As US Shuns Iran in Fight Against ISIS, History Repeats

by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Last week epitomized the highs and lows of hoping for an improvement in US-Iran relations. A BBC report on Sept. 5 that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had approved Iranian cooperation with the US military in the fight against ISIS was met with near elation in many quarters. Some analysts (myself included) felt this announcement would clarify the strategic value of normalized US-Iran relations for the publics and policymakers of both countries. But after the ensuing Iranian denials that cooperation was in fact approved, the Americans went even further by denying even the possibility of formal cooperation. A Sept. 8 State Department briefing reiterated the exclusion of Iran from the broad 40-nation coalition announced by President Obama to combat ISIS, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s Sept. 12 assertion in Ankara that including Iran “would not be appropriate” because of its involvement in Syria and its alleged status as a “state sponsor of terror in various places” put the icing on the cake.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iranian hardliners have taken heart from this very public snub. Even Marziah Afkham, the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, a stronghold of pragmatists who favors improved relations with the West, felt compelled toregister “serious doubts about [the coalition’s] seriousness to fight against the root and true reasons for terrorism.” She noted without elaboration that “[s]ome of the countries in the coalition are among the financial and military supporters of terrorists in Iraq and Syria.”

Unlike US policymakers, Iranian statesmen—and the wider public—have a long memory. As the recent anniversary of Sept. 11 reminds us to “never forget,” we can do little but remember the lives lost and contemplate how the United States was drawn into a global conflict with religious extremists 13 years ago. For Iranians, however, the fateful date came four years before.

The Taliban reached global prominence in 1998, a year when its fighters launched a devastating offensive in northern Afghanistan. Much as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) last month swept across northern Iraq, forcing the Kurdish Peshmerga to retreat to within 40kms of Erbil, the better-armed and better-organized Taliban overcame all resistance by the Iran and Uzbekistani-backed coalition there during that summer. On Aug 8, it captured Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, located just 100km from the border with Uzbekistan. Overwhelming local militias, Taliban troops and their allies massacred an estimated 2,000 Hazara civilians in what Human Rights Watch called “one of the worst atrocities of Afghanistan’s long civil war.” In addition, they stormed the Iranian consulate, killing a journalist and ten members of the diplomatic mission, despite assurances from the government of Pakistan, a chief sponsor of the Taliban at the time, that diplomats would not be targeted.

The diplomats’ murder—as well as the massacre of civilians—outraged both the Iranian regime and the broader public. Foreign Ministry officials mourned their fallen colleagues, whom they celebrated as martyrs akin to those who died ”defending the borders of this great country during eight years of holy defense” during Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq. An official statement broadcast on Iranian state television asserted Iran’s ”right to defend the security of its citizens” and warned that “the consequences of the Taliban action is on the shoulders of the Taliban and their supporters.”

For Iran, there was no question that the Taliban enjoyed the support of two states: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Without significant financial support from Saudi sources and the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Taliban would not have been able to stage such a brutal offensive. While it had taken Kabul two years before, the conquest of Mazar-e Sharif consolidated the Taliban’s position as the ruler of virtually all of Afghanistan, a status that no doubt contributed to its increasingly close cooperation with al-Qaeda.

Iran responded by building up its forces along the Afghan border and conducting major military exercises. But the Islamic Republic felt unable to commit to a costly and unpredictable war in Afghanistan unilaterally. It was only three years later, with 9/11, that the US came to realize the full nature of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its Taliban collaborators.

Suddenly, Iran and the United States had a common enemy. As Washington mulled its strategy to rout the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda, officials in Tehran reached out to offer strategic support. Years of experience in Afghanistan had given the Iranians deep insight into how the Taliban operated in the ethnically and geographically complex nation.

The secret discussions that occurred between American and Iranian officials in the weeks that followed were the highest-level talks held between the two countries since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. Many analysts believed that the new-found alignment of strategic interests, combined with President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist policies and conciliatory tone, would spur the US and Iran to normalize relations and actively cooperate against the terrorist threat.

In a grave blunder, however, neoconservatives and other hawks in the Bush administration opposed collaboration with Iran, thus depriving coalition forces of a valuable ally. Two months later, in a triumph of politics over pragmatism, Bush gratuitously lumped Iran together with Iraq and North Korea in his infamous “axis of evil,” a move that greatly strengthened hard-line forces in Tehran who had long argued that Washington simply could not be trusted.

It is striking how this situation mirrors that faced by the US and Iran today as both countries face the threat posed by ISIS. The Rouhani administration has opened the door to reconciliation, and the rise of reinvigorated Sunni extremism in the region gives Washington and Tehran a common enemy. Indeed, Iran has sent arms and advisers to Iraq to help the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces roll back ISIS’s recent advances.

Nonetheless, the US remains unwilling to include Iran in its coalition efforts. This position has given hardliners in Iran yet another opportunity to instill doubts about Washington’s sincerity and trustworthiness. Unsurprisingly, the events of 1998 and 2001 weigh heavily on Iran’s collective memory. Indeed, the conservative website Javan Online last week recalled “Iran’s bitter experience of cooperation with the US in Afghanistan,” citing it as reason to dismiss cooperation with Washington against ISIS. The conservative refrain that members of the coalition are “among financial and military supporters of terrorists” is also rooted in the historical memory of the 1998 offensive. Iran also continues to view Saudi Arabia as a key source both of funding for ISIS and other radical Sunni groups and of their intolerant and violent ideology, just as it was for the Taliban.

That Riyadh and its Gulf allies should be treated by Washington as central partners in the anti-ISIS coalition, while Tehran is excluded from any formal participation is particularly galling to Iranians who have suffered the brunt of US sanctions. Not only is this, in their view, illogical. To them, it also suggests that Washington is simply unable to learn from its past mistakes.

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerr on July 14, 2014 in Vienna.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Esfandyar has spent the last 5 years working on projects related to "business diplomacy" between the West and Iran. He is the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum, the leading annual gathering for business, government and civil society leaders committed to Iran's economic development, and the executive editor Bourse & Bazaar, a digital business publication with a focus on Iran. He is a graduate of Columbia University.



  1. Another post exposing the “Girly-man” mentality in Washington D.C. today. I wonder where they get their courage from? Perhaps it comes from lobbyists who shower the politicians with those “bags of money”, such as the fabled “13 pieces of silver”? After all, they wouldn’t want to offend, now would they?

    Another nail in the coffin, so to speak, the coffin of seeking a peaceful solution to the stupidity that has engulfed the political direction, one of desperation from the continual failures of Neocon dogma, of serving more than one master, at the expense of the home team.

  2. US administrations – of whatever political stripe – just cannot help themselves, can they?
    Yet again, they are being drawn back into Iraq and the Middle East. Just as IS wants.
    IS are smart; they are using the goals of the Yinon Plan to suit themselves.
    They are the forward forces of Turkey, who will sustain them come what may.
    Most of the other Sunni regimes in the area will commit only to minor actions, at best.
    The US is on to another costly loser situation.
    Little wonder the US is a declining power……

  3. It is clear for the whole world that Saudi Arabia is the main ‘sponsor of terrorism’ in the region. Because these terrorists are not attacking or threatening directly Israel, their sponsors are left untouched. The real evil in the region is not Israel but Saudi Arabia. Israel just makes use of the USA’s long term alliance with that nefarious kingdom to keep dividing and weakening the Arab world.
    Maybe something is changing.
    Beyond the apparent naivety of the Anti-ISIS strategy, the USA is possibly pursuing another hidden goal: Neutralize Saudi Arabia to prepare for an imminent USA-Iran deal on the nuclear issue. Saudi Arabia is now put in a very awkward situation. Sunni Saudi Arabia is begging the West for an action not against Shias, but against pious Sunnis of their own creed, some of them they have bred and nourished.
    ISaudi Arabia has been financed and controlled IS but then ISIS declared the Islamic State. That was a shock to Saudi Arabia who realized they were now in danger. They immediately cut the financing and ask the USA for help to eliminate them.
    In Syria the USA is tolerating Al Nusra as long as it is under control of Qatar. The recent liberation of hostages held by Al Nusra with the mediation of Qatar is a display of persistent Qatar’s influence over Al Nusra. While the beheading of ISIS’ hostages shows that Saudi Arabia has totally lost control of ISIS. Qatar is coming out as the preferred partner for the USA. In addition Qatar has excellent relation with Turkey and fairly good relation with Iran. Iran is not totally opposed to a partnership between a tamed and rebranded version of the Moslem Brotherhood with the Alawites in Syria. Turkey probably agreed but still objects to Bashar al Assad’s leadership.

    The recent announcement that Turkey would welcome the Moslem Brotherhood leaders expelled from Qatar, shows that Qatar and Turkey have not given up their goal of bringing the Moslem Brotherhood back in front, after their failure in Egypt.
    By crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq, is the USA playing Qatar-Turkey-Iran against Saudi Arabia? Is the USA still in favor of the ‘moderate’ Moslem Brotherhood role in the future middle-east?
    What you see in NOT what you get

  4. And what is Turkey’s motivation in all of this?
    A restoration of the Ottoman Empire?

  5. Iran is learning from experience of it’s dealings with the US behind the seen and congoruntly at the on set of every crisis in the ME. I believe more and more Iran will wait for the US to get stuck in the ME quagmires and then join the US after US had begged Iran for help!!!

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