To save Iraq, the U.S. military must work with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

June 5, 2015
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Soleimani uses a walkie-talkie at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani uses a walkie-talkie at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province, March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Recent gains by Islamic State in Iraq have raised questions about the viability of the Obama administration’s strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat it. Thus far, President Barack Obama has ruled out the use of U.S. ground forces and opted for a mix of air strikes and arming elements in Iraq that have a vested interest in fighting Islamic State. The results of this approach have been mixed. What has become clear, though, is that to defeat Islamic State, the Obama administration must engage with elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who are increasingly on the front lines battling Islamic State alongside motivated Iraqi forces.

Facts on the ground in Iraq necessitate such a dialogue. Talking to each other through the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad, as is happening now, has been ineffective. Intelligence sharing, coordination of forward operations and air strikes among commanders on both sides could start to turn the tide against Islamic State.

There would be considerable trepidation in Congress and among U.S. allies in the region over such an approach. Limiting the conversation to pushing Islamic State out of Iraq can alleviate those fears — for now. The United States could also use its platform with the guard to take up sectarian issues that will plague Iraq after Islamic State’s defeat and to make sure that Iran uses its influence over various Shi’ite political parties to not settle old scores but rather address Sunni grievances.

The Iranian power structure is complicated. The elected government of Hassan Rouhani is the face of a layered leviathan where clerics, merchants and security services all jockey for power. The ultimate arbiter of Iran’s foreign policy is the supreme leader – and he is heavily influenced by the Revolutionary Guard.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Soleimani walks near an armoured vehicle at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani walks near an armored vehicle at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province, March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

The Revolutionary Guard operates outside the confines of the traditional armed forces. It acts as the tip of the proverbial spear, responsible for Iran’s foreign policy in hotly contested areas, such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The guard answers only to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has sizeable influence over Iran’s economy. Many of the Islamic Republic’s current and former politicians have served in the Revolutionary Guard. One has to look no further than its seizure of a cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz last month — something that is hard to imagine being authorized by Rouhani’s cabinet — and how effective it has been in mobilizing Shi’ite militia to try to retake Ramadi after its fall to Islamic State to know where the locus of hard power rests in Iran.

The United States has designated elements of the Revolutionary Guard, such as the Quds Force, as terrorist organizations, and many in Congress and the military hold the groups responsible for the deaths of U.S. service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Revolutionary Guard leaders, such as Qasem Soleimani, have been subject to an international travel ban put in place by the United Nations since 2007. Yet it was he who came to the aide of the central government in Baghdad, and to the Kurds in Arbil, when Islamic State was on the offensive last year.

The U.S. military, because of legal and political prohibitions, can’t talk to Soleimani directly, even though it is clear that he is responsible for not only Iran’s interests in Iraq but also for mobilizing resistance to Islamic State among Iraq’s Shi’ites. But those prohibitions should not be allowed to block all cooperation with the guard.

Limited collaboration with the Revolutionary Guard is not without precedent. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States and Iran coordinated their efforts to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, talks started at the political level but eventually included U.S. and Iranian military commanders.  Discussions about Islamic State could follow the same blueprint. They don’t have to be publicized and should include other groups in Iraq, such as the Kurds, that have good working relationships with both Washington and Tehran.

The tectonic plates are shifting in the Middle East. The United States must do what it can to assure longstanding regional allies that it will abide by security commitments, but it must not box itself into outdated thinking. Iranian and American national-security interests converge in defeating Islamic State. Many other differences will remain.

Only a dispassionate approach to talking to our adversaries could help induce similar cooperation from Iran in Iraq. Such an effort would be in line with the best traditions of an American foreign policy that produced rapprochement with China and detente with the Soviet Union. Talking to Rouhani has us on the precipice of a nuclear accord. Talking to the Revolutionary Guard could help reverse the tide against Islamic State.

11 comments

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Shock and awe.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Like Isis they want to kill or convert by force of arms non-believers. That is most of us. Our policy ad that of the rest of non-believers should be to encourage Isis and the revolutionary guards to kill each other, maybe supply short range weapons to the losing side.

We have not interest in either the Revolutionary Guard or Isis or any other militant ideologs having any power or technical knowledge.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Iran is the only hope in containing Saudi influence in the region.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Is this the same revolutionary guard which took our embassy staff hostage for over a year in Iran? or blew our military compound in Lebanon killing hundreds of marines? or has the blood of more than 2500 soldiers killed in Iraq with Iranian supplied IEDs?
How can a moron ahole like yourself even suggest such thing? Well I am not surprised coming from leftist Reuters. I guess you are getting too used to have this silly djihadi pimp as your leader in the white house ready to give a BJ to Iran mollahs. shame on people like you!

Posted by Oballah | Report as abusive

Once Iran defeats ISIS in Iraq who is going to make them go home?

Posted by Vandedecken | Report as abusive

One must not try to underestimate the power of American army.It is the matter of time when Obama will act et gand act with proper opportunity.Iron must get red hot.
Imagine Revolutionary guard without American air support!

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Iraq is no more our baby!Why worry?Let them settle their course themselves.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Vandedecken ponders: “Once Iran defeats ISIS in Iraq who is going to make them go home?”

Who cares? It’s our home. This would be like people in Indonesia worrying about all the Texans currently in the North Dakota oil patch. “Who will make them go home?”

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Our administration’s obsession with trying to partner with the existing Iraqi gov’t/Iran Revolutionary Guard partnership to the exclusion of our proven friends in the region is troubling….especially since the Iraqi’s already lost or squandered most of the equipment and expertise we gave them a few years ago. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

I’d say all previous contracts between the U.S. and Iraqi gov’t are null and void due to their negligence. Another option is to support the Peshmerga and Sunni forces that helped us rout the Taliban from Iraq, in the West and North. That strategy could have a beneficial side effect of cutting off and weakening the ISIS forces around Baghdad/Shia Southeast areas of the country such that the Iraqi gov’t forces might be able to make some progress against ISIS as well.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Hometown commplains: “Our administration’s obsession with trying to partner with the existing Iraqi gov’t/Iran Revolutionary Guard partnership to the exclusion of our proven friends in the region is troubling”

Haha. The fact that you think we have “proven friends in the region”…. is troubling. What? Israel? The country that sent exactly zero troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. France got dirtier in Afghanistan than Israel did. So who does that leave as a “proven friend” in the middle east? Saudi Arabia. The Country that gave us 16 of the 19 9/11 hijackers? Wake up. Iran is the only country there, fighting ISIS. You are still playing Bush ball, and losing.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Solidar: I was referring to the Peshmerga and Sunni fighters who helped us in Iraq, along with perhaps Saudi, Jordanian, and Turkish forces who all have a vested interest.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive