ISIS and Iran: Bigger Threats to Each Other than to the West

by Benjamin Studebaker

During the past week, I went on a bit of a roadtrip (it’s the reason for the gap in posting). While I was driving around, I listened to some talk radio, most of which was religious, conservative, or both. I found what I expected to find–there’s a lot of fear-mongering and threat inflation on talk radio. But what really stood out to me was just how inconsistent it all was. Let me explain what I mean.

Two of the issues that really concerned the talk show folks were ISIS and Iran. In both cases, the concern was that US President Barack Obama is not doing enough. The talk show guys were convinced that Obama needs to be more aggressive against ISIS. It was not clear what form they wanted this aggression to take, but they seemed to think his heart was not in the fight. On Iran, they took the same position Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes–that Obama’s attempt to cut a deal with Iran is misguided and that he should instead impose more sanctions or take military action.

Here’s the thing–ISIS and Iran are mortal enemies. ISIS is a nominally Sunni organization (I say “nominally” because most Sunni Muslims would not recognize the actions of ISIS as consistent with Sunni Islam). Iran is a Shiite theocracy. Iran is the wealthiest and most powerful Shiite state in the region, while Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest and most powerful Sunni state. These two countries have been in a cold war for decades, fighting each other through proxies. The Iranians fund a variety of Shiite militias and paramilitary organizations in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, while the Saudis fund a variety of Sunni organizations. Each state and each faith seeks to dominate the region.

Before the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s regime kept a lid on this conflict. Under Hussein, Iraq was not friendly with either Saudi Arabia or Iran and was determined to conquer the latter. Iraq was never quite strong enough to pull this off, but the tension and warfare between Iraq and Iran prevented any state from dominating the Persian Gulf or the Middle East more broadly. Furthermore, because Iraq is situated between Iran and Syria, its hostility to Iran limited Iran’s ability to project power against Israel. It wasn’t pretty, but the pre-war balance of power created a modicum of stability:

Middle East 1990

Here Iran and its allies (Syria and Lebanon) are in red, Saudi Arabia and its buddy Kuwait are in green, and the Hussein regime is yellow. We can see how Iraq creates a buffer zone between the red and the green and how it breaks up the red.

But this stability was not recognized or understood by policymakers. At the time, it was believed that the Hussein regime was the primary source of instability in the region because it instigated wars with its neighbors and kept on trying to conquer more territory. The US and Saudi Arabia worked together to repulse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the US began looking for an opportunity to do regime change in Iraq. The Bush administration used the 9/11 terrorist attacks to create this opportunity. Bush believed that a democratic government could be installed in Iraq that would contain Iran and be friendly to the United States.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the invasion of Iraq frightened Iran, which believed that it could be next. Iran began trying very hard to deter a possible US invasion. Its post-2003 strategy has two core goals:

  1. Acquire nuclear weapons to deter an invasion by the United States and its allies.
  2. Create a network of allied Shiite governments throughout the region to control the oil supply and make Iran stronger relative to Saudi Arabia.

Iran used its resources to inflame sectarian tensions in Iraq. These divisions encouraged Iraqis to vote on the basis of religious or ethnic affiliation, and since Iraq has a Shiite majority, this meant that the Iraqis would inevitably elect a Shiite government. Once this happened, Iran began building relations with the new Iraqi government, helping it stabilize in no small part by ordering its various Shiite militias and paramilitary groups to stand down. The Iraqis found that it was easier to achieve stability with Iran no longer instigating than it was with coalition forces trying to stop the militias by force. Effectively, the Iraq War turned Iraq from a buffer state into an Iranian ally. This allowed Iran to deepen its military ties and supply lines with Syria and Lebanon, creating an alliance that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea:

Middle East 2010

This spooked Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia has been retaliating by arming Sunni militias and paramilitary groups. When the Arab Spring kicked off in 2010, the Saudis seized the opportunity. They avoided serious instability within Saudi Arabia and quickly co-opted the movement in Syria, funneling weapons to Sunni resistance fighters. Saudi Arabia hoped that the Assad regime would collapse in favor of a Sunni government that would align itself with Saudi Arabia instead of Iran.

But once again, things have not turned out exactly the way they were planned. Russia decided to support the Assad regime, keeping it afloat with military aid. In the meantime, the weapons the Saudis supplied fell into the hands of increasingly radical Sunni organizations–organizations like ISIS. ISIS wants to take over not just Syria and Iraq, but Saudi Arabia as well, and Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti calls ISIS the “greatest enemy of Islam”.

But ISIS is no friend to Iran either, as it immediately menaces Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq. If ISIS were allowed to take over these countries the Middle Eastern landscape would look more like it did in the 1980’s and 1990’s, with three distinct factions instead of two:

Middle East Hypothetical

This would cut Iran off from Hezbollah in Lebanon and create a new buffer between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It would massively weaken Iran in the region. So when the talk radio folks say they want Obama to oppose ISIS and Iran, what they seem to be saying is that they want America to fight itself.

There are several ways to look at this:

  1. ISIS is undermining the stability Iran was providing. If this is the case, the US should oppose ISIS and help Iran.
  2. ISIS is restoring the balance of power by breaking up the Iranian alliance. If this is the case, the US should oppose Iran and help ISIS.
  3. Both Iran and ISIS are destabilizing forces, in which case the US should help neither and allow the two to fight it out and weaken each other.

If we agree on #3, it’s not at all clear how the United States could effectively oppose both Iran and ISIS at the same time. ISIS is the strongest rebel force in Syria and Iraq–if it is defeated, the pro-Iran governments will be restored to power. Correspondingly, if the US attacks the pro-Iran governments, ISIS is the strongest group and the one most likely to capitalize. Any attempt to destroy both would leave a power vacuum from which something even worse could emerge and would utterly devastate the Syrian and Iraqi peoples. There’s no evidence that the more moderate groups have the strength to bring stability, and when the west has armed the moderate groups the radicals have used their superior training to seize the weapons for themselves. So why not just let ISIS and Iran fight it out?

The interesting rub is that the Obama administration doesn’t seem to agree with the general consensus that #3 is the best way to see the conflict. The administration seems to genuinely believe #1–it is attempting to destroy ISIS while openly stating that it is willing to see the pro-Iran Assad regime remain in power. The implication is that the administration sees Iran as a stabilizing force, or at least distinctly superior to ISIS. Obama’s decision to negotiate with Iran fits right into that paradigm. Obama is trying to dial back tensions with Iran and make it a genuine partner for peace and stability in the Middle East.

Is this necessarily crazy or wrong-headed? The talk radio folks pointed to the fact that the Iranian government often talks about wiping Israel and/or the United States off the face of the map, and that Iranian officials sometimes refer to the United States and Israel as the “great Satan” and “little Satan” respectively.

But here’s the thing–countries often say one thing to their own people but do another thing when confronted with a potentially hostile foreign power. Jingoist language may play well in Iran, where the public has long felt besieged and threatened by the west. But when we really think through strategic theory, it’s clear that these threats are toothless. Countries do not attack each other unless they think they can prevail. Both Israel and the United States have large nuclear stockpiles of their own. If Iran acquired nukes and launched them at either country, it would risk mutually assured destruction. And if Iran were to hand its nukes off to terrorists, there is no reason to believe that Israel or the United States would not hold Iran responsible and retaliate. Iran simply doesn’t have the power to seriously attack Israel or the United States without itself being destroyed. Commentators and talk radio hosts often claim that the Iranians are irrational, but the lunatic North Korean regime has had nuclear weapons since 2006, but it hasn’t launched any nuclear attacks or given its warheads to terrorists. The North Koreans may be crazy, but they’re not that crazy, and there’s no reason to think that the Iranians are loopier than the North Koreans are.

Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons and regional allies in large part because it fears regime change by the United States and has feared regime change since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is a government that is acting out of weakness and fear. Iran knows how much more powerful the United States is, and this terrifies it. The threats are plainly empty.

So instead of fighting Iran, maybe the United States really can bring it on board. If Iran is motivated by fear, alleviating Iran’s fears should relax its bombastic posturing. If in the process the United States can co-opt Iran as a partner for stability in the region, it will have turned what appeared to be a serious problem (the growth of the Iranian alliance) into a solution. Of course, the Saudis and Israelis won’t like that one bit. But the United States just needs the region to remain stable so it can continue burning oil at affordable prices. It doesn’t necessarily need to keep Saudi Arabia or Israel happy. The last couple decades of history suggest that when the United States tries to keep these countries happy, it accidentally creates instability and conflicts that threaten its oil supply. So maybe a change of policy is what’s needed, maybe the US really can buddy up with Iran.

In any case, whether we think the US should help Iran, help ISIS (Does anyone actually think this? It’s not as if there’s no case whatsoever–the region was more stable with Iraq as a buffer.), or let the two exhaust themselves in combat, it’s pretty clear that attempting to go after both at once would only further destabilize the region and cause yet more problems both for the United States and for the peoples of Iraq and Syria. You’d think the talk show folks would be able to see that for themselves–but then again, maybe that’s asking too much.