Sorry, America: Iran Will Always Be an Enemy
Amid optimism that negotiators can hammer out an acceptable deal over Iran’s nuclear program, many see this as an opportunity for a possible rapprochement with Iran. This optimism is tempting, but a candid review of Iran’s recent behavior exposes this to be an unfortunate misjudgment.
While the headlines are consumed with the atrocities and seeming success of the Islamic State, it is not an existential threat to the United States. The Islamic State has not only not launched a successful attack in the United States, the only American citizens it has killed to date have been in Syria or Iraq. However, the enduring threat to American interests, allies, and stability in the region, as David Petraeus recently pointed out is Iran, whose proxies have killed hundreds of Americans in numerous countries across the region for decades.
While Iran has never overtly supported al-Qaeda, there is evidence that they have cooperated in areas of mutual interest. Indeed despite the fact that al-Qaeda believes that the Shia faith practiced by the vast majority of Iranians is heretical, al-Qaeda has perhaps curiously never conducted an attack inside of Iran. However, a major difference between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is the former’s emphasis on sectarianism. Indeed, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the former leader of its predecessor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was warned by al-Qaeda senior leaders to refrain from its incessant violence against Shias in Iraq. The Islamic State destroyed Shia mosques, executed thousands of its adherents, and threatened to topple the Iranian-backed government. With the blitzkrieg rise of the Islamic State, the United States found a shared enemy with Iran that could provide a common cause around which to build trust and repair the hostile relationship.
Consider the conditions that brought the Islamic State to prominence. It is widely accepted now that the actions of the Iraqi government under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki alienated its Sunni population. Whereas Sunni leaders worked with the government during the uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq known as “the Awakening,” they did so with the security guarantee that United States forces would protect them against sectarian violence from Iraq’s Shia militias. However the withdrawal of any meaningful United States military presence in 2011 meant the dissolution of that guarantee.
As American leverage waned, Iranian influence rose. Emboldened by support from Iran, Nouri al-Maliki systematically discriminated against Sunnis, purging the ranks of the Iraqi Security Forces in favor of his loyalists, arbitrarily arresting Sunni tribal and political leaders, and filling the government with Shia political allies. Feeling increasingly marginalized and outright threatened by the Iraqi government, disaffected Sunnis turned to the Islamic State. Whether or not the United States could have maintained more leverage by leaving behind a larger force is debatable, but Iran’s backing certainly enabled Maliki’s sectarian political maneuvers to set the conditions for Iraq’s Sunni population to turn to the Islamic State.
Similarly, the credibility of the United States as a reliable partner has fallen while that of Iran has only increased. Threatened by the forces of the Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad unleashed a brutal wave of repression that has spiraled into a drawn-out civil war displacing millions, killing hundreds of thousands, and spilling over into neighboring countries. Despite the continued onslaught of a myriad of foreign backed militant opposition groups, Assad remains in power largely due to support from Iran both in blood and treasure. Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Generals have been killed on the front lines in both Syria and Iraq. Iran’s premier proxy, Hezbollah, has lost hundreds of fighters on the battlefield. Despite crippling sanctions from the international community, Iran provided billions of dollars to the Assad regime.