By Narrelle Gilchrist
Iraq, a land area twice the size of Great Britain, is currently being controlled by a group of radical jihadists – violent, oppressive rulers who think the Western World is the Great Satan and seek to bring us down. It must be our priority to destroy that group, ISIL, before it is too late. Yet, in recent days, as policymakers around the world have strategized in the war against ISIL, an important question has arisen: can we fight ISIL alongside Iran? Can and should we choose between this “lesser” of two evils? When looking at the bigger picture, we can see that the answer must be a resounding no. By allowing Iran to take a forefront in the fight against ISIL, we will be allowing another radical, oppressive regime to gain a foothold into the region – a theocratic group who also think we are the Great Satan and seek to bring us down. Collaborating with Iran, even indirectly, would only prolong and perpetuate extremism within the region, allowing us to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Recently, a revealing and disturbing New York Times headline read “U.S. Strategy in Iraq Increasingly Relies on Iran.” The quickest and easiest way to defeat ISIL means allowing Iran to do our dirty work for us, falling back on their support from the ground, even without official collaboration, so that we ourselves do not have to provide the necessary troops [Cooper]. Under our current strategy, while we officially ignore each other, we are, in effect, allies. Yet, in context, this indirect alliance is dangerous, for the issue of the Islamic State has broader implications for the stability and future of the region as a whole. It is part of a generational conflict, and thus, we must consider not just the immediate outcomes, but also how our strategies today will affect the forces of extremism for decades to come.
In a way, the current crisis is the direct result of the sectarian conflict left in the wake of the 2003 invasion and the Syrian Civil War. The Shia-Sunni conflict has become a deep cycle in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis oppressed and persecuted Shias. After the invasion, the power vacuum that was left allowed the rise of Shiite extremists, and in response, Iraqi Sunnis formed the Islamic State. In Syria, too, Sunnis have feared not just Bashar Al-Assad, but also Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s Shiite militias, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard [Khedery]. As the Syrian Civil War destabilized the region, each of these groups sought to take advantage of the situation, seizing power and influence, and fear of these groups pushed Sunnis towards the Islamic State. Thus, the Islamic State is a product of a cycle decades in the making, one that may not end after its defeat.
This history perfectly illustrates why involving and validating Iran in the fight against the Islamic State would only invite further conflict. If we allow Iran to take charge in the fight against ISIL, we will be allowing them to gain unchecked influence in Iraq – influence that will only spread. After the defeat of the Islamic State, it is essential that Iraq becomes a stable, pluralistic democracy, or else the power vacuum that will be left will undoubtedly lead to yet another sectarian conflict. With Iran in a position of influence and power, its connections to Hezbollah and Assad will leave these groups with a perfect opportunity to seize control, leading to a Shia monopoly on the region [Gearan]. Without a stable, pluralistic government to counter it, Iran’s power, both in Iraq and in the region as a whole, will only grow. Inevitably, another group of Sunni extremists will rise to fight the oppression, and the cycle will continue, leaving us with an even worse situation than the one we have now.
Even now, as Iranian militias have helped to liberate and guard parts of Iraq, security checkpoints have become home to Shia flags and posters of the Iranian supreme leader, symbolizing the power Iran has already begun to seize [Barnard]. Yet, these very flags can have a detrimental effect on the fight against the Islamic State itself, for they are hated and feared by Iraqi Sunnis and will essentially push them closer into ISIL’s arms. Many Iraqis actually fear Iran more than they fear the Islamic State, for its militias have frequently victimized Iraqi Sunnis and are seen as a threat to everything they hold dear [“The Caliphate Cracks“]. Faced with Iranian Shia forces, countless Sunnis may, in fact, turn to the only protector they have left – ISIL. In order to avoid this, it is essential that the coalition to fight the Islamic State is professional and nonsectarian – a coalition that, by definition, cannot include Iran.
Because the costs of letting Iran take the lead in fighting ISIL far outweigh the benefits, we must rely on other regional powers, such as Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf-Arab states, to support our strategy. Iran will continue to fight ISIL unilaterally, but we must no longer rely on their support, whether directly or indirectly. Instead, we must alter our strategy to exclude Iran from the strategy entirely, so that it will gradually be shut out of decision making and bear little to no effect on the ultimate effort to defeat the Islamic State [Lake]. That way, we can determine the future of Iraq, ensuring that it finally becomes a stable, pluralistic democracy, freed from warfare and extremism.
When fighting the Islamic State, we must look at the bigger picture, and victory while collaborating with Iran would come at too high of a price. ISIL, while it is perhaps the greatest threat we face today, is the result of forces far deeper than one organization and one movement. By validating Iran, we will only be strengthening these forces for future generations of conflict. Thus, Iran is, in fact, the greater of the two evils we face. ISIL may be the fight of the moment, but Iran is the catalyst of instability generations in the making. It is the spark that can ignite those forces, both now and in the future. Because we cannot allow that to happen, we have to leave Iran out of the coalition and out of the fight.
Barnard, Anne. “Iran Gains Influence in Iraq as Shiite Forces Fight ISIS.” The New York Times. March 5th, 2015. June 3rd, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/world/middleeast/iran-gains-influence-in-iraq-as-shiite-forces-fight-Islamic State.html?_r=0
Cooper, Helene. “U.S. Strategy in Iraq Increasingly Relies on Iran.” The New York Times. March 5th, 2015. June 26th, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/world/middleeast/us-strategy-in-iraq-increasingly-relies-on-iran.html?_r=0
“The Caliphate Cracks.” The Economist. March 21st, 2015. June 3rd, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21646750-though-islamic-state-still-spreading-terror-its-weaknesses-are-becoming-apparent
Gearan, Anne. “US Led Coalition Seeks to Exclude Iran from Fight Against Islamic State.” Washington Post. September 13th, 2014. June 3rd, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-led-coalition-seeks-to-exclude-iran-from-fight-against-islamic-state/2014/09/13/71193e8a-3b4a-11e4-a023-1d61f7f31a05_story.html
Khedery, Ali. “How ISIS Came to Be.” The Guardian. August 22nd, 2014. June 26th, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/22/syria-iraq-incubators-isis-jihad
Lake, Eli. “U.S. and Iran Hit ISIS, Ignore Each Other.” The Daily Beast. August 26th, 2014. June 3rd, 2015. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/26/u-s-and-iran-hit-Islamic State-ignore-each-other.html
“The Risks of Iran Winning the War against ISIS.” CBS News. March 3rd, 2015. June 3rd, 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/iran-fight-against-Islamic State-iraq-effective-could-lead-to-consequences/
Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.