Separating Iran from Iraq

It would be helpful if international events unfolded like dominoes, one falling into the next in an orderly, linear fashion. But this is rarely the case. Instead, events overlap and new crises spring up before old ones are fully resolved: more similar to a chaotic tower of Jenga blocks than a tidy row of dominoes.

Such is the case with Iran and Iraq. In the midst of ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq has fragmented and descended into violence, leading many to speculate on the possibility of cooperation between Iran and the United States in the region. On June 23, the Iraq issue was “briefly discussed” on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna, and in the days that have passed since, many new outlets have cast predictions on the effect the conflict in Iraq might play on negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. Unfortunately, no one is quite sure of what this effect might be. Would cooperation on the Iraq situation boost nuclear deal incentives?  Would it place Iran in a position of negotiating power? Would it act as a confidence building measure, or would it threaten to undo the shaky trust that has already been formed through the negotiating process?

This much is clear: although the Iraq situation is an undeniable concern for both countries involved, it should not undermine the importance of nuclear talks, especially in light of the fast-approaching July 20 deadline. Possibilities for cooperation between the U.S. and Iran do exist in Iraq, but these possibilities also run the risk of rushing the Iranian negotiations to a sloppy conclusion or worse, compromising the current progress on the negotiations themselves. Keeping the two issues separate and keeping the focus on reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal holds the best chance at achieving success.

There is, however, precedence for cooperation between the United States and Iran; in Afghanistan, Iran played a key role by providing targeting information used by U.S. forces to bomb Taliban positions. And despite the fact that the two countries have a history of conflict and name-calling, they also have surprisingly aligned interests with regard to Iraq. Both countries oppose the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Both would benefit from a contained, stable Iraq. Both understand that the leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki will only continue to foster Sunni extremism, and both have incentives to either replace Maliki with a less polarizing Shia Muslim leader, or to compel him to adopt more inclusive positions towards Arab Sunnis and Kurds.

From these aligned interests come opportunities for U.S.-Iranian cooperation ranging from coordinated messages on Iraqi political change to shared intelligence on ISIS activities. The U.S. is currently conducting surveillance flights over Iraq, and Iran is doing the same in a “parallel but separate effort”; combined and coordinated, these efforts could become even more efficient.

While Iran and the U.S. may be in a position to act cooperatively on the Iraq issue, however, the fact remains that complicated nuclear negotiations between the two are simultaneously underway. Cooperation in Iraq might run smoothly and serve as a confidence building measure for future interactions, but connecting this cooperation to the nuclear talks runs two major risks.

First, it threatens to rush negotiations. “Both sides now have greater urgency toward a deal,” a Business Insider article reflected on June 17. That statement has echoed from many corners in the past week: the popular opinion that the Iraq situation will act as a catalyst for reaching a speedy agreement on the nuclear issue. Although meeting the July 20 deadline would be a success for all members involved in the negotiations, the deadline should be met only by virtue of a meticulous and inclusive conclusion to the process, not met prematurely due to developments in Iraq. A slightly delayed, strong agreement is more favorable than a quickly made, weak one. While pressure to conclude talks must be applied, this pressure should come from the need to address both parties’ concerns in a timely fashion rather than from outside events such as the need to cooperate in Iraq.

A second, more troubling risk, is that cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq might fall through. Whether because of disagreement over Shiite leadership in Iraq or competition over influence in the region, Iran and the U.S. may not be ultimately successful in coordinating actions. If not kept separate from the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, a falling out in Iraq cooperation could threaten to scupper a nuclear deal.

Keeping the two issues separate is integral for the success of either. As Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf stated, “Any discussion about Iraq with Iran will be entirely separate from the negotiations… and any effort to link the two - or any other regional issue - is a nonstarter.” Let us hope this continues to be the policy as July 20 approaches.