One of the intriguing side issues to the fight against Islamic State, particularly in Iraq, has been the role played by Iran and the Shia militias that it supports.
Along with the Kurds, they have been the most effective force opposing the Islamic State fighters, having retaken Sunni Tikrit and now mobilising to help recapture Ramadi, capital of the Sunni Anbar province.
This has presented Washington with a dilemma: how to treat a country with which it is in delicate and historical nuclear negotiations; with which it shares a common enemy and friendly ties with the government in Iraq; and which supports a regime in Syria that Washington has said lacks legitimacy, is part of the problem and needs to go.
For Iran, the battles against Islamic State in Iraq are not a matter of choice; it believes Islamic State represents an existential threat not only to Shia Islam’s holiest sites in Iraq but to Iran itself. In December last year, at the funeral of Brigadier-General Hamid Taghavi, an ethnic Arab officer in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the most senior Iranian military officer killed in Iraq to date, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Admiral Ali Shamkhani eulogised him and said his martyrdom in Iraq meant Iranians would not have to shed blood in Tehran.
Washington is alert to these realities. At the same time, the White House appears frustrated with many Gulf Arab states’ unwillingness to attack some of the root causes for the growth of radical Islamism by undertaking meaningful political, social, economic and educational reform. Saudi Arabia also has taken away the focus of the Gulf Arab states’ air forces from the anti-Islamic State campaign to wage an open-ended air war against Houthi forces and parts of the Yemeni military aligned to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. There are also reports Riyadh, Doha and Ankara have been bolstering non-Islamic State Islamist groups in Syria, leading to the capture of Idlib, although there are concerns the weaker the Syrian regime becomes, the easier it is for Islamic State to operate.
In such a confusing regional security environment, it is little wonder the US has had to develop a modus vivendi with Tehran in the Iraqi theatre that allows them to forgo direct co-operation but allows indirect co-ordination. They are, after all, fighting the same enemy, and the US and its allies are providing aircraft as part of the mission and logistical and advisory support to the Iraqi military.
The Iranians are equipping, training and advising the close-combat Shia militia forces and are losing blood and treasure in doing so. And although the crisis demanded extraordinary responses, there is a fear that unless they are absorbed into the Iraqi army in the future or employed in the public sector, the growth and combat experience of the militias may prove to be a long-term problem once the short-term crisis has been resolved. This alone is enough to motivate the coalition forces to redouble efforts to train a competent Iraqi army, and a reason they will always keep their distance from the militias.
The Iraqi government obviously needs to acknowledge publicly the critical importance of the US efforts to assist it, while being cognisant of the geographic and ideological realities that bind Baghdad and Tehran. During his April visit to Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he had emphasised to Tehran that while he was thankful for its assistance, it must all be co-ordinated through the government, otherwise its actions would be considered hostile. But what Arab state leaders say in Washington and what they do when they return to their countries can often be different; one needs to bow to great powers occasionally and to deal pragmatically with regional powers every day.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran vary between crises. Despite occasional outbursts from conservatives in Tehran and opposition from their Washington counterparts and the Israeli Prime Minister, the nuclear negotiations appear to be going well. In Yemen, Iran has been playing the role of spoiler but little more. Its core interests are not involved in that fractious country and, despite media reports to the contrary, it doesn’t share ideological links with the Houthi movement, which represents the Zaydi sect.
Syria is a different story. Although there are also no substantive ideological links between Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime, Tehran’s core interests are involved there. Syria gives Tehran strategic depth and a conduit for logistically supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has tried to portray the fighting in Syria as an extension of the campaign in Iraq and, although there is more than a little truth to it, the US has shown little inclination to establish a modus vivendi with Iran over its activities in Syria.
So, while there is the rather unusual situation where US and Iranian efforts to combat Islamic State militants are running along parallel but complementary paths in Iraq, one should not use this as a basis for arguing the two countries are developing closer security relations elsewhere.
That is not to say this will not happen. As Washington finds itself frustrated with Arab states’ intransigence towards reform and Iran fights against what it claims is the real enemy in radical Sunni Islam, there may be more occasions when Washington and Tehran act in parallel.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute of International Policy and an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College.