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Iran, US cooperate behind the scenes

Interview: Spencer Kimball
September 25, 2014

Bitter adversaries for a generation, the US and Iran now face a common enemy: the "Islamic State." But Dr. Roham Alvandi tells DW that politics prevent Tehran and Washington from cooperating publicly.

Javad Zarif und John Kerry at Munich Security Conference.
Image: Getty Images

DW: What are the US and Iran's respective interests in fighting the "Islamic State"? Are they opposed to IS for the same reasons?

Roham Alvandi: They're not quite the same reasons. They each have their own interests in Iraq, and they each have an interest in containing and eventually defeating the Islamic State. From the US point of view, what they're trying to do is defeat the IS threat but also create some sort of inclusive government in Iraq where you have some sort of balance between the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds.

Whereas from the Iranian perspective, that's much less their priority. They're very much backing their allies in Iraq. But on the whole, there's probably more cooperation going on than meets the eye. I suspect that there was a great deal of cooperation behind the scenes that has to do with the creation of the new government in Iraq, and I suspect that there's also some cooperation in terms of the military operations that are going on. But neither side has an interest in acknowledging that openly, so they're going to keep that very quiet.

Ayatollah Khamenei said that he rejected an offer from the US to cooperate against the Islamic State. Why would Iran oppose cooperating with Washington against a common enemy?

Iran assisted the United States in Afghanistan back in 2001. They helped defeat the Taliban; they helped create the Bonn process [to rebuild Afghanistan's political institutions]; they helped create the Karzai government. And what they got in exchange for that was "axis of evil" and more sanctions. Nothing came out of it and that was quite a gamble for President Khatami who had convinced the leadership that this was the right thing to do. So you can't really blame them for being skeptical as to whether the US will really come through on any sort of quid pro quo as far as Iraq is concerned.

So the Iranian government doesn't see anything to gain from publicly supporting the US or publicly joining a US-led coalition?

President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would like to make a case that the US should give some kind of concessions to Iran on the nuclear issue because of the help Iran can offer in Iraq. The problem is that any kind of cooperation in Iraq has to be weighed against the domestic political costs of doing so, both in Tehran and Washington. And I think the calculation is that it's better to cooperate quietly and secretly than to try and to invest any political capital in doing anything openly.

Roham Alvandi Geschichtsprofessor
Dr. Roham AlvandiImage: privat

US Secretary of State John Kerry refused to invite Iran to the Paris conference on the Islamic State. But he's subsequently said that Tehran "has a role to play" in fighting IS. How do you interpret the US position?

Kerry has his own constraints. On the one hand, like Zarif, I'm sure he would like to use this as an opportunity to push ahead with the détente with Iran. But the problem is that they have all sorts of other coalition partners who are working with them on the issue IS. Some of them, like Saudi Arabia for example, would be very unhappy to see Iran involved in that effort. It's a delicate kind of balancing game.

Up until now, what role has Iran played on the ground in Iraq in combating the Islamic State?

My impression is that it's been sort of an advisory role. It's fairly clear that the Revolutionary Guards are in Iraq, that they're helping to coordinate the militias that the Iraqis have formed in a very short span time. I'm sure they're providing intelligence and other forms of support. There are very few indications that there's any Iranian combat units actually engaged in fighting. They have longstanding relationships with some of these Shiite militias. It's been very effective so far.

You have to try to imagine what would happen if IS managed to take over a Shia majority city or one of the major Shia shrines in Iraq. There would likely be huge humanitarian issues and massacres of Shiite civilians and so on. Iran would have very little choice but to intervene.

If the conflict escalates and Iran gets drawn in, then the costs to Iran will increase significantly, and then there will be public opinion to consider in Iran. I don't think anyone in Iran, including the leadership, wants to get dragged into another war in Iraq.

Are the issues of possible US-Iranian cooperation against the Islamic State and negotiations over Iran's nuclear program related?

There's a great deal of pessimism at the moment as the whether they're going to pull off a [nuclear] deal by the 24th of November. The two issues have been kept separate up until now. There was a great deal of concern that the conflict in Syria initially would sort of negatively impact the negotiations with Iran. Don't forget - the negotiations aren't just between Iran and the US. They're between Iran and six world powers.

So they've tried to present the nuclear talks as a set of technical discussion about arms control, centrifuges and that sort of thing. In reality, it's a political negotiation and these issues are connected. I think Rouhani and Zarif are trying to now connect the two issues in order to gain traction on the nuclear front. But I don't think it's going to work. I don't see enough give in the US position in order to do that. It's probably more likely that this quiet cooperation in Iraq will continue, and on the nuclear front we end up with some kind of deal which would be better than no deal for both sides.

Dr. Roham Alvandi is a historian of Iran and the modern Middle East. He has written extensively on Iran's foreign relations and is the author of "Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War." Dr. Alvandi is currently an assistant professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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