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The Big Question: Who Wants to Defeat ISIS More--Iran or the U.S.?

November 10, 2014 Topic: Iran Iraq terrorism Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

The Big Question: Who Wants to Defeat ISIS More--Iran or the U.S.?

The bursts of criticism—from those who inveterately oppose any dealing with Iran, and those who inveterately oppose anything Barack Obama is doing, which include some of the same people—of a letter Mr. Obama reportedly sent to the supreme leader of Iran can readily be dismissed for multiple reasons. There is, to begin with, the spectacle of critics getting up in arms about a letter the contents of which none of us outside the administration, including the critics, have seen. We only have a general sense, from the Wall Street Journal report that broke this story, of the message the letter conveyed.

There also is the old notion that merely communicating with another party, whether face-to-face or in writing, somehow shows weakness and/or is a reward to the other party. It is neither; communication is a tool for us to express and pursue our own preferences and objectives, and to explore ways to attain those objectives. As Farideh Farhi notes, most of the people who are objecting to letters being sent to the Iranian supreme leader previously objected in the same way to having any diplomacy with Iran at all—diplomacy that already has achieved major restraints on Iran's nuclear program that years of non-communication were unable to achieve.

Then there is the crude, unthinking primitiveness of slapping a label of enemy on someone and acting as if the mere label is sufficient reason not to do any business with, or even to communicate with, that someone, with no attention whatever being given to the best ways to pursue our own objectives. Thus we have John (“bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain saying that “they [Iran] are our enemy” and that any U.S. foreign policy that deals with Iran is “off the rails.” And we have Mitt Romney saying that sending the letter was “so far beyond the pale, I was stunned. I was speechless. The right kind of approach in dealing with Iran is that we consider them a pariah, their leaders are shunned...” The label-making approach to foreign policy, represented by these comments, helps to satisfy the urges of those who for their own reasons need an enemy and for whom Iran has long filled that role, but it certainly is not a good way to advance U.S. interests.

Before we move beyond this most recent bit of primitivism, however, there is a lesson here regarding linkage, leverage, and the deployment of U.S. resources on matters on which U.S. interests parallel those of other states. When last year the United States with its P5+1 partners began serious negotiations with Iran after Hassan Rouhani became the Iranian president, the two sides wisely agreed to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear program and the nuclear-related sanctions. Each side has plenty of grievances with the opposite side on other matters, and if the agenda started expanding it would quickly continue to expand into an unmanageable smorgasbord of issues. But each side is, and should be, aware of how completion of a nuclear agreement would help to open the door to doing mutually beneficial business on other matters in the region on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel.

Awhile ago someone in Iranian officialdom commented publicly about how completion of a nuclear deal could lead to more effective Iranian and U.S. action against the newest Middle Eastern threat du jour, the group sometimes known as ISIS. The comment was a cue for opponents of the Obama administration in Washington to once again accuse the administration of being weak and allowing itself to be leveraged into making a bad deal. There is absolutely zero evidence in what is publicly known about the negotiations and U.S. negotiating behavior that this accusation is true. Besides, the Iranian comment was not even explicitly an attempt to exert leverage but rather a correct statement about some of the likely possibilities that completion of an agreement with open up.

Although we do not know the exact content, the sense that the Wall Street Journal report gives us about the recent letter to Ayatollah Khamenei is that it was an effort to persuade the ayatollah to endorse the additional Iranian concessions necessary to complete the agreement. As part of that effort at persuasion, the letter reportedly alluded not only to direct benefits to Iran that would be associated with a deal but also the prospect of more effective action against ISIS—in other words, the same sort of comment, conveyed in the reverse direction, as was heard from Tehran earlier. Domestic U.S. opponents who hopped on that earlier comment ought to be pleased that the Obama administration is turning the tables and that, if there is implicit leverage to be exercised, the United States is exercising it.

Which side succeeds in such maneuvers depends on who cares more about the issues at stake. The United States lost the Vietnam War because the Vietnamese adversary, riding nationalist sentiment in favor of uniting their country and freeing themselves from foreign domination, cared more about the outcome than the United States did.

To the extent we can make such comparisons (and admittedly we can make them only indirectly by inference, because direct inter-nation comparisons, like interpersonal comparisons, of utility are not really possible), it appears so far that Iran is the party that wants a nuclear deal more. The best indication of that is the Joint Plan of Action that was reached last year and in which Iran clearly made most of the concessions, freezing or rolling back the parts of its nuclear program that mattered most in return for relatively minor sanctions relief.

It also appears that Iran cares more about stopping and rolling back ISIS. The Iranians have been far more active on the ground, at higher cost and risk, in assisting the Iraqi government in combating ISIS than the United States has been so far. That is unsurprising and appropriate. The Iranians have better reason to be concerned about ISIS than we do. They live in the same neighborhood and have interests more directly threatened by ISIS than do we, who are more likely to be threatened only as a consequence of our own involvement against the group and the revenge that would flow from it.

 

The preceding set of facts makes for a state of affairs that ought to please us. Not only are we better positioned to play the game of implicit leverage; we can also see Iran do more of the heavy lifting against ISIS, both now and after a nuclear deal, but with even more opportunities for effective coordination of such anti-ISIS efforts in the wake of an agreement. Some Americans, however, are allowing their Iranophobic, label-directed approach to foreign policy to lead them to look this gift horse in the mouth.

We also lose some of our advantage each time we say or do something that makes it look like we care more about the fortunes of ISIS than the Iranians do. President Obama deserves criticism not for sending letters to the ayatollah and for mentioning ISIS in them but instead for saying things and moving troops in ways that foster the impression that ISIS is more important to us than to Iran. And American hawks deserve criticism the more they push Mr. Obama in this direction, which undercuts their own claim to be concerned about enhancing negotiating leverage against Iran. This is yet another example of a recurring tendency in American foreign policy, which is to insist on getting the United States so far in front in addressing problems that allies as well as adversaries become free riders rather than doing what ought to be their share of the pedaling.

 

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.