The Senate's Gift to ISIS: Sanctions on Iran

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The Senate's Gift to ISIS: Sanctions on Iran

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, before they begin a second bilateral meeting focused on Iran's nuclear program. (Photo: State Department/Public domain)

The Islamic State has many enemies and very few friends. But sometimes, even declared enemies of the Caliphate (or ISIS) can lend it a helping hand. That is essentially what is happening now as Senators Mark Kirk and Bob Menendez push to undermine the nuclear talks with Iran -- a key adversary of ISIS. If nuclear diplomacy breaks down, the US and Iran will once again find themselves on a path towards war. ISIS will be the greatest winner in that scenario. After all, who wouldn't want to see its enemies turn against each other?

Senators Kirk and Menendez are not intending to aid ISIS. They may not realize that this will be one of the consequences of their push to impose more sanctions on Iran in the midst of ongoing diplomacy. They may not care. Perhaps they think aiding ISIS is a price worth paying in order to block President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.

After all, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) has clarified that the aim of imposing additional sanctions is to kill the talks, not strengthen the deal. "The end of these negotiations isn't an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence," he said yesterday.

The White House believes these new sanctions will "blow up" the negotiations and President Obama has vowed to veto the bill. The Republican leadership has scheduled to mark up the bill next week and then move it to a vote shortly thereafter.

But the opponents of diplomacy are out of sync with the American public. The public's focus is on ISIS, whereas the Senate remains fixated on Iran. According to a CNN poll, 90 percent of the public views ISIS as a threat to the United States. Another poll by Brookings Institute shows that 70 percent of the American public view ISIS as the main threat to the US in the Middle East. Only 12 percent view Iran as America's main threat in the Middle East. Moreover, 61 percent of Americans would like to see the US collaborate with Iran to defeat ISIS.

Even though Iran is not a formal member in the US coalition against ISIS -- and both Washington and Tehran deny they coordinate their efforts -- Iran has played a crucial role in pushing back the terrorist organization. The Christian Science Monitor reported that when ISIS forces swept across the Syrian border into Iraq, "Shiite Iran was the first to provide guns, ammunition, and military advisers."

Tehran's swift and muscular response to ISIS has won it a lot of praise from Iraqi officials. "When Baghdad was threatened, the Iranians did not hesitate to help us, and did not hesitate to help the Kurds when Erbil was threatened," Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, recently said. Some Iraqi politicians even believe that Baghdad would have fallen to ISIS had it not been for the military support provided by Iran.

US officials grudgingly agree. It is extremely rare that US or Iranian officials speak positively about each other in public, but when it comes to Iran's role in battling IS, even American officials have acknowledged it. General John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has welcomed "Iran's constructive role" in Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the net effect of Iran's role and involvement in Iraq is positive.

Iran's resolute opposition against ISIS is largely explained by the threat it itself sees from the terror organization. But it is also partly a result of the reduced tensions between Washington and Tehran due to the ongoing nuclear diplomacy, which has enabled the Iranians to see regional challenges through a new lens. In the past, when Washington and Tehran were embroiled in an intense regional rivalry, both sides used every given opportunity to undermine each other, even when they actually shared common interests. In Afghanistan, both opposed the Taliban and sought its defeat, but they regularly used the Taliban to weaken the other.

Had diplomacy over the nuclear program not begun, chances are that the two sides would have approached ISIS similarly. They would have opposed the organization, but at the same time sought ways to use ISIS to undermine the other. Consequently, ISIS would have benefitted from the US and Iran's inability to set aside their differences in order to fully focus on the jihadi terrorist organization.

But that is exactly the scenario that likely will come about if Senators Kirk and Menendez succeed in torpedoing the negotiations and bring Iran and United States back on a path towards confrontation.

Understandably, the Obama administration doesn't want to conflate the nuclear issue and the ISIS challenge. And it is sensitive to the charge that it would soften its nuclear demands issue in order to win Iranian support against ISIS. There is nothing that suggests any such trade-off even has been contemplated or that Obama has pursued a soft line on Iran. On the contrary, after more than 12 months of negotiations and two extended deadlines, everything points to the opposite -- both sides are negotiating too hard and showing too little flexibility.

Rather than worrying about the ISIS challenge softening the US's position on the nuclear portfolio, the real worry should be that Senators Kirk and Menendez will blow up diplomacy with Iran, and in doing so, eliminate the chance of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, restart the march towards war with Iran, and on top of that, enable ISIS to benefit from the reignited US-Iran rivalry.

Who needs friends when you can have enemies as helpful as this?

Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He is author of A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012) and Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.

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