Before I begin, gonna get this out of the way; Iran isn’t the best country, let alone a perfect country. Sure, “neither is the United States,” but Iran is even further from perfect than that. That is not to say that they are an immature or backwards country. Iran’s culture and history stretch back thousands of years. They actually were doing pretty well for themselves until the U.S. and Britain decided the country shouldn’t be allowed to keep the revenues from its own oil sales. But that’s another story. The point is, Iran isn’t a cluster of radical Jihadist cells trying to develop a dirty bomb as some would have you believe. Iran is modernizing, urbanizing, and generally working towards a share in the level of economic and technological prosperity enjoyed by most of the Western world.
Iran is also, importantly, fairly stable. There was that famous hiccup a few decades ago (mostly due to the blowback of US intervention), but as the twenty-first century has dragged on through recessions and Arab Springs, Iran has not become increasingly radical and authoritarian, threatening to devolve into revolutionary chaos. It’s slowly, gradually, evolving into a more moderate state.
Again, I will not propose that Iran is or will soon become a beacon of “enlightened” western-style democracy. But in the present situation with ISIS, looking at Iraq (and ways out of it), the United States doesn’t exactly have a buffet of options. It can re-engage militarily, or it can ease the burden onto a regional ally invested in Iraq’s future. Military re-engagement obviously isn’t a solution. If after ten years of military efforts this stuff is still happening, it should be obvious the military option isn’t a solution. We can’t do “nothing,” or at least, it would be morally irresponsible. So who can we ease the burden onto? The only neighbor with the power, regional influence, and a self-interested motivation to effectively aid Iraq is Iran.
It goes without saying that the consequence of the military adventure in Iraq has been… mixed, but I’ll elaborate first to avoid begging the question. One of the worst results of the 2003 invasion was sectarian violence, sparked by members of the Shia majority which, under Saddam, was suppressed by the Sunni minority. After “democracy” was established, the majority Shia not only had the tactical capability, but the historical motivation for aggression upon the Sunni minority. Shia death squads emerged which essentially acted as a state-sanctioned mafia, driving Sunnis out of their cities and homes so that they could be occupied by Shia. Al Queda in Iraq (AQI) gained traction among the Sunni population by exploiting these crimes and posing themselves as the counterweight to Shia aggression. On top of the logistical nightmare of rebuilding a modern, functioning society in Iraq, the US had the profound military challenge of decreasing violence in the country, when it was caused both by terrorists and by sectarian civil warfare. It took ten years for the US to effectively marginalize AQI, and that was largely with the initiative taken by local populations who identified AQI as outsiders invading their country, and fought back.
ISIS itself, by the standards of a conventional military, is not a threat. At most 10,000 strong, it is currently drunk on its success in overrunning weak positions and racing towards Baghdad. This is blitzkrieg maneuvering, on the level of the Third Reich’s opening bid to claim Europe. However, ISIS is still a terror group, not a national army. They do not have the forces or logistical capability to take and hold territory, or to police it as a government authority, for a long period of time. They also have yet to fight a national army of any modern caliber of capability. If they do reach Baghdad, it is the most well-defended city in Iraq, not least of all because it is the seat of government power and authority, and if Iraq’s current ministry understands anything, it’s self-preservation. If ISIS attacks Baghdad, they will trigger a military response that will overwhelm them. In fact, the military response is already beginning. Sooner or later, ISIS will be defeated. That’s when the problem truly begins.
The attempt at conventional maneuver thwarted, ISIS will revert to using guerrilla tactics: infiltrating local populations, using hit-and-fade, sniper attacks, car bombs, all of those things which require few personnel but can cause significant damage. On top of being the serpent’s head which replaces that of AQI, there is also AQI, bloodied but not beaten, and the sectarian divides that continue to exist and fuel both organizations. It is a fantasy to assume military intervention will magically wave all of those factors away when it took ten years to get Iraq to this level of security and stability.
So, let’s look at the other option: sponsoring another nation to help stabilize Iraq. Much of the Middle East, from Egypt to Yemen, is consumed by the final throes of the Arab Spring, or its immediate results (a brutal Arab Summer?). Also, much of the Middle East falls on the Sunni side of Sunni-Shia relations, including ISIS, which predicates much of its justification with the unfair treatment of Sunnis in Iraq, one of few countries in the world with a Shia majority. Also among those countries? Iran.
Iran and Iraq have had a complicated relationship, to put it gently. Iran has done everything from waging war against Iraq to supporting terrorists against its post-Saddam government. That Iran has even considered aiding Iraq is surprising—but not that surprising. Iran recognizes that ISIS is not just a threat to Iraq and Syria (both bordering countries), but to the stability of the entire Middle East. Iraq’s government must be a nightmare to deal with now, but imagine if Iran had to contend with a large, unstable neighbor with large swaths of territory and resources along its border controlled by violently anti-Shia terrorists, when Iran is a mostly-Shia nation. An unstable Iraq is a risk to Iran’s security, economy, and simply any positive expectations for its own future. Whatever happens in Iraq in the long term is an immediate concern for Iran.
Large swaths of Mexico have been commandeered by violent drug cartels. Do you think the US is content to let its large, close southern neighbor fall to chaos? Spoiler alert: no. Is there any end in sight? Not really, but you can bet that at no point will the US give up the effort and hope the problem solves itself. The actions of those drug cartels directly affect the United States, making them a direct threat until they’re successfully marginalized or eliminated. That isn’t going to happen any time soon, so we’re in it for the long haul.
Iran is not an evil villain, content to sit back and watch the Middle East burn. They’re even more concerned with Iraq than we in the US are, because after we finally leave, they’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences. If there are problems (there will be big problems), they will be the only ones left to act on them.
I say, why not seize this opportunity for reconciliation? Iran is moving up in the world, and it’s certainly not thanks to the US. We can continue with a hawkish condemnation of the country for events that, ultimately, we caused, or we can bury the hatchet and move forward, recognize Iran as a legitimate nation, and maybe even formally apologize(?). Their domestic policies are, surely, a concern, but we will not democratize the world in a day, and certainly not by force. China has grown internationally by almost exclusively using a doctrine of what is called “soft power:” political assistance and inclusion extended to other countries to enhance its own reputation. Surprisingly, reaching out to other countries on friendly terms has vastly expanded China’s influence, without them needing to establish extravagant military bases or pummel other parties into submission. I’m not going to say that China’s perfect either, but there’s certainly a lesson to be learned here. The entire mess in Iraq was a result of the assumption that the US knows what’s best; the US’s global position has worsened dramatically as a result. By now it’s clear we need to suck up our pride, recognize we’re not the center of the universe, and treat other countries as equals. Iran’s a good place to start.