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The unspoken US-Iranian alliance against IS militants

AFP | Supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

While Iran was snubbed by the Americans and denied an invitation to join the broad international coalition against the group labeling itself the Islamic State, it’s a different story on the ground in Iraq.


US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iran’s participation in the September 15th summit on Iraqi security "wouldn’t be appropriate", considering its active support for the Syrian regime. However, it was also clear that the West wanted to avoid religious friction between its key Middle East allies, who are Sunni Muslims, and the Shiite Muslim Iranians.

For their part, the Iranians scoffed at a conference about Iraqi security without Tehran or Damascus, who are "already fighting the jihadists".

Despite the superficial appearance of an American rebuff, Iran stated that it had rejected US overtures to help in the fight against the militants.

“Right from the start, the United States asked through its ambassador in Iraq whether we could cooperate. I said no, because they have dirty hands,” supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement on his official website.

Despite Tehran’s strong words, Kerry said Washington remained open to some form of collaboration with Iran.

For his part, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari voiced concern about Iran's absence from the international conference in an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24.

'Iraq wants a role for Iran in the anti-IS coalition,' al-Jaafari said.

Iran is “ok with the US bombing the jihadists”

In the face of such language, one could assume that the US and Iran are at complete loggerheads, but the reality tells another story  at least while the foreign policy interests of these two countries conjoin on the question of fighting IS.

Washington and Tehran’s collaboration in Iraq against the jihadists may be discrete, but it is already well underway.

On August 31, following US airstrikes, the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias directly tied to Iran broke the siege on Amerli, a northern Iraqi city that had been under siege by IS militias. What’s more, video footage emerged purportedly showing Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, on the frontlines of the battle against IS alongside Iraqis likely trained and instructed by the US.

"Americans have sent advisors to Iraq to help the Iraqi army and the Iranians have done likewise, so we can assume that they exchange information or, at the very least, that they are speaking in an indirect manner. After all, they are technically in the same camp  they are fighting side-by-side against IS,” explained Thierry Coville, a specialist in Iranian politics who works at French international relations research institute IRIS in an interview with FRANCE 24. "The Iranians are pragmatic, they can’t let a group who has a completely anti-Shiite agenda come that close to their borders. Without saying it openly, they are ok with the US bombing the jihadists.”

Politically speaking, the Americans and the Iranians are on the same wavelength as well. “Iran contributed to pressure leading to the eventual resignation of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which was also a sought-after goal of the Americans. That was a significant gesture of cooperation," said Karim Sader, a political commentator and consultant specialising in the Gulf states.

For Iran, IS is a Washington creation

In the end, however, it is diplomatically impossible to officially acknowledge this cooperation. Besides, Iran’s exclusion from the coalition suits all parties.

The US doesn’t have to awkwardly justify to its citizens working with a country it has often condemned and continues to sanction. Moreover, the West gets to avoid angering its friends, the Sunni monarchies, and sidesteps the possibility of exacerbating Sunni-Shiite tensions already rife in the region. The Middle East is shaped by constant flare-ups in tension and sectarian violence between these two major denominations of Islam.

"It’s obvious that Iran is already cooperating with the West, but it is too early to officially acknowledge it, notably to avoid upsetting Sunni Saudi Arabia", said Sader.

Iran benefits from this arrangement as well. The Iranian regime saves face by refusing publicly to fall into line with Obama’s camp. Perhaps most importantly, Iran avoids having to join forces with the nation always presented to the Iranian public as none other than Satan, and Tehran has always insisted to its citizens that the creation of Islamic State group is the fault of the US.

Furthermore, the Iranian mullahs still fear that Washington has never actually renounced its goal of toppling the Islamic Republic. Iran’s visceral mistrust with regard to Washington was recently confirmed by a senior Iranian official interviewed on condition of anonymity by the site "Al-Monitor", which specialises in the Middle East.

“Iran doesn’t trust the US, this is something the leader said before, and today all our commanders agree on: the US can’t be an ally of Iran, and Iran can’t fight under the command of the US   we will continue to fight our war our way,” the official said.

Experts say this de facto collaboration between Iran and the US is still limited to Iraq. The interests of the two countries diverge as soon as you cross the border into Syria, where Iran supports President Bashar al-Assad and the US supports the moderate rebels fighting against his regime.

Ultimately, this fragile, unofficial alliance is restricted to a time and a place defined by the urgent need of both countries to fight the very real threat of the Islamic State group.

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