Iran And The U.S. On The Same Side Against ISIS?

Iran and the United States are on the same side in the fight against ISIS, whether they like it or not.

Iranian And American Flags

While the United States and Iran are, at least in theory, on the same side in the battle against ISIS, on the surface, the idea of an alliance of any kind between the two long time enemies is being dismissed by both sides. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Kerry said that Iran’s participation in the international meeting being held in Paris to discuss the ISIS threat would not be appropriate. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni responded by rejecting U.S. efforts to coordinate efforts against ISIS, and warning the United States that unilateral intervention in Iraq and Syria would lead to the same result as the 2003 Iraq War. Beyond the public rhetoric, though, there seems to be at least some indication that the two nations are talking behind the scenes about how to respond to something that they both consider a threat:

A spokesman for Kerry acknowledged the U.S. has held discussions with the Iranian government about efforts to counter ISIS amid negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program.

“It’s no secret that we have had discussions w[ith] Iran about the counter-ISIL efforts in Iraq on margins of our P5+1 talks on nuclear issue,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tweeted Monday.

Psaki said that negotiations did not and would not include military coordination. But she suggested that American and Iranian diplomats could continue to discuss efforts against ISIS during bilateral talks on the nuclear issue later this week in New York.

“There may be another opportunity on the margins in the future to discuss Iraq with Iran,” Psaki said.

Notwithstanding the fact that there may be talks going on behind the scenes, the public rhetoric from both nations shouldn’t come as a surprise. In both cases, acknowledging any kind of coordination would pose political risks that respective leaders are unwilling to take at this point. For the Obama Administration, obviously, the long history of enmity between the U.S. and Iran makes it next to impossible for any American President to pursue even normal diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. President Obama has gotten criticism for negotiating with the Iranians over the country’s nuclear program, for example, and he’d likely get similar domestic political opposition to anything approaching open cooperation with Tehran over ISIS. Similarly, while the Iranian mullahs and political leaders don’t have to worry about public opinion or political opponents the same way American politicians do, attacks on the United States are such a central part of Iranian policy that it would be hard for even the Grand Ayatollah to back down from. Given that, the rhetoric noted above is to be expected, even if the two countries are talking behind the scenes.

While the idea of an alliance, even an informal one with Iran may make Americans uncomfortable, Jack Goldstone argues that its the only way that the United States can defeat ISIS:

Washington loves nothing more than to oversimplify the complex. But the fight against the radical jihadist movement that has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq is not simply a war. In a conventional war, you are fighting a massed army seeking to gain or hold territory; such an army can be destroyed by superior force and skilled tactics. In a civil war, you are fighting guerrillas or militias seeking to free themselves from the central government, or to take it over. They can be defeated by giving the central government military and financial support to defend itself, building up secure zones to protect civilians and killing or capturing rebel leaders. ISIL, by contrast, is conducting a revolutionary war, in which civilians are recruited to support an ideological cause and rallied to overturn and replace regimes that are widely seen as unjust and illegitimate.

The distinction matters. To destroy the threat embodied in ISIL requires approaching the task as one of counter-revolution. ISIL, after all, is at its core only about 30,000 fighters, tops; what has made them the group force that could take over much of two countries with a total population of more than 50 million people is that they are supported by millions as the vanguard of a revolutionary movement for justice. That support ranges from military recruits from former supporters of other rebel groups who are joining ISIL to financial support from conservative co-religionists in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states to the quiet support of tens of millions of Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis.

How could such a barbarous and brutal group as ISIL, as Obama described it Wednesday, earn the support of those millions? By promising to protect and avenge them against the Assad regime in Syria, which has slaughtered their children and gassed their relatives and fellow townspeople and tribesmen; and against the Shiite regime in Iraq, which has stolen their jobs and destroyed their livelihoods, contemptuously dashing the hopes and careers of Sunni Arabs in that country.


Iran has already contributed to progress in Iraq by agreeing to the removal of Nouri al-Maliki, the divisive Shiite partisan who was prime minister. Iran now must support an inclusive Iraqi regime that gives full rights and opportunities to the Sunnis within Iraq, with a U.S.-supported and reinforced Iraqi military, to keep the ISIL threat from moving directly to Iran’s borders.

At the same time, however, Iran has been vigorously supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria against both moderate and extremist rebels. That places Iran squarely in opposition to President Obama’s plan to build up a moderate rebel force capable of taking on both ISIL and the Assad regime forces and winning.

This creates a delicate diplomatic dilemma, but also a great opportunity. If Iran can be persuaded to adopt a similar role in Syria to the role it is already accepting in Iraq—assent to an inclusive, majority-led but minority-respecting regime, with the United States playing an active role in supporting the military forces of the government—and therefore to withdraw its active support of Assad, Iran can align itself with the broader Sunni coalition that President Obama is seeking to back a political solution in Syria.

Creating such an alignment will be incredibly difficult, but it could bring huge benefits to the entire Middle East. Beyond the immediate crisis of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, co-operation between the United States and Iran, and between Iran and Sunni states in the region, in supporting inclusive states in both Syria and Iraq could help to reduce the Sunni-Shia rifts that have kept the region in turmoil. The civil wars in Iraq and Syria as well as in Yemen and unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are all fueled by the “all or nothing” approach to Islam of Sunni and Shia groups in their countries, much like the Protestant vs. Catholic struggles that fueled the Thirty Years War in 17th-century Europe.


Nobody should underestimate the challenge of defeating ISIL. But the prospect of this crisis leading to an alignment of U.S., Sunni and Iranian interests holds out the prospect of finally creating lasting stability in the Middle East. The end of the Thirty Years War produced almost five decades of subsequent peace in Europe; the end of the Napoleonic wars similarly produced peace among Britain, France and Germany for almost 60 years. If the revolutionary threat from ISIL leads to an unlikely coalition embracing NATO, Sunni regimes and Iran to defeat that threat, we may hope that, however long it takes to achieve, the result will also be a peace that lasts.

Goldstone’s ideas are highly theoretical,of course, and there’s no guarantee that either the Iranian’s would be receptive to the suggestion that the help to ease Bashar Assad out in Damascus or that such a move would help to undercut ISIS’s appeal in a way that would make it possible to push back its territorial gains. Indeed, his analogy to the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars foreshadows the possibility that the conflict in the Middle East is likely to widen and to take many years to resolve, even assuming for the sake of argument that “defeating ISIS” is an achievable goal. However, it strikes me that they are at least worth considering since it doesn’t seem as though there are many other alternatives. Another massive American ground force akin to the Iraq or Persian Gulf wars, for example, may indeed achieve success on the ground against the immediate threat but, as the history of the past decade has shown us, it’s just as likely to create yet more resentments that ISIS or other organizations can capitalize on to recruit supporters as it is to achieve the kind of complete victory that people seem to long for. The mullahs are far from paragons of virtue, but then that is true with many of the other nations we are seeking to rally into a more active international coalition such as the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States or President Erodgan in Turkey. However, if the threat from ISIS is as severe as our national leaders claim it to be, then we can’t be choosy about who were ally ourselves with.

Whether or not there is coordination of some kind between Iran and the United States regarding ISIS, it’s already quite obvious that Iran is going to be involved in this fight in some way. They have already used their considerable influence to help get Nouri al-Maliki to step down from power, which was widely seen as the first step in a political transformation that has yet to occur in Iraq but which needs to happen if there is going to be any hope of curtailing support for ISIS on the ground. The Iranians have also been heavily involved in the Syrian civil war from the very beginning, providing material, weapons, and training to the Assad regime in its fight against a rebel coalition that is dominated by ISIS and other jihadist forces,. Additionally, Iran’s close ally Hezbollah has been involved in the war on the side of the Assad regime for several years now. It’s also apparent that, at the end of the day, another conflict in Iraq is going to result in Iran becoming a more influential regional power in the same way that the 2003 war did. Given that this is the case, perhaps it would be best if the Iranians were part of the international effort against ISIS rather than excluded from it since that would potentially give the West a broader ability to influence Iran in the future. Like I said, it’s a all a long shot but I’m not sure we have any better alternatives.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    Well we basically gave Iraq to Iran…as you say, increasing their regional power…so they might as well pitch in and help out.
    Now if “our greatest ally ever” would do the same.

    “Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas…They’re the enemies of peace, they’re the enemies of Israel, they’re the enemies of all civilized countries, and I believe they’re the enemies of the Palestinians themselves.”

    Fine…pitch in and do something instead of just sitting back and collecting your US Foreign Aid checks…like the welfare queen you are.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Why not? What makes enmity between Iran and the US necessary? We overthrew their government and installed a brutal dictator in the 50s. They seized our embassy staff in the late 70s. We supported Saddam Hussein in his long, brutal war against them through most of the 80s. Those things are a long time ago. Now about all we’ve got is that we’d like them to not have a bomb they don’t have and they’d like us to not impose sanctions on them. After what we’ve done to them, if they could somehow manage to forgive and forget, we certainly should be able to. Now we’re being driven more by habit, and by Israel and Saudi Arabia, than by anything Iran’s done.

    Ah, but it would piss off our good allies (what have they done for us lately?) the Saudis and Israelis. They could both use a little scare right now. Remember, Saudi Arabia needs to sell the oil as badly as we need to buy it. And if push comes to shove, Israel doesn’t have any oil.

  3. Tillman says:

    @C. Clavin: Israel entering the fray would probably make it much harder to get Iran into an anti-ISIS coalition. Though it would be nice if they bothered on their own, screwing up our plans. 🙂

  4. Scott says:

    I would not be surprised if there were already military-to-military consultations going on. We have advisors there; Iran has advisors there (however you want to define “advisor”). It would make total sense to coordinate actions. It would be kept very low-key so as to allow the politicians deniability.

    I believe our natural ally in the region actually is Iran so this is a good thing. Might have the side benefit of prodding the Saudis and Turks to clean up their own mess.

  5. JohnMcC says:

    I’m sure that Prof Goldstone has amassed a vast and deep understanding of the revolutionary process. And that much of the ME and the ‘Arab Spring’ fall within that purview.

    But if he is saying that there is a snowball’s chance in hell that Bashar al-Assad can in some way abdicate in favor of a Sunni coalition… I’m speechless. And that seems to me to be MUCH more likely than that Pres Rouhani (or more properly – ayatollah Khamenei) would negotiate a Sunni gov’t installing itself in Damascus.

    Perhaps I know much less about all this than I feel like I know. In fact – I instantly will admit that I’m deeply ignorant of the tidal flows and currents of the ME. But I have to say that Prof Goldstone does not impress as someone who knows more than I.

    I mean – IF Assad were to step down in favor of a ‘majority’ (ie Sunni) regime, would anyone here NOT be stunned. Yet that would be more likely than a coalition of anti-Assad organizations (each of which has independent funding) cooperatively working together to unseat him.

    There is an amazing amount of stupid commentary on this topic. Politico and OTB have not raised the standard.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think it’s in our interests to “destroy” ISIS. Hard to do, expensive, and why do we need to? I think we need to contain ISIS. Containment is much easier.

    I think everyone’s rhetoric – including Mr. Obama’s — has gotten way out in front of reality. This isn’t pancreatic cancer it’s a basal cell carcinoma – not good, but it isn’t going to kill you. We want ISIS contained and rendered toothless. We can accomplish that by squeezing them in various ways and keeping drones in the air over their heads.

    What’s complicated is the politics. I can’t think of a more complicated, intractable political situation. Our “friends” are right-wing Jews and medieval religious Sunni Muslims. Our enemies are different medieval Sunnis and thuggish Shiites. The borders involved are virtually all in dispute, the governments involved range from obnoxious to monstrous, there are issues ranging from water to holy sites, and of course there’s history. Oh boy, is there ever history.

    Anyone claiming to have some easy answer is an idiot. All the solutions suck. There is no non-sucky answer here. But in the end we’ll just have a small surgical scar, it won’t kill us. Might kill everyone in the region, but not us.

  7. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds: To quote “WarGames”: The only winning move is not to play.

  8. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    My underlying principle — the one that Obama has chosen to repeatedly ignore — is to consider whether or not we can be reasonably certain that getting rid of a bad guy won’t result in worse people taking power. Obama ignored that in both Libya and Syria.

    In this case, I think that, in different ways, Iran would be just as bad as ISIS.

    1) Iran wants nukes.
    2) Iran wants to use nukes.
    3) Iran wants more influence on Syria and Iraq, among others.

    Cooperating with Iran on ISIS will likely have the effect of aiding Iran towards those three goals.

    Maybe, coordinating a little might be feasible. But offer Iran no concessions or aid in exchange for such cooperation. As noted, this is in their best interests; they should need no other incentives, and offered none. Otherwise, we run the risk of another Libya, Syria, or Egypt on our hands — we back the rebels against the bad guy leader, and end up backing people who are even worse.

    Which is why I cynically expect the Obama administration to announce that we have come to a major agreement with Iran, involving the lifting of sanctions in exchange for their “help” with ISIS. Perhaps even how we are welcoming Iranian “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria to crush ISIS. It would be entirely consistent with Obama’s previous moves.

  9. Rafer Janders says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    My underlying principle — the one that Obama has chosen to repeatedly ignore — is to consider whether or not we can be reasonably certain that getting rid of a bad guy won’t result in worse people taking power.

    This reminds me of something…about ten, eleven years ago….?…but what…what….???

  10. Rafer Janders says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    1) Iran wants nukes. 2) Iran wants to use nukes. 3) Iran wants more influence on Syria and Iraq, among others.

    (1) may or may not be true. It would be quite logical for them to seek nukes, given that they are surrounded in a sea of nuclear-armed enemies, but they may also believe that the costs of nukes outweigh the benefits.
    (2) is entirely false.
    (3) is true, and sure, why wouldn’t they? Again, entirely logical.

  11. anjin-san says:

    @ Jenos

    2) Iran wants to use nukes.

    Even you are not this stupid. I guess it’s just another play for attention on your part.

  12. anjin-san says:

    announce that we have come to a major agreement with Iran

    Now this would be a welcome development enmity between the US & Iran serves neither.

  13. Rafer Janders says:


    Even you are not this stupid.

    That’s a filthy lie!!

  14. Rafer Janders says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    My underlying principle — the one that Obama has chosen to repeatedly ignore — is to consider whether or not we can be reasonably certain that getting rid of a bad guy won’t result in worse people taking power.

    Oh, if only we’d listened to Dick Cheney when he warned us all those years ago about the dangers of getting rid of a bad guy, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation in Iraq!!

    Once we got to Baghdad, what would we do? Who would we put in power? What kind of government would we have? Would it be a Sunni government, a Shi’a government, a Kurdish government? Would it be secular, along the lines of the Ba’ath Party? Would it be fundamentalist Islamic? I do not think the United States wants to have U.S. military forces accept casualties and accept the responsibility of trying to govern Iraq. I think it makes no sense at all. — Cheney, “This Week with David Brinkley” on ABC, 1991

    If you can take down the central government of Iraq, you can easily see pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have in the West. Part of Eastern Iraq the Iranians would like to claim — fought over for eight years. In the North you have the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq. — Cheney, C-Span, 1994

  15. anjin-san says:

    @ Rafer Janders

    What was I thinking?

  16. michael reynolds says:

    That entire exchange was my laugh for the night.

  17. Grewgills says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Obama ignored that in both Libya and Syria.

    Once again, how did Obama ignore that in Syria? He saber rattled and Assad dismantled his chemical weapons program. You keep harping on what he did in Syria as though it would have somehow turned out better if he had ignored the chemical weapons problem there. How would your preferred tactic of ignoring Assad’s chemical weapons program have made things better?

  18. Ron Beasley says:

    @Scott: I agree. How many Iranians were involved in 911? How many Saudis were involved in 911? Thanks to the Wahabi/Salafi training Saudi Arabia is is the source of the Jihadist movement.

  19. Eric Florack says:

    @C. Clavin: giving Iraq to Iran was a function of our premature withdrawal.

    @Ron Beasley: John Kerry; I’d have voted for the Iranian war even without the WMD. Ponder that one and let us know when you figure out why.

  20. stonetools says:

    The current Middle East doesn’t conform to the traditional American concept of American foreign policy, which is to find and support the “good guys”. The “good guys” are easily identifiable by their white hats (the bad guys by their black ones)and everyone is forever one or the other. No “good guys” in Syria? Then let’s not get involved.
    The reality is that the Middle East is a swirling chaos of grey hats. What should be our policy then? Let’s look at the policy of another hegemonic power:

    For 400 years the British policy has been to oppose the strongest power in Europe by uniting all the lesser powers against it. Sometimes it’s Spain, sometimes it’s Germany, sometimes France. I should have felt exactly the same about Napoleon that I now feel about Hitler.”

    Maybe the key is not to let any power-state or non-state-dominate the Middle East. So the USA should support any power or group of powers against any one power that threatens to dominate the Middle East.

  21. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:
    Sorry….that may be the right wing talking point….but it was Irans from the minute Dick Cheney thought of the invasion…way back when Clinton was President.

    Still looking for confirmation that you have waived your SS and Medicare benefits and notified your local FD and PD not to protect your property because you do not believe in socialism.

    Until you can prove that you are willing to stand behind your ideals perhaps you should just go away.

  22. C. Clavin says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    My underlying principle — the one that Obama has chosen to repeatedly ignore — is to consider whether or not we can be reasonably certain that getting rid of a bad guy won’t result in worse people taking power.

    Yes…I remember your unremitting protestations about that when Bush and Cheney were busy giving Iraq to Iran.
    Underlying principle…buw-hahahahahahaha.
    You sir are so full of shit that if given an enema there would be nothing left of you.

  23. @C. Clavin: I like how the RWNJs always ignore the fact that the WMD intelligence was given to the United States by people on the payroll of Iranian intelligence.

  24. Eric Florack says:

    @C. Clavin: I dont see you on the front lines, either, cupcake.

    @Timothy Watson: and confirmed by every other intel agency in the world. There is no way that was single sourced.

    qnd all this ignores the reports (and satalite intel) of wmd being moved from iraq to syria just before we invaded, and syria using chem weapons… those same wmd a couple years later, giving rise to calls for assads ouster. bet you forgot that one

  25. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    confirmed by every other intel agency in the world.

    I will play along. How do you know what “every other intel agency in the world” thought? Please be specific.

    “The American Thinker says so” will not be considered a valid answer…

    I dont see you on the front lines, either, cupcake

    I don’t see him calling for war every 10 minutes either. “Cupcake” – now that is a nice touch, is that how you think tough guys talk? Or are you just parroting Jack?

  26. michael reynolds says:

    @Eric Florack:

    That’s simply ridiculous. We (George W. Bush) knocked off a Sunni (Saddam) who ruled a predominantly Shiite nation. Then we (George W. Bush) insisted on free elections, which inevitably meant Shiite dominance, which in turn inevitably meant a win for the dominant Shiite power: Iran.

    Lots of people saw that one coming, it was inevitable, and a residual force would have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Had we left a force they’d have been targeted by both sides, and would have been forbidden by any possible SOFA from intervening in Iraqi politics.

  27. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    My underlying principle — the one that Obama has chosen to repeatedly ignore — is to consider whether or not we can be reasonably certain that getting rid of a bad guy won’t result in worse people taking power. Obama ignored that in both Libya and Syria.

    Not withstanding the fact that by electing to go to war in Iraq in 2003, Bush effectively shifted power in the region to Iran, and created the conditions in which ISIS operates today.

    Bush ignored that part about removing a bad guy and ending up with something worse. Or in other words: it’s Obama’s fault.

  28. Neil Hudelson says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Well, sure, you do have facts on your side. But you’ve forgotten that Obama is a limp-wristed, ineffective monstrous dictator who rules America with an Iron Fist. Someone like that who is both completely incompetent and all-controlling really should’ve been able to stop a relationship between Iraq and Iran from developing–especially considering we have 3 decades of successfully negotiating with both countries.

  29. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:
    So you don’t stand for your ideals.
    You could have just said that.

  30. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:

    and confirmed by every other intel agency in the world. There is no way that was single sourced.

    You are such a dupe. Every other intelligence agency in the world was saying that

    “US Intelligence says…”

    Then Cheney would turn around and tell Judith Miller and the rest of the right wing entertainment complex that every other intel agency in the world says blah blah blah. Then fools like you would believe it. And here you are 11 years later still swearing it’s fact.
    hahahaha…you’re friggin’ pathetic.

  31. anjin-san says:

    @ C. Clavin

    Look man, Florack has the courage to… say stuff on the internet. I suppose you have already forgotten how he told us just the other day just how brave he is.

    Show some respect. He is an American patriot, and clearly you are not.

  32. Tyrell says:

    From Australia to Iran, a motley crew that the president is trying to assemble. There is precedent for ragtag armies in US history that have done quite well.

  33. C. Clavin says:

    My bad. Sorry.

  34. michael reynolds says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Is there anything worse than a limp iron fist? I hate those.

  35. Barry says:

    @Eric Florack: “John Kerry; I’d have voted for the Iranian war even without the WMD. Ponder that one and let us know when you figure out why.”

    9/11. You Republicans made used that as a club – if you have a problem with people voting the way that you wanted them to, that’s your problem.

  36. al-Ameda says:

    @Eric Florack:

    @C. Clavin: giving Iraq to Iran was a function of our premature withdrawal.

    Actually it was a function of our deciding to go to war in Iraq in 2003. If Hussein is still in power Iran does not have hold the dominant power in the region and ISIS does not operate in Iraq.

    You’re welcome.

  37. Tyrell says:

    One thing that would have to be done is to determine if any modifications would need to be made to fit on the Iranian Air Force squadrons of flying carpets.

  38. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: And Bush didn’t in Iraq? Seems that there’s a cognition gap here in the story. But a nice try.

    And remember “Indiana was the dog’s name.”

  39. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Rafer Janders: And yet, by 2001, toppling Iraq was a good idea. Hmmmmmmmmmmm……..

  40. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: 2001 s/b 2003, oops.

  41. Tyrell says:

    @al-Ameda: Well I am on with that. I remember a discussion with a lady about the Iraq-Iran War. She said that the US put Saddam in there to keep Iran behaving. It is debatable how long Saddam could have stayed in power. Some said he would have been overthrown and replaced, maybe by some Islamic extremist group. Others say he was in poor health and might not have been around much longer. I don’t know. It seems when the US gets rid of these characters the replacement is worse.

  42. Ron Beasley says:


    It seems when the US gets rid of these characters the replacement is worse.

    I guess we are learning that lesson in Syria. What would be worse – a Syria controlled by Assad or one controlled by ISIL? It would appear those are the 2 choices.

  43. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Then Cheney would turn around and tell Judith Miller and the rest of the right wing entertainment complex that every other intel agency in the world says blah blah blah.

    Then the “liberal” NYT would stenograph what Cheney told Miller. And Cheney would tell everyone the NYT says blah blah blah.