ISIL Crisis Could Improve U.S.-Iran Relations

A silver lining on a bad situation.


Terrorist group the Islamic State, or ISIL, presents a bleak picture of the future of the Middle East and America's involvement there. This week they brutally beheaded an American journalist. The organization controls oil fields and has a well-coordinated military force that is growing by the thousands. It threatens to collapse Iraq and is quickly drawing the United States into another ground war in that nation. There may be a silver lining, though: The effort to stabilize Iraq could improve U.S. relations with Iran.

"U.S.-Iranian cooperation is quite favorable" and "it is only natural that the two powers join forces … to meet the common threat," explains the intelligence organization Stratfor. "Tehran and Washington's concerns about the Islamic State transcend Iraq's borders and include common interests elsewhere in the region."

"Iran wields considerable influence in Iraq," suggests The Guardian, but with a terrorist group slitting throats just across the border and gaining steam, Iran has an immediate interest in snuffing out the threat of spreading instability. Tehran has already launched several ground and air attacks. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Rouhani have both been saying that the two nations could work together to end the ISIL threat, which is a 360 from typical, antagonistic rhetoric between America and Iran.

Stratfor notes that both will likely be quiet about whatever work they do together, due to the domestic unpopularity of the other. And, military coordination will be limited by both nations' fear of each other's intelligence apparatuses. Although the two nations haven't had diplomatic relations for decades, their coordination for a common goal is not unprecedented.

The United States and Iran have cooperated against a common jihadist enemy in the past, such as when they worked together to topple the Taliban regime following the 9/11 attacks. Relations quickly soured again when U.S. President George W. Bush's administration declared the Islamic republic a part of the "axis of evil" and when controversy over Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program broke out in 2002. However, these tensions did not prevent the two sides from cooperating again in the U.S. move to effect regime change in Iraq in 2003.


To be sure, Iran has additional aims in the current situation. "If we agree to do something in Iraq, the other side of the negotiations should do something in return," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said today. "All the sanctions that are related to Iran's nuclear program should be lifted."

AFP notes that this "is the first time that Iran has explicitly linked its readiness to work with the West in Iraq with a lifting of the crippling EU and U.S. sanctions imposed over its nuclear program." But, as Reason contributor Sheldon Richman has detailed, Iran doesn't pose a real nuclear threat, this request is not unreasonable.