Can Iran and the U.S. Fight With Each Other in Iraq and Against Each Other in Syria at the…

How It Works
June 13 2014 1:22 PM

Iran to the Rescue?    

Members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards march during an annual military parade to mark Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, 1980–'88, in the capital Tehran, on Sept. 22, 2013.

Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran has reportedly deployed two units of its Revolutionary Guards to Iraq in order to protect Baghdad and important Shiite shrines to the south from the growing ISIS-led insurgency. Given that tens of thousands died in a war between these two countries a few decades ago, this is a pretty stunning state of affairs.  

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Normally, it would be a cause for serious alarm in Washington, where there are already concerns about Iran's growing influence over Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. But it's not as though the alternatives—a terrorist-run pseudostate straddling the Iraq-Syria border or a protracted civil war—look much better.


With the U.S. actively considering airstrikes against ISIS, Tehran and Washington awkwardly find themselves on the same side of this conflict, working to protect the Iraqi government from Sunni militants. The question is, is it possible for the two longtime foes to work together?

Citing a senior Iranian official, Reuters reports today that “Tehran is open to the possibility of working with the United States to support Baghdad” and that the prospect of cooperation “is being discussed internally among the Islamic Republic's leadership.” The Obama administration hasn’t commented yet.

Relations between Iran and the U.S. have improved since Hassan Rouhani became president last year, but this hasn’t been a great couple of weeks. Nuclear talks have hit an impasse over the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain for nuclear enrichment. It now seems unlikely that a deal will be reached by the July 20 deadline set by negotiators.

It seems like it should be possible to compartmentalize the nuclear issue while the two sides work together on another pressing priority. But the bigger obstacle may be Syria, where Iran has been one of the primary international backers of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Iran views ISIS as the inevitable consequence of American, Arab, and Turkish support for anti-Assad rebel groups. The U.S. view is that Assad’s brutal response to the moderate Syrian opposition led to the growth of radical opposition groups.

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around a situation where the U.S. and Iran are fighting as allies on one side of the porous Syrian-Iraq border and essentially fighting a proxy war on the other side, but all bets are off when it comes to Middle Eastern geopolitics at the moment.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

U.S. Begins Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059


Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

How in the World Did Turkey Just Get 46 Hostages Back From ISIS?

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.