With the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the United States and Iran find themselves in the peculiar position of seeing their strategic goals fall into step. It is in the interest of neither country to witness the emergence of an unstable Iraq, least of all one that serves as a safe haven for Sunni extremists to harass Iranian and American interests in the region.
The alignment of American and Iranian strategic interests, which last significantly occurred with the unseating of the Taliban in 2001, should not merely be viewed as a fleeting moment in which coordination — or even cooperation — between the two countries is possible. Rather, it should be taken as an opportunity to re-evaluate Iran's behavior as a state more generally and juxtapose it with the type of threat posed by ISIS.
Analyses of Iran all too often refract the country's actions abroad through its status as a Shiite country and the promotion of religious sectarian interests. (Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the world's total Muslim population is Shiite, while the rest is largely Sunni, though the Shiites represent a majority in Iraq and Iran.) Doing so only perpetuates a myth that Iran seeks no more than to combat Sunni domination, whether in the guise of a regional power like Saudi Arabia or a movement like ISIS, in hopes of replacing it with Shiite supremacy instead. But it's political realities that drive Iran's actions, not sectarian ones.
In 2011, when the Arab Spring protests surfaced in Bahrain, Iran did not intervene in support of the repressed Shiite majority, even when local actors like Saudi Arabia buttressed the government's efforts to quickly and brutally quash any movement for political reform. Nor is Iran's support for Shiite groups and militias abroad dictated by an unadulterated pursuit of sectarian gains. Iran's support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militias in Syria, no matter how contrary these actions may be to U.S. interests, are defined by strategic imperatives, such as the benefit of providing Iran with a direct front against Israel or the desire to rescue the government of an ally where few others exist. To believe Iran supports Syria on sectarian grounds overlooks the secular nature of the Assad government, his supporters among certain Sunni classes and the overall religious make-up of the country. Sectarian affiliations may help determine whom Iran supports, but not why they decide to support them.
In Iraq, Iran is presented with a conundrum. Having seen the country morph from dreaded rival to ally, Tehran is no doubt hesitant to watch its gains rolled back. Moreover, as home to a large Shiite population and various shrine sites, the responsibility falls to Iran to serve as protector of Shiite interests. But even here, Iran's actions are determined by pragmatism and deliberation. Much like the United States, Iran is monitoring the situation in Iraq closely and treading carefully while leaving its options open. Even as the country's leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, noted that neither Iran nor other outside parties should intervene, leaving events instead to be determined by Iraqis themselves, there are reports of Iran sending fighter jets, drones and advisers to Iraq. Not beholden to some unbending Shiite-Sunni rivalry — the framework du jour for assessing all events in the Middle East — Iran is making a calculated assessment according to political realities.
All facets of ISIS are not yet clear, but there is enough evidence to know that they promote an uncompromising position grounded in Salafist ideology, violence and looting. Their purported political program is the reconfiguration of the boundaries of the Middle East according to some distorted vision of the caliphate. No accommodation exists — not with Shiites, non-Muslims or other Sunnis that don't subscribe to their extremist program. They are beholden to no one: neither their current allies made up from the former Baath party nor the various Gulf countries that created an environment for them to thrive by financing and arming Sunni rebel groups in Syria with little concern for international implications.
There is simply no such equivalent religious program constituted around Shiism that Iran seeks to promote. Iran is willing to compromise its support for Shiism with political realities and more secular national interests. Even those activities of Shiite militias under Iran's sway are negotiable. Such is the benefit of dealing with militias falling within the hierarchy of a state. ISIS, by contrast, is lawless, stateless and fueled by a mix of greed, bigotry and religious extremism.
In witnessing the harsh realities, violence and executions brought on by this latest al-Qaida inspired franchise — which even al-Qaida now disavows — the United States would do well to reassess its view on Iran. At least one thing should be increasingly clear: Iran is not the same kind of enemy.
Kevin Schwartz is a Social Science Research Council transregional research postdoctoral fellow at Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.