The takeover of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq by Sunni fighters representing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has raised red flags in both Washington and Tehran. Significantly, ISIS fighters are now within reach of the Shiite holy city of Samarra and the capital city of Baghdad. Both Iran and the United States fear that additional ISIS victories could lead to the disintegration of Iraq and give birth to an extremist Sunni caliphate extending over Iraqi and Syrian territories. Such an extremist entity would subvert Iranian interests and the Assad regime in Syria, as well as moderate Sunni regimes in the Middle East that are American allies. Specifically, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and even Jordan could become the targets of ISIS subversion.Prima facie, the threat posed by ISIS expansion in Iraq has created a convergence of interests between Washington and Tehran. Both want to maintain the country’s territorial integrity under the current central government in Baghdad. Thus, as U.S. President Barack Obama considers aerial strikes against ISIS targets after having dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to the Persian Gulf, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently insinuated that aligning interests could result in a coordinated effort by the two nations against ISIS.
A closer look at U.S. interests in Iraq, however, reveals that they do not, in fact, overlap with those of Iran—or at least they should not. Iran is chiefly interested in maintaining the political power of the Shiite Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, and assisting the Iraqi military in its efforts to regain control over territories and major cities that are currently under ISIS rule. For this purpose, Tehran sent Major General Qassem Suleimani, Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, to Iraq, along with two thousand troops, a few days ago. This is in keeping with Washington’s desire that Iraq stay unified and the threat of an extremist Sunni caliphate be removed. However, Washington should be wary of allowing the crisis to result in the consolidation of al-Maliki’s power; when pushed into a corner, he serves mostly Iranian interests. A case in point is al-Maliki's past decisions to reject President Obama’s request to keep one or more American military bases in Iraq after the United States withdrew its combat troops and to open Iraqi airspace to Iranian planes carrying military equipment to President Assad’s forces in Syria.
The question for Washington, then, remains: how to handle the current situation given the added fear that Iran will attempt to leverage the crisis to advance its own interests? In order to curb Iran’s ambitions in Iraq, Washington should ensure that Iraqi Kurds and moderate Sunnis possess enough material and political power by the end of the crisis to match that of al-Maliki. To secure the former, the oil-rich city of Kirkuk must remain under the control of its liberators, the Kurdish militia Peshmerga, and come under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Thus, the United States should block any attempt by the forces of al-Maliki and his Iranian partners to reassert Baghdad’s direct control over the city.
Moreover, the United States should encourage and assist the Kurds, rather than al-Maliki’s forces, in driving ISIS fighters out of Mosul. This would not only serve Washington’s political interests but also uphold historic justice, as Mosul was promised to the Kurds in the Treaty of Sevres following World War I. The U.S. Air Force and Navy should provide aerial support to the Peshmerga while U.S. Special Operations Command sends advisors to assist Kurdish forces. In order to reduce tensions that could lead to Iraqi infighting, the United States should deliver a clear message to Baghdad and Tehran that it will not tolerate Iraqi or Iranian action against the Peshmerga. Indeed, failure to do so could exacerbate the current crisis. Although Washington should coordinate its activities against ISIS with Baghdad and Tehran, any sign that the United States supports the Shiite attempt to regain control over northern Iraq could potentially lead moderate Sunnis to join the ranks of ISIS.
Washington should also take steps to enervate Iranian influence in the Iraqi political system by endorsing the creation of a Kurdish-Arab Sunni alliance. In the current political climate following the April 2014 Iraqi parliamentary elections, such an alliance could join out of political necessity with al-Maliki, his opponents within the Shiite camp, or both to form a new government in Iraq. In such a future coalition, a Kurdish-Arab Sunni bloc would serve as an important counterbalance to Shiite and Iranian interests in Iraqi policymaking. A strong Kurdish-Arab Sunni bloc, for example, could more effectively pressure Baghdad to compromise on the question of oil rights and how to divide revenues from oil exports originating in KRG territory. So far, Baghdad has insisted on having exclusive rights to oil resources in the Kurdish region, which accounts for approximately one third of Iraq’s oil reserves. American and Western oil companies operating in northern Iraq, including Chevron, Exxon Mobile, Hess, and Total, will benefit if their activities remain protected by the KRG rather than by al-Maliki and Iran.
Ultimately, Washington must strengthen the autonomous features of the KRG to promote Iraqi political security and protect its own interests, as well as encourage Kurds and moderate Sunni Arabs to join hands in resisting ISIS’s advance. It must also empower an effective resistance. Doing so would furthermore convey a strong message to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations who are allies of the United States. Significantly, U.S. strategy in Iraq has the potential to allay these nations’ concerns that Washington’s efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem through engagement with Tehran would lead to an era of Shiite ascendency in the Gulf at the expense of Sunni-Arab interests.