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Analysis: Iran and the US are not such unlikely bedfellows

© AFP

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2014-06-17

If Iran and the US decide to cooperate over Iraq, it would not be the first time that they have worked together on a common mission, says Iran specialist Thierry Coville. He speaks to FRANCE 24.

Following the swift territorial surge of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Iraq, the Iranian president Hassan Rohani announced on Saturday that his country was ready to provide military support for fighting the Sunni jihadists.

But Iran, which has a Shiite majority, might not intervene alone.

The United States and Iran held "brief discussions" on the crisis Monday on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

But not all US politicians are convinced that talks with Iran hold the key to stability in Iraq.

"It would be the height of folly to believe that the Iranian regime can be our partner in managing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq,” said the Republican Senator from Arizona, John McCain, in a press release on Monday.

Although it is unlikely the support announced by Rohani would take the form of direct intervention in the battle, the speed of Iran’s reaction shows how concerned it is about the chaos that threatens its neighbour. According to the British newspaper “The Guardian”, Tehran sent one of the most senior officers of its Revolutionary Guards, General Qassem Souleimani, to Baghdad. Nearly 2,000 Revolutionary Guards are already in Iraq, an Iraqi source told the paper.

Thierry Coville, who is also a specialist on Iran and professor at the Novancia Business School in Paris, explains the background to FRANCE 24.

FRANCE 24: Will Tehran be forced to cooperate in a joint effort with the US, which would go against the grain for both of them?

The fact that Hassan Rohani did not exclude, on Saturday, the idea of cooperating with Washington is not a surprise. The Iranian regime is certainly ideological but it is also pragmatic. When it is in its interest, it can work with the United States. In 2002, when the Americans attacked Afghanistan, Iran gave the US all the information it had on the Taliban’s military bases. We knew already that Tehran and Washington negotiated, without saying much about it, when the American army was preparing its retreat from Iraq. On the nuclear issue, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president, the two countries held discreet talks in Oman.

What’s bringing the Americans and the Iranians together today are these jihadist groups that they both consider a deadly threat. They face the same risk and have a common interest in collaborating.

FRANCE 24: In the US, those in Republican ranks seem distinctly cool on the idea of woking with Iran. How would the Iranian people welcome such a partnership?

Iranian society has modernised and if it considers this to be in its interest, it will see no problem in Tehran cooperating with Washington. There may be a minority of radicals who are still very suspicious of the United States but pragmatism prevails. When Hassan Rohani makes such a statement, it is clear that everything is validated by the Supreme Leader. All this has been weighed and calculated. But, if the Iranians do agree to cooperate militarily with the United States, we must then see at what level that will take place.

FRANCE 24: Why is the current crisis important to Iran?

Given Iran’s past trouble with its Iraqi neighbour, notably under the reign of Saddam Hussein, it is vital for the Islamic Republic to maintain a Shiite government on its doorstep. The regime in Tehran sees the advance of the jihadists in Iraq as a serious threat to its own interests. For the Iranians, especially the conservative press, the islamist movements are supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are fiercely anti-Shiite and have, as their main objective, the goal of weakening Iran’s influence and its interests in the region. Today, Tehran’s immediate objective is to help Baghdad contain this Islamist push. It has no interest in letting the jihadists set themselves up in Iraq. Not even in one region of the country. The partition of Iraq is unimaginable for Tehran.

FRANCE 24: How involved is Tehran in the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki?

Iranian influence in Iraq exists as a fact of the history between the two countries. All the Shiite political groups who were thrown out of Iraq by Saddam Hussein took refuge in Iran at the beginning of the 1980s, just after the Islamic Revolution. They have lived there a long time, they have been trained and they have established links with the authorities in Tehran. Some of them have even had responsible roles within the Iranian government. I think notably of Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who was minister of justice. With the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has developed political influence via these groups and also the Shiite clergy, which is a large, transnational religious family. Over the years, important economic issues have also been grafted on; Iraq has become the main market for Iran’s non-petrol exports. We’re talking about six billion dollars.

However, Iraq’s prevailing nationalism means Tehran must find a good balance. A prominent presence might trigger rejection.

FRANCE 24: Since the jihadist offensive by ISIS, how has the Iranian presence in Iraq manifested itself?

In Syria, where there are similarities with Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards have been officially confirmed as having men on the ground. They do not fight directly but they advise the Syrian army. So it is possible, and even logical, for Iran to dispatch advisers to Iraq. There are Shiite militias in Iraq, trained and armed by Iran.

But it remains unlikely that Iran will send troops into combat. Tehran remains cautious. If, suddenly, the Sunni population learned that Iranian Shiites were fighting directly in Iraq, it would only reinforce the divide between the two faiths.

Date created : 2014-06-16

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