Since Syria’s vicious sectarian war spilled over into Iraq, the mood has been mounting in Washington to cooperate with Iran. With the consolidation of the Islamic State (IS) in large areas of Mesopotamia this summer, calls are now even being heard for joining forces with Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
In both cases, what drives this potential regional realignment is the notion that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The problem with this vision? My enemy’s enemy is not my friend, not even by the wildest stretch of the imagination. In fact, in both cases, my enemy’s enemy has been and remains friendly with my enemy. Despite its proclaimed dislike for Sunni radicals and its historic rivalry with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, Iran has hosted senior al-Qaeda leaders inside Iran since late 2001. Though ostensibly under house arrest, they were able to retain significant operational freedom.
Iran’s tactical alliance with al-Qaeda’s leadership stems from a deeper dislike for the US, which manifested itself through Iran’s support for the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban carried out large-scale massacres of Shia Hazara in Afghanistan. But that did not stop Shia Iran from supplying them with weapons in their fight against Nato forces since 2001.
For its part, Iran’s proxy in Damascus, Assad’s regime, for years allowed volunteers for the anti-American jihad in Iraq to transit through Syria. It did not bother Assad that these fighters, under different circumstances, would be his sworn enemies. After all, his loathing for Sunni radicals did not prevent Assad from hosting Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the same Sunni Muslim Brotherhood his father had drowned in the Hama bloodbath of 1982.
Eventually, the Sunnis turned on Assad. Iran has invested heavily in Assad’s survival by rallying its Shia Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to Assad’s defence. Regardless, there is evidence that, all the while, Iran has aided Sunni insurgents inside Iraq while Assad turned a blind eye to the rise of the Islamic State as a tool to divide, discredit and weaken anti-regime forces. IS has been busier fighting other insurgents than it has combating the Assad regime. Its brutality has helped cement the regime’s narrative that the insurgency is made of Islamist terrorists. In the process, it has cemented the West’s reluctance to come to the rebels’ aid.
Iranian backing of what Westerners presume to be its most implacable foes has been consistent. Such preference for Sunni radicals over Western powers shows how tenuous our partnership with Iran would be — tenuous and morally revolting.
Iran is still backing Assad’s genocidal regime, whose behaviour is partially responsible for the current sectarian spillover into Iraq and for the thousands of innocent lives lost as a consequence. The West should not join Iran on the frivolous assumption that a shared dislike for IS creates common ground on anything else. The best evidence for this is that Iran has been bent on killing Americans for decades. Iran was responsible for the bombing of the US embassy and the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, numerous kidnappings and murders of Americans in the Middle East, and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Since 2003, Iran has armed, trained, and financed the Iraqi Shia militias who killed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. Often guided by the very same Quds Force that Iran is now dispatching to fight IS, Shia militias also stoked sectarian violence in Iraq and in the process contributed to the crisis that Iran is now offering to help defuse.
My enemy’s enemy is also holding US citizens hostage. Two Iranian-Americans, former US marine Amir Hekmati and Pastor Saeed Abedini, are being held inside Iran on trumped-up charges. A former FBI agent, Bob Levinson, disappeared in 2007 during a visit to Iran and is widely believed to be in Iranian hands. Iran has a long history of seizing American hostages that goes back to the 1979 US embassy takeover. Not the most auspicious sign for partnership.
My enemy’s enemy continues to kill my friends. As the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, Iran supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel’s most implacable foes, the worst spoilers of stability in the Levant and arguably the two biggest obstacles to the Middle East peace process.
Finally, my enemy’s enemy is also hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons to assert its hegemonic ambitions in the region while oppressing its citizens at home. Helping it remove a rival will not quell its thirst for supremacy. In the Middle East America’s goals remain diametrically opposed to Iran’s ambition to establish its supremacy and erode America’s influence. Aligning ourselves with our enemies would not yield any added value in the fight against IS, but it would make Iran stronger and more indispensable in a region where Iranian and American interests have rarely coincided since 1979.