Small Wars Journal

Could Iran and the US Overcome Their Mutual Animosity to Eradicate Daesh?

Tue, 03/15/2016 - 7:54pm

Could Iran and the US Overcome Their Mutual Animosity to Eradicate Daesh?

Ehsan Ahrari

As the United States is eagerly, if not desperately, trying to build its anti-Daesh (ISIS/ISIL/IS) coalition, Iran is increasingly appearing to be an important potential player in that arrangement.    However, despite the fact that the US-Iran nuclear deal is slowly evolving as a result of a steady compliance by the latter, these two countries are not coming together in their common fight against Daesh.  The chief obstacle is the long history of their mutual animosity.  However, given the mutuality of interests both Tehran and Washington possess about eradicating Daesh that animosity is very much resolvable, if both sides succeed in neutralizing the unfriendly environment that currently prevails inside their respective borders toward each other. 

Viewing from the perspective of hierarchy of military power, Iran and the United States belong to two opposite ends.  The United States is undoubtedly the most powerful country on the globe, while Iran may best be described as the second most powerful country in the Middle East.  Yet both America and Iran are not only palpably apprehensive of each other, but particularly the latter has never acted as if it is intimidated enough by this power differential to kowtow to American hegemony in the Middle East. 

Despite the fact that Iran and the United states have signed a nuclear deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, made it clear on many occasions that the chances of US-Iranian rapprochement on other strategic issues are non-existent.  By the same token, the United States insists that, unless Iran abandons its militant rhetoric toward Israel and behaves like a ‘normal’ nation in the Middle East, there is little-to-no-hope for the return of an era or US-Iranian comity.   

Iran never seems to have forgotten the fact that the United States, along with UK, was part of the Western conspiracy to keep it as a servile state.  The role of those countries in the nefarious CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 against the democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq made an indelible imprint on the collective memories of Iran’s post-revolutionary ruling elites.  The second most hateful reality in the calculation of the Iranian rulers was the blind support of the United States of the tyrannical rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  He was not only brought back to the throne after that coup, but was also showered with military wherewithal—for which he paid in top dollars—only to serve the Anglo-American hegemony in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East at large.  The Islamic Revolution of 1979 damaged (though did not end) that hegemony.

The United States never accepted the legitimacy of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and took several measures to bring about its end, including by resolutely providing assistance in building Saddam Hussein’s chemical arsenal, which he brutishly used against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 through 1988.

Despite America’s maneuvers to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran, the latter emerged as a palpable source of threat to the US hegemony in the Middle East.  It established a permanent presence in Lebanon by politicizing the Shia’s of that country, and by creating the Hezbollah.  Hezbollah originally emerged as a paramilitary force, but then transformed itself into as a powerful political party.  As such, it not only played a crucial role in bringing an end to Israel’s own hegemonic ambitions to transform Lebanon into its puppet state, but also became a major political player in the confessional politics of that country.  Lebanon remained a puppet state of Syria, whose military was eventually ousted from that country in 2005 as a result of the Cedar Revolution, a Western-backed move in the aftermath of the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

It was also in Lebanon that the United States encountered the real fury of Iran in the form of Beirut barrack bombing of 1983, which resulted in the death of 241 American servicemen.  They were part of the multinational peacekeeping forces in that country.  The bombing itself was supposedly Iran’s revenge of America’s support of the Saddam regime during the Iran-Iraq war in which 750,000 Iranian were reported to have perished.  A shadowy group, Islamic Jihad, took responsibility for the Beirut bombing, but it was generally regarded as the work of Hezbollah.  Syria, Iran and Hezbollah denied any responsibility for the bombing of the Beirut barracks; however, in 2004 Iran erected a monument in commemorating its “martyrs.”     

Iran successfully sabotaged Israel’s aspirations to create a puppet regime in Lebanon and, through that precedence, also wanted to bring Jordan or even Syria into its fold.  The credit for bringing about Israeli humiliating withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 goes unswervingly to Iran’s agent, Hezbollah.

When the United States invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, Iran did its best to make that adventure most painful and bloody through the use of the Shia militias, its Quds force, and even by cooperating with the Sunni insurgents of Iraq (which were a conglomeration of Islamists, irate Iraqis, and the remnants of Saddam’s Baathist militias).  When the United States was forced out of Iraq in 2008, Iran’s hegemonic presence of that country became a painful reality for the administration of George W. Bush and his coterie of neoconservatives, who were dreaming of transforming Iraq into America’s puppet.

The irony—but the most heartening development for Iran—stemming from America’s post-9/11 militarism is that, it not only disposed of Saddam Hussein’s despicable regime, but, even before that, it also dismantled Iran’s another arch-enemy in the neighboring Afghanistan, the Taliban regime.  The end of the Taliban rule was not as promising for Iran as the implosion of the Saddam regime, but Iran did emerge as a major player in the future modalities of political stability, if or when they  materialize under the American management, if not its leadership.

The Arab Awakening—which started in December 2010 and brought an end to four dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen—created an era when America’s clout in the Middle East was palpably reduced.  President Obama’s decision to accept the ouster of one of America’s staunchest allies, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, caused ample resentment in Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh interpreted America’s public urging of Mubarak to step down as an unalloyed abandonment of a trusted friend.  That event might also be the beginning of an independent foreign policy behavior of Saudi Arabia on all issues of regional and global significance.  It started to inform (as opposed to consult with) Washington before making such major decisions as starting a war in neighboring Yemen.  It also made abundantly clear its opposition to President Obama’s decision to negotiate the US-Iran nuclear deal, which had major implications for the GCC states, but particularly for Saudi Arabia, which had long regarded Iran as its major nemesis. 

Iran originally (and wrongly) compared that Arab mass movement with its own Islamic revolution of 1979; however, considering the fact that it had brutally suppressed its own populist Green Movement in 2009, it quickly abandoned the grotesque campaign of accentuating similarities between the Arab Awakening and the Islamic Revolution.

The Arab Awakening did not negatively affect Iran’s strategic maneuverability in its immediate neighborhood.  In fact, as Iraq became the victim of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s intensely bigoted sectarian policies, Iran found itself getting increasingly enmeshed into the bloody battles initiated and/or exploited by al-Qaida in Iraq (which eventually transformed itself into Daesh) to check that entity’s steady takeover of the Iraqi territory.  Another irony of that era was that the Obama administration, which brought about an end to America’s occupation of Iraq, was forced to reinsert its military—albeit in small numbers—in the Iraqi theater of operation to stabilize the Iraqi government.  That development evolved into an important congruity of strategic interests of Iran and the United States.

In the Syrian theater of operation, on the other hand, Iran and the United States found themselves fighting on the opposite side with specific reference to the bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad.  That regime was leaving no stones unturned to keep itself in power against a mishmash of fighters from Islamist, nationalist, al-Qaida-affiliated groups, and Daesh.  At the same time, Iran and the United States were also focused on attacking Daesh, whose self-styled ‘caliphate’ had its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.   

The United States’ chief concern is how to find an alternative to Bashara Assad.  The transformation of Libya into a failed state in the post-Qaddafi era has made it virtually impossible for the Obama administration to remain cavalier about the emergence of chaos in the post-Assad Syria, which Daesh would love to exploit by escalating its death grip on that country.   

As much as Iran and Russia are determined about sustaining the regime of Bashara al-Assad, neither of them is so wedded to the proposition of Syria under Assad that it would not accept a political resolution of the Syrian conflict in which their respective strategic interests are safeguarded once Assad is gone.  Only the  United States, even with its diminished political clout in the Middle East, may be able to bring all parties to this conflict—Iran, Russia, Saudi  Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and the UAE—together in order to find a mutually acceptable solution. 

Of all these parties, the most significant ones are the United States and Iran.  Russia, with all the bluster about supporting Assad, no matter what price it would have to pay, has severe limitations to its staying power.  Its economy is already under excessive duress stemming from the US-EU economic sanctions emanating from Russian illegal incorporation of Crimea and its continued shenanigans to destabilize Ukraine. The fact that the global energy policies have been consistently favoring the consumer has also made serious dents in Russia’s economy. 

In addition, Russia’s deteriorating ties with Turkey is disquieting Putin.  More to the point, the news that a large number of Russians are joining Daesh is also keeping lights on late into the night inside the fore walls of Kremlin and its security services.  Thus, the staying capabilities of Russia in the Syrian conflict are prone to accepting a political resolution, provided such a potential arrangement also ensures Russia’s continued presence in the post-Assad Syria. 

Looking at the Middle East from the American strategic interests, one can state with certainty that President Barack Obama would be very much open to getting Iran involved in a very serious way.  Any resolution of the Syrian conflict would deal a death blow to the destructive capabilities of Daesh.  More importantly, it would be considered as a major achievement of President Obama if he were to at least push it closer to resolution before leaving office. 

At this particular point in its history, the Islamic regime of Iran is in an excellent position to extract the kind of legitimacy that it has been seeking from the United States from its very inception.  Washington needs Iranian political backing for the resolution of the Syrian conflict much more than it needs even that from Russia.  Iran  also knows that, if it were to play a major role in the political resolution of the Syrian conflict—especially in  a manner in which  its presence in that country is not jeopardized—it will be regarded as one of world’s major emerging power.  Just this point is so significant that Ayatollah Khamenei would seriously consider abandoning his contentious rhetoric about an alleged culture clash with the West.  Given these realities, the prospects of US-Iran cooperation for the eradication of ISIS appear bright.

About the Author(s)

Ehsan Ahrari is an Adjunct Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, Carlisle, PA, and the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, VA-based foreign and defense policy consultancy. He specializes in Great Power relations, Strategic affairs of the world of Islam, and anti-terrorism. His website is: He can be reached at: Views contained in this essay are strictly private.


Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/19/2016 - 2:13pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

cammo99...perfect example of the US disinformation...the question is why is CENTCOM feeling the need to basically misinform concerning Russian activities.....

Taken from the Syrian thread 2016

CrowBat...does this track with what you are seeing.....??

US Centcom denied all #Russia'n airstrikes on #Palmyra .
"They conducted not a single airstrike last week..."

If the CENTCOM has overslept the last week or so - and it seems it has - then sure.

In real world Russians are now carpet-bombing Raqqa. On 16 March, they killed at least 17 civilians (including 5 women and 7 children).

Yesterday (18 March), Assadists flew eight strikes on Raqqa - all of which hit apartment areas, killing 5 women and 7 children.

Today, it's turn on Russians and their Su-30s and Tu-22M3s. They have flown nine strikes so far, bombing the Tel Abyad Street (downtown Raqqa's most busy street, always full of people), Nawawi Mosque (or at least area around it), Industrial City, Nissan Garden and Thakna Neighbourhood. At least 43 civilians were killed and 50 injured.

Note: all of reported casualties are locals, i.e. Syrian civilians. These have de-facto no contact with foreign Jihadists (and their families) that moved in. Besides, the latter are living in the 'posh' part of the city, where there are no Syrians left. Therefore, hardly any of casualties mentioned could be connected to Daesh even in theory.

Just to make sure (although I really can't care any more about being called names for my critique of Russians): the last known/confirmed CENTCOM air strike on anything around this city was flown by UAVs on 12 March, and it hit a Daesh car underway in Moshlab neighbourhood.

Again the core question why does CENTCOM feel the need to misinform...BTW...this is not the first time in the last three weeks....

Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/19/2016 - 1:56pm

In reply to by cammo99

As someone who has worked with Iron Dome and THAAD/Patriots during major exercises in Israel.....fully agree that while we spent the billions US defense contractors profited handsomely and BUT we acquired only what the Israeli's wanted us to acquire as they never have really "shared" the capabilities of even Iron Dome......

BUT when it comes to the use of the word as suggested by cammo99 "Obama disinformation" some ways it is worse than that Putin uses....he uses it to pacify his civil society Obama uses it to cover up what he is not doing.

WHY is an interesting question..IMHO Obama truly feels the American public is not capable of fully understanding the complexity of the world right now outside of himself.

BUT I come from the generation of give us the correct information and the public is fully capable of making clear decisions...the problem is it might in fact be different than that of Obama and Kerry.

Obama is a neo isolation as simple as that and I honestly think the US is not that currently as a is confused right now about the rest of the world's actions but that is largely due to the poor information presented by MSM.

Heck there is a true ongoing war in eastern Ukraine after a full scale armed invasion of 11,000 Russian troops/armor and what does the American public really know about it....virtually zero....what do they really know about the moderate opposition in Syria outside of the heavy use of "they are all jihadi's"....


Sat, 03/19/2016 - 10:54am

Iran purchased over 350 million in British Pounds worth of arms prior to 2012 in violation of the embargo. Russia and China were major suppliers.

Although Russia has announced it is leaving Syria, again, (That's the thing about Russia, it can show up again.) it's S-400 batteries and assume personnel remain to stave off Saudis and coalition allies.

American Generals have in the past few days indicated that the US is falling behind in military preparedness and it will get much worse. That story originated in Reuters? How was it not released in an American news outlet?

The facts are Russia benefits in two ways from Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon. First, it helps secure their tight grip on oil assets. 90% of Russia's air strikes hit "rebel" targets 10% were dumped on the Daesh primary targets were oil tankards over 2,000 were destroyed. They also have looser ROEs and disregard human shields, carpet bomb civilian areas and other conventions Obama imposes on US forces. Since the Truce there are reports Assad's forces are dumping barrels of chlorine on rebel villages. What is certain Assad is accused of genocide. The House passed a bill to declare the Daesh guilty of practicing genocide, immediately the Obama administration opposed the measure.

The second aspect Russia has safe guarded and created greater need for Iranian arms procurement and Russia's leaving only makes the need even greater. Russia will continue selling weapons to Iran, and Syria, Assad has rebuilt an Air Force that was down to 30% effective and has accepted hundreds of T-90 tanks. Russia exit secures the arms market demand.

The American left despises American militarism but remains mute when it comes to Russia's adventurist war making and arms trades. Perhaps even censures these sort of observations.

The recent Iranian ballistic missile tests in violation of agreements, gives greater urgency to American funding and full participation with Israel bringing on line David's Sling as early as the end of this year. We have also been made aware the Iron Dome will soon be able to detect and destroy Hamas tunnels. These are defensive weapons systems.

The region is a virtual arms market and oil pump, the US seems to have elected to participate only as an observer and stuck with some deals it can't squirm out of, the more progressive programs, David's Sling and Iron Dome. Which have been presented in the USA as too expensive and yet for every dollar received by Israel half is kicked back to American companies. And although America funds these expensive programs, we gain systemic knowledge of the systems as well as technological knowledge. The USA puts of money Israel the lives of its citizens.

The Obama admiration and USG have reached the highest point of deception and disinformation since at least the 1950s. Not to wage war but to wage peace, and it's effects are even more brutal.

From censoring the opinions of Generals, to Kerry's manipulative control of all diplomatic initiatives, largely failed, we the people are being kept in the dark, intentionally?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 03/19/2016 - 6:52am

The author has an interesting article from 2015 that is worth going back and rereading in light of both Iranian and Russian involvement in Syria.....…

THEN what is really interesting which requires one to go back awhile in history say 1979 through about 1989 and read a large number of Khomeini's writings on the subject of "Islamic revolution" and the "Green Crescent"....

THEN go back and analyze the rivalry between Khomeini and the then KSA King for control of the Muslim world order to fully understand the current hegemon battle going on between Iran and KSA which Obama claims should be resolved as a "cold peace"...

I really havent heard yet a sensible or cogent reason why the US has to be involved militarily at all, much less as a 'partner' to Iran. Whatever the solution for the problems in Syria, Iran will be a central player, but American involvement doesnt require military force at all. We are involved for better or for worse in Iraq in fighting ISIL (or Daesh), but that doesnt require anything on our part in terms of Syria.

There wasnt anything about the departure of Russia from Syria, so my assumption is this article predates that event. If Russia, as Syria's 'patron' has no need for a continued military presence, why should we? It would have been a much better idea if the US pulled out of Syria completely after the Russians got involved. Now that the Russians are leaving, it gives us another wonderful opportunity to leave as well. We have nothing to gain in Syria and much to lose.

Daesh doesnt represent any kind of real threat militarily and certainly not the existential one trumpeted daily on the news. It is 20-30,000 lightly armed irregular troops with minimal training, heavy weaponry and pick up trucks. The advantage these troops have over other forces in the area is that they are actually willing to stand and fight, so conscript troops will usually break and run, even when presented by greatly inferior numbers. A single US Mech division could mop the floor with Daesh in short order, but the battle isnt the issue, it is what happens after the shooting stops that makes military action in Syria a waste of firepower and manpower.

We need to be in Iraq right now and given the tremendous potential for the Mosul dam to become a horrifying humanitarian and ecological disaster, we should have 10-20,000 troops on the ground now in Iraq, with the sole intention of getting regrouting and secondary basin constructions underway in Iraq. That also might include US participation in the recapture of Mosul, with the understanding that once the area was stabilized (for the dams in a very literal way), the US presence would go away completely.

Again, the problem in Iraq is much like that of Syria. If Iraq and its allies are not willing to invest in long term stability operations, improving 'quality of life' for Iraqis and address the corruption and oppression of the current Iraqi government, ISIL will never go away. This is an insurgency and unless you are willing to commit genocide, you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency. Insurgent replacement will keep up with or exceed the ability to eliminate combatants, just as it did in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq earlier. Propping up corrupt governments is what creates insurgencies and unless you are able to deal with that underlying cause, military action of any kind is a futile waste of time unless you have a very specific time and geographically limited objective (ie the Mosul dam and surroundings).

The US will play a role in whatever happens in Syria, but it is the local stakeholders who will have to make the political changes and military commitments that end the various local insurgencies (incl Daesh)and rebel groups. We may end up turning over an objective like Mosul or its dam over to Iranian military forces, but that doesnt mean a military alliance.

Have a great day!