To Iran, or Not to Iran?

Tonight, President Obama stands to answer a crucial question in American foreign policy: Is the United States willing to cooperate with Iran when it comes to fighting the Islamic State?

Lately, there seems to be a double-standard taking place. While the U.S. has been quietly cooperating with Iranian troops on the ground in Iraq, it’s been publicly building an anti-ISIS coalition made up of mainly Sunni-based allies. And despite the fact that we are backing Iraq’s Shia-led government, we are calling on President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, to step down from his regime in Syria.

Traditionally, the American approach to Iran has been one of containment, guided along the sectarian rift that exists between Shia-dominant Iran and our Sunni-led ally and key energy guarantor, Saudi Arabia. Fearful of an overwhelming Iranian power, which has the potential to stir unrest amongst key Shiite populations, the United States has sought to curb Iran’s influence where it can, mostly in Iraq.

Defeating ISIS will require a large ground campaign, one that the U.S. is more than reluctant to commit to. While the Obama administration claims that the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and a number of moderate Syrian rebels are ready to take on the Islamic State, the reality from the ground is that the ISF and Peshmerga have needed Iranian military support in order to do so.

To leave Iran out of the fight against the Islamic State would be a grave mistake. Whether we like it or not, Iran is a regional power in the Middle East, and its proximity to both Iraq and Syria means it has a stake in each conflict. Since the American invasion of Iraq, it has become evident that Iran seeks to extend its influence in Baghdad and Kurdistan, with or without the consent of the United States.

Failing to include Iran in a coalition against the Islamic State has the potential to severely undermine what most people would consider to be President Obama’s sole prerogative in the Middle East: an Iranian nuclear deal. Avoiding cooperation with Iran against ISIS would mean compromising the outcome of nuclear negotiations which have yet to take place. It would be telling Tehran that we cannot trust them, nor do we take their word seriously. As Aaron David Miller stated earlier this year, “Simply put, to have any chance of getting things done with Iran, America needs to be talking with the Iranians — not shooting at them in Syria or anywhere else.”

Iran has been one of the only viable forces in Iraq to support the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish militias in their brutal fight against the Islamic State. Preventing Iran from participating in the coalition against ISIS will not change the reality that Iran maintains influence in Iraq and Kurdistan, making cooperation more logical than not. A coalition against ISIS that excludes Iran only reinforces Tehran’s belief that the true goal of the United States is to contain Iran’s sphere of Shia influence with its usual Sunni allies. This type of thinking will most certainly undermine any success the United States hopes to achieve come time for nuclear talks. So now it’s up to you, President Obama: To Iran, or not to Iran?

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