Iran is a bigger threat than Islamic State. So what?

Daniel W. Drezner,  The Washington Post

Of course the Iranian state is a bigger threat than the Islamic State. But that’s not saying much.

The hard-working staff at Spoiler Alerts has noted a not-so-subtle theme emanating from various members of the foreign policy community over this month. It started with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) telling Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that Iran was a bigger threat to the United States than the Islamic State.

Then this week, two more echoes of this same theme. First, a very morose Tom Friedman:

O.K., so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?

And now, a very stern David Petraeus talking with The Washington Post’s Liz Sly:

I think Iraq and the coalition forces are making considerable progress against the Islamic State. In fact, I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran. . . .

The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh, our interests generally diverge.

By the Pundit’s Law of Three, I hereby declare this observation to be a meme.

Now there are three appropriate reactions to these kinds of statements. The first is to nod one’s head and agree with Graham’s, Friedman’s and Petraeus’s assessments.

The Iranian regime controls vast energy reserves, some key geopolitical chokepoints, an actual government, a nuclear program, a regular military, a lot of not-so-regular militias and armed groups, a large number of young people and a proud civilization. The Islamic State controls some energy reserves, a few not-so-regular militias, a small number of young people, and a few parts of Syria and Iraq. One actor has vastly greater capabilities than the other actor. In other words, of course Iran is a bigger threat than the Islamic State to the United States and its interests in the region.

The second reaction is to ask what one should do with this observation. Contrary to recent rhetoric, it’s not as obvious as “end all cooperation with Iran.”

Indeed, if one reads carefully, Petraeus and Friedman are offering radically different prescriptions for U.S. policy. Friedman notes that the U.S. military has cleared out a lot of Iran’s enemies, and maybe that should stop. Petraeus is arguing for the exact opposite, urging the United States to get more skin in the game in Iraq. I’m not smart enough to tell you which of these policy prescriptions is correct, but I am smart enough to know that they’re very different even though they flow from the same assumption.

As both Friedman and Petraeus observe, there are and have been areas where Iranian and U.S. interests have coincided. Neither Tehran nor Washington wanted/wants a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. This doesn’t mean that one thereby embraces a Grand Bargain with Iran. It does mean, however, that tactical cooperation — whether on combating the Islamic State or on the nuclear question — is an option that has to be on the table.

There are a lot of people in Washington right now who mimic the arguments above, asserting U.S.-Iranian relations should be viewed through a strict zero-sum lens. If Iran gains anything from cooperating, then the United States loses.

But that’s just nuts — something I said in reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech making this very point:

The theme of Netanyahu’s speech was that Iran is such a Bad Regional Actor that any deal that doesn’t contain Iran’s ability to make mischief in the Middle East is a bad deal. But this presumes that by agreeing to any deal, the United States somehow abdicates its ability to push back on Iran in Syria, Yemen, etc. It presumes that countries cannot reach agreement in one policy arena without agreeing about every policy arenas.

That’s just nuts. In fact, the smooth functioning of the U.S.-Iran Claims Tribunal during decades of Iranian-American hostility demonstrates this not to be true. No deal will preclude the United States from opposing Iran on the other issues that Netanyahu raised.

To be clear, I get the concerns that a real rapprochement with Iran poses to U.S. interests in the region. But there’s zero evidence that such a rapprochement is in the offing.

Saying that one actor is a bigger strategic threat than another actor cannot and should not rule out tactical cooperation as a policy option. If it does, then we’re living in a world where dumb political rhetoric trumps foreign policy analysis.

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