By Ashley Dennee
Since the rise of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq has descended back to its fractured state status. The U.S. left the country in what it believed to be the capable hands of Maliki—fully expecting him to reunite factions within the state. However, rather than uniting the Shia and Sunni populations, Maliki pursued his own sectarian agenda at the expense of the country. Shunning the Sunni population from leadership, Maliki successfully threw fuel onto an already raging fire.
It was in this environment that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) gained a stronghold. The group is made up of Sunnis, some of whom were left from Saddam Hussein’s underground resistance. Deemed more violent than al Qaeda, partially because of their indiscriminate tactics and their strategic and tactical knowledge, they are actively seeking to control territory bordering Iraq and Syria—acting as a pseudo-state by imposing laws and taxation.
Last week, militants attacked and captured the city of Mosul, and have continued taking strategic cities in the north. Wednesday, the group took control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, successfully annexing one of Iraq’s most important economic resources. Iraqi security forces are slowly falling by the wayside. After fighting and falling in Mosul, they finally abandoned their posts, leaving ISIS to seize and utilize key U.S. supplied weapons and vehicles including Black Hawk helicopters and over $400 million in cash. Of all supplies, the U.S. should be most concerned about anti-aircraft missiles. While other weaponry will give ISIS an edge, anti-aircraft weapons pose the largest threat, especially considering that all U.S. military plans are based on the use of air power.
In response to the ongoing attacks, the U.S. has considered a range of options for engagement, from drone strikes, to providing air security, to Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) forces. While these options are problematic in light of ISIS’s probable control of anti-aircraft missiles, it has become all but a given that air power is all that the U.S. is willing to contribute to the situation. Although President Obama okayed the deployment of 275 troops to protect the U.S. Embassy, they were also “equipped for combat” should the need arise. It seems the U.S. is learning from its past experiences and the realization that al Qaeda cells inevitably resurface, more dispersed and driven than ever, as they have in the Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. While these threats are often more local, as is the case with ISIS, the fear is that they will, as in the past, become global if not kept in check.
Moving forward, the U.S. is hoping to gain control of the situation via an unreliable proxy—attempting to make support conditional on Maliki’s outreach to Sunnis and the formation of a multi-sectarian government. Thus far, Maliki has done none of what the U.S. (and many around the world) is requesting, but is calling Sunni leaders allegedly supporting the opposition traitors and accusing them of genocide. In the wake of his stubbornness, the U.S. has been left few options. Compelled to intervene for fear of the growing ISIS threat, the Obama administration has begun contemplating a partnership with Iran. This, too, comes with its own set of caveats and potential regrets.
Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have made no secret of their willingness to work with Iran, especially since Iran has already offered its neighbor help. Some, including Senator John McCain, find this potential partnership disturbing and ill-advised, especially in light of the historically rocky U.S.-Iranian relationship and drastically different long-term agendas. In the short term, however, cooperation may be in everyone’s best interests. The IRG trained many of Iraq’s militias and may be perfectly suited to partnership with its neighbor. If this becomes a reality, the U.S. could decide on its level of involvement. Granted, if a partnership with Iran does come to pass, it is clear that the U.S. will want oversight and be more than happy to take on a hands-off, managerial role. Support for a U.S.-Iranian alliance is strong in Iran, where it is believed that the union would only strengthen diplomatic relations. President Hassan Rouhani has said that many including Kurds, Shias and Sunnis are ready to sacrifice for a more inclusive and stable Iraq, and this inclusiveness may be pushing the U.S. forward.
A major stumbling block in cooperation is Iran’s nuclear dream. The U.S. has clearly stated that the two issues are mutually exclusive and will remain so. Actions, however, say otherwise; Iran has been pushing for a deal that would allow for the expansion of uranium enrichment. While the U.S. and other Western states are saying that imposed limits are permanent, their willingness to engage at all shows the issues are not, in fact, separate.
If this is the price for Iranian, rather than U.S. boots on the ground, will the U.S. take the bait? There is a clear need for cooperation in the region. Allowing Iran to take the proverbial lead on the ground could be a great option, but the U.S. should proceed with caution. Giving Iran so much power may lead to unforeseen consequences, further ignite the current capabilities of ISIS and threaten U.S. lives. Americans are not prepared to enter another war. Doing so must be done carefully and strategically.
Addendum: As this article was going to post, news arose that the U.S. was pushing Maliki to step down as a condition of U.S. support. While not an official condition, the prime minister has rejected this stipulation. Note the above article does not reflect this development.