How Iran Could Help on Iraq

If Official Washington were a place where sanity prevailed and true American national interests were protected, there would be calls for cooperation with Iran to address the crisis in Iraq, but that would upset a big part of the neocon agenda, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

If any governments, besides the one in Baghdad, ought to be especially concerned about the recent advances in western Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it would be ones in the immediate Middle Eastern neighborhood at least as much as the United States.

To the extent any action by outsiders can make a difference in what is happening in Iraq, it ought to be those neighboring states that undertake it. We in the United States have a hard time realizing that, however, for two reasons.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a press conference in Iran. (Official Iranian photo)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a press conference in Iran. (Official Iranian photo)

One is the habitual American tendency to equate problems anywhere in the world with problems that are assumed to be within the capacity of the United States to solve and thus are problems that the United States ought to solve. This tendency is, in other words, the inclination to think of the United States as the world’s policeman, although put in that clichéd form, everyone would deny that this is what they want.

The other reason is the even stronger tendency to think of other players in world affairs in terms of rigid rosters of allies and adversaries. We condone what those on the first list do and condemn the actions of those on the second list, while failing to realize that each other country in the world, regardless of the labels we may habitually apply to it, has some interests it shares with us and others that conflict with our interests.

The ISIS story is leading Arabs in the Persian Gulf states, and especially in Saudi Arabia, to do some hand-wringing and forcing them to do some policy reappraisal. The Saudis, like Americans, have a habit of rigidly dividing their world into friends and foes, with all the automatic condoning or condemning involved, except that in the Saudis’ case the division is defined in sectarian terms.

In the Saudi view it’s Sunni good, Shia bad. But ISIS is a Sunni group that is so nasty and vile that Saudis in and out of government surely realize it is bad news not just for Shia but for themselves as well. The Saudis could usefully try to exercise some direct influence, including with positive incentives, on the Maliki government, with the objective of enhancing the status and political role of Iraqi Sunnis and thereby undermining the main appeal of ISIS. But first the Saudis have to get over their disdain for dealing with Nouri al-Maliki at all.

The neighboring state that has perhaps the biggest concern about the ISIS story, however, is Iran. The ISIS surge is one of the most salient and clearest examples in which U.S. and Iranian interests are congruent. Both Washington and Tehran want ISIS to be stopped. Iranian public statements have been clear about this objective, although reports vary as to exactly what Iran has done so far regarding assistance or intervention in Iraq.

There is right now an excellent opportunity for useful coordination between Washington and Tehran regarding messages to be sent to, and pressure to be exerted on, Prime Minister Maliki. If both the United States and Iran, the two foreign states on which Maliki’s future most depends, tell him the same thing about the need to move beyond his destructively narrow ways of governing, such pressure might begin to have a beneficial effect.

Although the Iranians have been happy to see the Shia majority in Iraq finally get out from under Sunni political domination, they also are smart enough to realize that Maliki’s performance is more a prescription for unending instability and Sunni radicalism, which neither the Iranians nor we want.

The United States and Iran have wisely been concentrating over the past year on the nuclear issue, so as not to complicate the negotiations with a premature broadening of the bilateral agenda. The ISIS offensive may be a reason to move up the broadening a bit.

If Iran starts taking, or is already taking, more forceful measures such as insertion of Revolutionary Guards into the fight, this probably will stimulate some of the usual alarms among commentators in the United States who are always alarmed about the idea of Iran doing just about anything in the region. The alarms will be misplaced. The immediate goal would be defeat of ISIS, a goal that we share.

More broadly what the Iranians want most in Iraq is to prevent a return to the sort of aggressive Iraqi behavior that in the 1980s, with Saddam Hussein’s launching of the Iran-Iraq War, brought immense suffering to Iran. Preventing such Iraqi behavior is certainly consistent with U.S. interests, too.

It has often and correctly been observed that by waging a very costly war that ousted Saddam Hussein, the United States did a big favor to Iran, which had far more reason than the United States did to regard Saddam as a menace. Wouldn’t it be only fair for Iran now to do most of the heavy lifting in dealing with the current situation?

And if in so doing, the Iranians incurred substantial costs, got overextended and started experiencing back home their own version of Iraq War syndrome, we wouldn’t be unhappy about that either, would we?

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

4 comments for “How Iran Could Help on Iraq

  1. June 16, 2014 at 23:00

    Thank you F. G. for reminding us about this history. Having read Stockwell and Kwitney during those years, I remember it well. The CIA is knee-deep in the ME as well as elsewhere. A re-reading of Alfred McCoy’s research into “The Politics of Heroin” is well worth the effort.

  2. F. G. Sanford
    June 16, 2014 at 20:19

    Wow, talk about a short memory. Saddam Hussein’s incursion into Iran in the 80’s was encouraged by the U.S. Government. Apparently, in true Stalinist propaganda fashion, we’ve managed to eliminate that picture of Don Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam from the public memory. That was taken back when we were also selling him poison gas to use on the Iranians. Then, of course, there was that nefarious entrapment scheme orchestrated by April Gladspie which encouraged Saddam to invade Kuwait. Never mind the details, but Saddam had a legitimate gripe against Kuwait, which was using lateral drilling technology supplied by US oil companies to tap Iraqi oil reserves.

    At the time, one of Professor Pillar’s CIA colleagues was earnestly committed to chronicling the disaster that would ensue if Saddam’s regime were destabilized. Weird, isn’t it? He was painted as a harbinger of doom who predicted – and I’m not making this up – widening of the wealth inequality gap, loss of civil rights at home, expansion of the “surveillance state” (yeah, he actually used those terms), destabilization of the entire Middle East, and an increase in world-wide terrorist activity directed particularly against the United States. Keep in mind, this was the FIRST Gulf War, not the invasion of 2003. His name was John Stockwell. Perhaps Professor Pillar remembers him. That was before “whistleblowers” were hounded to the ends of the earth for telling the truth.

    But really, all it would take to stop this would be a threat to tell the truth. The administration could release the 28 redacted pages of the 9/11 report and warn the Saudis to “stand by” for the wrath of the American public. Another quick solution would be an admonition to King bin Saudi al Fartbag that the U.S. Department of State is considering sanctions for violations against Human Rights. He would shudder at the thought of giving up psychosexual gratification induced by beheadings, amputations and stonings. Once that camel gets its nose under the tent, it would be about six weeks before the brutalized Saudi population is parading through Riyadh with poles sporting the heads of six or seven hundred Royal “Princes”. Now that’s a royal procession I’d like to see. Sooner or later, it’ll happen. Why delay the inevitable?

  3. JWalters
    June 16, 2014 at 18:28

    i appreciate the sanity of Mr. Pillar’s analysis. I would add that ISIS sees itself in a religious war with America. This religious war was predicted by by America’s Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, and many others, back in the 1940’s. A solid solution to ANY major problem requires going to the ROOT of the problem. For readers unfamiliar with the history, here’s how America found itself in this religious war with Muslims.

    Note: The warprofiteerstory link is “particularly highly recommended” by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern here –

Comments are closed.