By FAISAL KHAN
WASHINGTON — Reports that Iran may be willing to join the U.S. coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in exchange for sanctions relief led to speculation about unprecedented cooperation with Iran. With a joint enemy in Syria, the appeal “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” suggested the United States might gain not only in the fight against the IS, but also in domains such as nuclear negotiations or on other conflicts in the region.
Unfortunately, such an approach would oversimplify the nature of the Syrian conflict and could create significant complications in the region. The civil war in Syria is not a bilateral conflict between IS and the regime, but instead a many-sided conflict involving dozens of militias, many of whom are virulently anti-Shi’a. The United States has supported some of the more moderate of these militias to create a stable rebel coalition, but an alliance with Iran could alienate these groups and play into the more extreme groups’ narrative about the persecution of Sunnis under Shi’a-led Iran.
Military cooperation with Iran would create similar suspicions among other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, about U.S. commitments to their alliance.
Likewise, bolstering cooperation with Iran on Syria could increase Iranian influence in Syria’s future. Iran would expect a consultative role should negotiations ever occur over the form of a new government in Syria. Iran’s interference in Iraqi politics was a major factor in exacerbating political and sectarian divisions, and further power plays by the Iranian regime in Syria could inhibit any future reconciliation that will be necessary if Syria is ever to exist again as a single country.
Like the “ping-pong diplomacy” between China and the United States during the Cold War, rapprochement with Iran has significant appeal based on the potential to alter the strategic calculus in the Middle East. The widespread instability that followed the Middle East cannot be solved with Cold War tactics. The United States must be careful about the risk to its long terms goals for a few hypothetical short term gains.