’t take a genius to see why we need a proactive and reliable ally in the Middle East. Looking back on simpler times, Saddam Hussein may have been a thug , but he promoted stability by keeping his house in order. Due to the  power vacuum after the US invasion in 2003, sectarian strife rippled through the entire region. Now Iraq and Syria are slipping through our fingers with the rise of ISIL and other affiliated Sunni extremists. This is a serious concern for the US. However, it is not a convenient concern for Americans. We no longer want boots on the ground trapped in endless wars in the Middle East – we want to pivot our attention towards East Asia and leave the mess to someone else. But who can clean up the mess? Who will? We have learned our lessons from Iraq and know now that if the US really wants to squash ISIL, it’s going to have to find regional players to do the heavy lifting.

But why Iran, you may ask? Why not Turkey? Or the Kurds? What about our Gulf buddies? Well Turkey has not fulfilled its role as a US ally and NATO member in its frustrating reluctance to actually support the Peshmerga, since Turkey fears that supporting Iraqi Kurds will only incite Turkish Kurds, especially the PKK, to demand more autonomy. Turkey has no real state interest in defeating ISIL , especially when doing so could empower a population that could destabilize the Turkish status quo.

In this vein, the US cannot solely count on the PKK and Peshmerga either to fight our battles for us. Doing so would only increase US entanglement, as the Kurds would seek greater autonomy. Furthermore,  theycould use ISIL as leverage to press the US for validation and approval for a more official Kurdistan. Relying on the Kurds would therefore be too political and could likely embroil the US in an ethnic and political struggle that it does not fully understand, nor does it really care about.

And our Gulf allies? They certainly have the money and the military installations to be a regional player. However, most people in these Gulf states are Sunni Muslims, and with the rising popularity of fundamentalist thought, there is a lot of allure in ISIL’s goal of reestablishing a caliphate. They will never truly oppose ISIL and we have to recognize that.

Iran, on the other hand, has a serious interest in defeating ISIL’s goal of recreating an Islamic caliphate. Their extensive ties with the Shiite-led government of Iraq, Assad regime in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon demonstrate a desire to maintain some balance of influence through the Shia Crescent. They care enough to be a potential candidate for regulating sectarian relations in the region. But this isn’t enough. We have to acknowledge the barriers to this, and even why it could be a disastrous idea.

US and international embargoes and sanctions would make it difficult for Iran to have access to enough arms to help the US in airstrikes or traditional boots on the ground. In addition, Iran’s human rights abuses could taint US legitimacy and respectability if we seemingly give them a free pass in return for combating ISIL. The US would need to make a clear stance against the Iranian government’s human rights abuses if we were truly to start working with Iran publicly. Most problematic is Israel’s likely response to a growing Iranian presence in the region – a problem that has no easy fix without a nuclear deal or regime change. Another equally large issue would be from those who argue that working any kind of agreement with Iran risks tipping the balance of power in a dangerous direction, one that we will not be able to contain.

Despite all of these concerns, I believe that now is the right time to start pushing for greater cooperation between the US and Iran. Plummeting oil prices are seriously crippling the Iranian economy, as well as heavy rounds of  sanctions. Recent public demonstrations spiraling from the death of a popular Iranian pop singer are making the government nervous about growing public unrest. While a nuclear deal seems unlikely at this point, it is a bargaining point between the two states that shows that dialogue is at least possible and mutually desired.

The only way we can move beyond empty talk is by pushing Iran to show willingness for even tiny collaborations. It is important to remember that collaboration between the US and Iran has happened before. ISIL is a great way for Iran to show their value to the international community, especially to a US that’s itching to pass the buck. In the past there was brief cooperation between the US and Iran with intelligence gathering on al-Qaeda. If Iran were willing to do the same with ISIL, perhaps also helping fund our friendly Kurdish fighters, it would go a long way to building a precedent for more partnership, perhaps even in long-term regional issues.

These long-term goals cannot happen with any sort of legitimacy, or at least within the public knowledge, until Iran changes its policy towards human rights. However, with the terrifying implications of a successful ISIL, we must look toward the devil we know, and begin shaping  Iran into a respectable, albeit tentative, partner for the short-term and long-term future of the Middle East.