So… things in Iraq are not going well for anyone living there except ISIS. The Sunnis in the country, while fully recognizing that ISIS is so radical that they got kicked out of al-Qaeda, have nevertheless decided that they prefer the militants to the Maliki government. Which leaves open the possibility that the most radical group in the Middle East will now control territory and cities and wealth in the heart of the Middle East.
My WaPo colleague Marc Lynch has already provided a useful explainer for current events:
U.S. officials, along with most Iraq analysts, have spent the last half-decade urging Maliki to seek a real political accord, but he had little interest in their advice. I’ve long argued that the only thing that would force Maliki to change his ways would be his perception that his survival depended on it. When U.S. troops were fighting his war and securing his rule, he consistently refused to make the political accommodations that his U.S. advisers pushed upon him. After U.S. troops left, he enjoyed sufficient political strength and military security to strike the kind of political deal that could have consolidated a legitimate Iraqi order. Instead, he moved to consolidate his personal power and punish Sunni political opponents….
Maliki wants U.S. military aid, from helicopters to airstrikes, to fight the ISIS advance. Many in Washington will want to offer assistance to save Iraq from complete collapse. But at the same time, U.S. policymakers understand from painful experience that such military aid will simply enable Maliki’s autocratic sectarianism and allow him to avoid making any serious concessions.
I was surprised, however, that Lynch did not mention Iran at all. The standard DC narrative for the past few years has been that U.S. influence in Iraq has been displaced by Iranian influence. Now, the Iranian regime is a lot of (unsavory) things, but “fans of ISIS” ain’t one of them. As much as there’s pressure in Washington to do something about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, surely there are similar debates in Tehran?
Sure, enough, Reuters now reports that Iran would now be open to cooperation with the United States in Iraq:
Shi’ite Muslim Iran is so alarmed by Sunni insurgent gains in Iraq that it may be willing to cooperate with Washington in helping Baghdad fight back, a senior Iranian official told Reuters.
The idea is being discussed internally among the Islamic Republic’s leadership, the senior Iranian official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official had no word on whether the idea had been raised with any other party.
Officials say Iran will send its neighbor advisers and weaponry, although probably not troops, to help its ally Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki check what Tehran sees as a profound threat to regional stability, officials and analysts say….
Asked on Thursday about Iranian comments, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “Clearly, we’ve encouraged them in many cases to play a constructive role. But I don’t have any other readouts or views from our end to portray here today.”
This proffer has already triggered the predictable reactions:
Iran trades on ISIS victory to gain clout in Washington | http://t.co/ZWaFrGY7qV
— Mike Doran (@Doranimated) June 13, 2014
— Julie (@MsIntervention) June 13, 2014
It is a grotesque situation… but it’s the situation that’s happening right now, and I’m not entirely sure what the alternative solution is supposed to be. The one thing that I’m pretty sure the United States is not going to do is occupy Iraq again. Which means you have to pick your poison. Washington can tolerate an ISIS statelet in the heart of the Middle East and hope that, eventually, the terrorists alienate Iraqi Sunnis as in the past. Or, U.S. policymakers can decide that the enemy of its enemy is its friend in Iraq.
These are lousy options, but it’s certainly worth thinking them through. When you eliminate all the inconceivable options in Iraq, you are left with the unpalatable ones. What’s the bigger threat — an ISIS that can hold a significant swath of territory, or an Iran that would like to carve out a sphere of influence stretching across the Levant?
Based on Obama’s speech at West Point, I suspect he’ll label ISIS as the bigger threat. I also suspect U.S. allies in the region — and their supporters in D.C. foreign policy circles — would view Iran as the bigger threat. Which means that, going forward, there’s going to be a doozy of a debate in Washington about what to do.