Widening Rift

How Iran Could Become Our Shadow Enemy in the Syria ISIS War

In Iraq, Tehran was our silent partner, working to break an ISIS siege and edging out Maliki. But it’s not in Obama’s new coalition—and may try to destabilize U.S.-led efforts in Syria.

09.16.14 9:55 AM ET

At the big table in Paris where 24 world leaders met Monday to discuss a war plan against ISIS, one nation was notably left out. But Iran claims it didn’t want to be there anyway, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling American pronouncements about ISIS “absurd, hollow and biased.”

Behind the tough talk, however, is a fear that American aims in Syria will threaten Iran’s regional power while strengthening its adversaries. In the fight against ISIS, what’s at stake for the U.S. is the risk that an area of strategic interest will be further destabilized and that American lives will be put in danger. For Iran, the enemy is already on the doorstep. Iran sees ISIS as a threat not only because of its extreme violence and targeting of Shia but because defeating the group could expand the power of its Sunni rivals and challenge Tehran’s claim for dominance of the region.

The U.S. and Iran have been dancing around ISIS since American airstrikes began in Iraq more than a month ago. In the latest series of steps, the U.S. excluded Iran from its burgeoning anti-ISIS coalition, Iran said it had already rejected an earlier invitation to cooperate, and finally, the U.S. said it would consider coordinating with Iran in the future. But if the rift with Iran widens, it could become a shadow enemy in Syria as the U.S. begins its war there.

Before the latest break, Iran had been acting as America’s silent partner in Iraq. American airpower was critical in breaking the ISIS siege of Amerli, a Shia town in the Sunni region of central Iraq, but it supported ground forces led by by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-funded militia group. And shortly after American aircraft carried out their part of the mission and left the scene, Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, posed for a photo-op with his proxy forces, who claimed their victory owed nothing to the U.S.

In addition to American airstrikes supporting Iranian militia forces, Tehran was likely instrumental in pressuring the sectarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to step down and allow a new government to be formed. Without an official alliance and despite rhetoric and PR moves distancing Iran from the U.S., the two countries had avoided jeopardizing the momentum generated by their convergent interests.

But for both nations, the calculations in Syria are different. Iran sees ISIS forces massing not far from its border in Iraq as a direct threat. The civil war in Syria, however destabilizing, doesn’t immediately threaten the homeland. And while the U.S. has largely acted alone in Iraq, expanding the war against ISIS to Syria will rely on Sunni states that are Iran’s traditional enemies.

Iran’s main concern in Syria is losing its closest regional ally if the U.S. and its Sunni allies back rebels to fight against ISIS and the government forces of Bashar al-Assad. Through Syria, Iran’s power reaches Hezbollah in Lebanon, extending its sphere of influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean. If Assad falls and a new government is formed by Sunni rebel forces, Iran loses a keystone in its regional power structure. What’s more, if rival Sunni states play a key role in Assad’s fall, Iran’s regional rivals will be strengthened even as its own power is undermined.

The conflict created by Iran’s fear of losing Syria, and the U.S. conviction that defeating ISIS requires attacking it there but not cooperating with the Assad regime, broke out in public Monday.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said inviting Iran to the Paris meetings “would not be appropriate, given the many other issues that are on the table with respect to their engagement in Syria and elsewhere.” He added Monday that bringing Iran to the table would have prevented the inclusion of key Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In response, Ayatollah Khamenei described listening to American statements about ISIS as “really amusing” and “a hobby” that kept him entertained while he was being treated recently for prostate cancer. “What was really amusing is that I saw the American secretary of state and his spokesman explicitly say, ‘We will not invite Iran in a coalition against [ISIS]’…It is a source of pride, not a source of disappointment.”

After Khamenei made those remarks, Kerry left open the possibility of future cooperation: “Just because Iranians were not invited to the Paris conference doesn’t mean that we are opposed to the idea of communicating to find out if they will come on board or under what circumstances or whether there is the possibility of a change.”

In step with the rhetoric coming out of Tehran, Iraq’s president, Fouad Massoum, followed with statements in support of the Iranian regime. In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, he expressed disappointment at Iran being left out of the Paris meeting and said it was “not necessary” for Sunni states in the U.S.-led coalition like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to conduct airstrikes against ISIS.

As the U.S. has taken leadership of the war against ISIS, it has entered the broader regional conflict pitting Shia states like Iran against the Sunni powers with which Washington is now allied. American policy has sought to avoid the appearance of taking sides in the religious schism but risks being seen as backing Sunnis even as it marshals forces to confront ISIS, the most virulently sectarian Sunni group in the region.

As Iran showed in the last war in Iraq, when it armed and backed insurgent groups fighting U.S. forces, having a common enemy, as Saddam Hussein once was, won’t prevent Tehran from trying to counter American influence in the Middle East.

For Iran, the question is what comes after ISIS. In Iraq there is already a Shia-led government in Baghdad broadly aligned with Tehran. But in Syria, where Shia are a minority, a post-ISIS future threatens to freeze Iran out.

To defeat ISIS, the U.S. is relying heavily on Sunni coalition partners to give its aims local legitimacy and ensure that constructing the post-ISIS political order won’t fall solely to America. Fearing the loss of its power, Iran could try to destabilize U.S.-led efforts in Syria, causing a protracted conflict that would weaken the allied participants. Alternately, if Tehran resigns itself to Assad’s ouster, it may seek other means to maintain its influence in Syria. One option would be controlling the political transfer of power from Assad, to ensure that the new government installed in Damascus remains receptive to Iranian interests. Then there’s the real long shot: that Iran reaches a détente with its Sunni rivals and accepts a power-sharing arrangement rather than a client state in Syria.

Whatever course Iran pursues, it will have a say in the fight against ISIS and the future of Iraq and Syria, with or without a seat at the table.