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Research Questions

  1. What opportunities exist for the United States and Iran to cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant?
  2. What implications do Iran's sectarian policies have for U.S. national interests?
  3. What role do specific Iranian actors, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, play in Iraq?
  4. How does Iran use the various tools at its disposal to influence the political and security situation in Iraq?

The rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has led to arguments in favor of U.S.-Iran cooperation in combating the group, as immediate American and Iranian interests in Iraq are very similar: Both countries view ISIL and the broader Sunni jihadi movement as major threats to their national interests. American and Iranian military forces in Iraq are fighting the same enemy and, on the surface, U.S. air power seems to complement Iran's on-the-ground presence in Iraq. While the United States and Iran ultimately have divergent long-term goals for Iraq, and face disagreements on many other issues, limited tactical cooperation in weakening ISIL in Iraq may be possible.

This paper examines Iranian objectives and influence in Iraq in light of ISIL's ascendance. In particular, the paper focuses on Iran's ties with Iraqi Shi'a parties and militias and the implications of Iran's sectarian policies for U.S. interests. In addition, the paper examines the role of specific Iranian actors in Iraq, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in addition to the clergy and the Rouhani government. Finally, the paper concludes with policy recommendations for the United States.

Key Findings

Explicit U.S. cooperation with Iran in Iraq may help weaken ISIL, but it is unlikely to solve the region's increasing insecurity, which is due in part to Iran's sectarian politics.

Beyond tactical cooperation in the fight against ISIL, it is difficult to see a fundamental shift of behavior in Tehran that could lead to long-lasting U.S.-Iran cooperation.

  • For now, Iran's fight against ISIL has short-term tactical benefits, but Washington should not expect a broader détente between the two countries as a result of common interests in fighting ISIL.

Recommendations

  • U.S. efforts to find a political solution to the multiple crises roiling the region must take Iranian influence into account. While the United States may find broad cooperation with Iran to be problematic, it nevertheless should explore discreet political agreements with Iran. Such agreements should be aimed not to fundamentally change the relationship with Iran, but help find ways to defuse and deescalate sectarian-driven warfare in Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East.
  • U.S. policy toward Iran should not be based on normalization of relations or alliance-building, as the two countries are likely to remain rivals for years, but instead should focus on finding spaces in which the two countries can tolerate each other's respective influence while striving for some modicum of regional stability.

This research was sponsored by the Office of Secretary of Defense and was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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