June 20, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1099

Iran's Dilemma: Cooperate With U.S. Against Sunnis In Iraq – Or Maintain Anti-U.S. Ideological Stance?

June 20, 2014 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iraq, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1099


In a June 14, 2014 response to calls in the U.S. for cooperation with Iran in order to stop the extremist Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from taking over Iraqi cities,[1] Iranian President Hassan Rohani said that Iran is not ruling out such cooperation with the U.S. The statements by Rohani and his political advisor, which indicate the possibility of U.S.-Iran collaboration, were initially received sympathetically both by a source close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and by others close to the pragmatic stream in the country.

Various Iranian spokesmen noted the conditions that would be necessary for such a joint U.S.-Iran action, among them that the U.S. would dissociate itself from Saudi Arabia, which is considered to be the defender of Sunni power – a banner that has been raised by ISIS. Another condition set out was that the U.S. must effectively demonstrate that has ceased its hostility towards Iran, in order to prevent a situation such as that in 2003, when, following U.S.-Iran collaboration in Iraq, President Bush called Iran part of "the axis of evil." Additionally, the Iranian website Asr-e Iran stated that the eradication of the Sunni ISIS would be Iran's way of testing the integrity of the U.S.'s intentions towards Iran and of verifying the U.S. claim that it combats terrorism, under circumstances in which the interests of both Iran and the U.S. converge.

However, the day after these supportive reactions, the Rohani government, Iran's Foreign Ministry, and others from the ideological camp hardened their position on Iraq, underlining that no collaboration was possible. This shift was likely due to President Obama's position that Iraq's Shi'ites compromise and incorporate Sunnis into the leadership of Iraq.[2] Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzia Afkham claimed that this demand constituted U.S. interference in the outcome of Iraq's recent elections, in which the Shi'ites obtained a clear majority in a clear attempt to change this outcome. On June 20, 2014, the Iranian news agency Fars reported that Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami had revealed the reason for Iran's change of position on the issue by stating that at this time, U.S. leaders were saying that they were willing to suppress the terrorists if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki stepped down.

Iran's change of heart vis-à-vis U.S.-Iran collaboration could also stem from the hardening of U.S. positions in the nuclear talks currently underway in Vienna. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araghchi, who are in charge of the nuclear negotiations, clarified to the Iranian media that no talks had been held with the Americans over Iraq; this ran counter to a Reuters report that quoted an official in the Iranian delegation stating that such talks had indeed taken place.

After it became clear that the U.S. and Iran are not in agreement over the nature of the political solution in Iraq – i.e. whether to include the Sunnis in power ­– that will accompany U.S. military action against ISIS, a new bargaining chip was added, apparently by the Iranians as the interested party, linking Iranian consent to U.S. military action in Iraq to U.S. concessions in the nuclear negotiations (these negotiations are in effect between the U.S. and Iran, rather than between Iran and the P5+1)

Conspicuous in its absence in the early Iranian reactions is the usual fiery anti-American rhetoric regarding "the Great Satan" and calls for "death to America"; the language used was strictly political in nature.

This paper will review the dilemma now facing Iran over whether to collaborate with the U.S. to stop ISIS and Sunni forces in Iraq, as well as the regime's preparations to recruit Iranian volunteers for a possible Iranian operation to defend Shi'ite holy sites in Iraq.

President Rohani: We May Consider Collaborating With The Americans In Iraq If They Act Against Terrorism There

On June 14, 2014, Rohani said regarding possible collaboration with the U.S. that "if the Americans operate against terrorist groups [in Iraq] and we see this, we may consider it." He added that Iran will confront terrorists if they approach its borders, and noted that the option of Iranian forces entering Iraq had not been discussed.[3]

Rohani's political advisor, Hamid Aboutalebi, who has been rejected by the U.S. as Iranian Ambassador to the UN due to his part in the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, tweeted on June 15 that "Iran and the U.S. are the only countries which have the strength in the region to peacefully rectify the Iraq crisis... The possibility for indirect Iran-U.S. collaboration to resolve the Iraq crisis diplomatically is not inconceivable... In any instance [where] we see that the U.S. is operating against terrorist groups in Iraq, we could consider [this] and discuss [collaborating with them]." Aboutalebi added that although the Iraqi government is capable of defeating terrorism on its own, the struggle against terrorism there requires collaboration among all countries involved in the Iraqi arena.[4]

IRGC Daily Javan: U.S. Disassociating Itself From Saudi Arabia Is A Condition For Collaboration In Iraq

A June 14, 2014 article in the daily Javan, which is close to Iran's IRGC, stated: "Since the start of the ISIS assault in Iraq, with the clear support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, there has been talk of Iran-U.S. collaboration in Iraq... First, it should be stressed that Iran has always striven for regional stability via the 'collective security strategy.' Therefore, it is natural and logical [for this strategy] to be contrary to the policy of America and its allies, who seek to maintain an active presence in the region... Even if two countries [the U.S and Iran] occasionally walk the same path, it doesn't necessarily mean they are collaborating.

"In March 2003, America attacked Saddam [Hussein]. At that time, even though removing Saddam was not counter to Iran's position, Iran could not support the method used to remove the dictator and a foreign force's attack on Iraq – because this deepened the American foothold in the region. Therefore, even though ousting Saddam served the policies of both Iran and the U.S., it did not mean there was collaboration between them. [The attack was even] criticized [in Iran].

"This phenomenon recurred in the American attack on October 7 [most likely 2001] against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even now, although Iran is extremely interested in ISIS suppression and downfall–because it poses the main threat to regional security – it has been promoting doing so as part of its collective security strategy, and not as part of collaboration with the U.S.

"The fundamental issue here is that if we agree that the U.S. – in contrast to the Zionist regime – opposes ISIS's infiltration [into Iraq] and its empowerment , we must recall that the U.S. policy and interests are diametrically opposed to those of its regional ally Saudi Arabia, which is the chief supporter of the terrorists it is directing in the region.

"Therefore, if the U.S. wants to defeat ISIS, it must first make clear what its position is vis-à-vis Riyadh – which is the mother [of ISIS], not its position vis-à-vis a terrorist group [i.e. ISIS] that is the scion of takfiri thought. Most Western media are focusing on the possibility of Iran-U.S. collaboration against ISIS instead of focusing on the terrorism directed by the Saudis and on the possibility that the U.S. could oppose it [i.e. Saudi Arabia]."[5]

Tabnak: Cessation Of U.S. Opposition To Iran – A Precondition For U.S.-Iran Collaboration On Iraq

Also on June 14, the website Tabnak, which is close to Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei, published an article titled "Why Is Collaborating With Iran In Iraq Important To The Americans?" that stated: "In recent days, following the advance of takfiri terrorist circles in Iraq, international media have widely discussed how to deal with these circles... The most important discussion was devoted to the possibility of collaboration between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq. But why are the countries of the world placing so much emphasis on Iran-U.S. collaboration?... Western media have even raised the possibility of an Iran-U.S. alliance on Iraq... Yesterday, [June 13, U.S.] State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied any Tehran-Washington negotiations on this matter, but did not rule out the possibility of such negotiations on Iraq. She said that Iran and the U.S. undoubtedly share an interest in beating back the extremist militias. Speculation in the media on this matter reemerged after Rohani also discussed Iraq in his speech today [June 14]...

"We must pay attention to the fact that there was also collaboration between Iran and Iraq [sic; apparently a reference to the U.S.] in 2003 (along with the American attack on Iraq). At that time, the joint interest – toppling Saddam – meant that Iranian strategic commanders and experts collaborated with their American counterparts on the necessary plans in Iraq. This collaboration was so important that the Americans themselves have acknowledged that without Iran's help, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to remove Saddam.

"However, immediately after the success of this collaboration, and America's initial victory in Iraq, the president at the time, George Bush, defined Iran as part of the 'axis of evil' in a speech. This halted the Iran-U.S. collaboration that was taking place at that time, and also increased Iranian pessimism regarding the Americans.

"Even now, we should note that the issue of Iran-U.S. collaboration in Iraq is being brought up at a time when the previous collaboration and the U.S.'s unreasonable [anti-Iran] measures are still raw in Iranians' memories. Therefore, we can deduce that should there be collaboration between the two countries on some level, we need to set a condition: In the first stage, the U.S. must provide assurances that it has no intention of asking Iran for help anytime it needs it and then reverting to its perpetual policy of opposition [to Iran]."[6]

Asr-e Iran: Coordination With The U.S. Is Not Necessarily Collaboration, But Rather A Test Of Intentions

In a June 16, 2014 article, the moderate conservative website Asr-e Iran called on the regime to coordinate with the U.S. against Iraq, and pointed out that this would not necessarily constitute collaboration but would instead be coordinated measures stemming from the joint Iran-U.S. interests in the events in Iraq. The website stressed that in this way, Iran could test the American claim that it aspires to eradicate terrorism, and also inoculate itself against possible accusations that it was taking military action uncoordinated with the U.S. against ISIS in Iraq. It stated: "In politics nothing is impossible... The common saying 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' could occasionally be helpful... This isn't the first time that Iran and America share an opinion on a certain topic. This has happened before in the 35-year history of the Islamic Republic. America and Iran both condemned the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by the U.S.S.R.... The most well-known of such circumstances were the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein in Iraq – they ensured both American and Iranian interests...

"Most importantly, in stressing the necessity of American intervention [in Iraq], Iran can test the integrity [of the U.S.]... Iran will undoubtedly fulfil its role [in Iraq], and it cannot fall into a deep trap – but we also cannot exclude the possibility that the Americans will also take action [against ISIS]– not due to any sort of strategic or tactical alliance, but as a test of integrity that will show whether the Americans have come to the region to uproot terrorism or to leave [the region] in the hands of the [Sunni] ISIS.

"ISIS offers an opportunity for a test of integrity [for the U.S.]. This issue, and the issue of the rescue of the Shi'ites who are subject to waves of savage attacks, are more important than preoccupation with the history of the Iran-U.S. conflict. We need not fight shoulder to shoulder [with the Americans], nor need we embrace each other. [But] we do need to agree on a shared opinion in order to reach a shared goal: the suppression of ISIS. This is so that we can see how committed [the Americans] are to combatting terrorism, and also to protect ourselves against accusations that we are becoming involved [in Iraq] without coordinating [with the U.S.].

"One of the problems of Iran, and of America, is the lack of a shared understanding of the picture, the terms, and the conclusions. At this time, when the issue is terrorists, the meaning is totally clear [to both]: ISIS."[7]

Obama To Iraqi Leaders: Time For Hard Compromises For The Iraqi People's Sake

On June 13, 2014, President Obama called on Iraqi leaders to unite, stating that the recent events in their country were a wakeup call. He said, "Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together... We can't do it for them."[8]

Iran's Dilemma – The Need To Publicly Reject Collaboration With U.S.

On June 16, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzia Afkham said that Iran opposes U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Noting that the recent events in Iraq were aimed at influencing the Iraqi political process and tilting it in favor of the Sunnis, she added, "The evidence shows that the U.S. wants to abuse the current situation in Iraq and reverse the election results." She also called on the leaders of the international community to support the Iraqi government's attempt to stop the peril of the extremist takfiri terrorism.[9]

Also on June 16, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian said, "Thus far, we have had no negotiations with the Americans on collaborating in combating terrorism in Iraq, and we feel no need to collaborate with the U.S. on this issue. Iran believes that the Iraqi people, the army, and the Iranian armed forces can fight this crisis themselves. We are willing to advise and to assist the [Iraqi] military and armed forces there in every way, but we are not directly involved militarily."[10]

Additionally, while Foreign Minister Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Agharchi, who are currently in Vienna heading Iran's nuclear talks with the 5+1 group, vehemently denied to Iranian media that they had met with the Americans to discuss Iraq,[11] Reuters quoted an Iranian official in Vienna as affirming that such talks had indeed taken place.[12]

On June 18, 2014, Iranian Army chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi and the daily Kayhan, which is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, vigorously rejected U.S. proposals for cooperation. Firouzabadi said, "Cooperation between Iran and America will never happen, and it is meaningless."[13]

A June 18 Kayhan editorial, headlined "Satan Is Pretending To Be An Angel," stated that the U.S., which it claimed is backing ISIS, is plotting to rehabilitate its image and to present itself as the Iraqi people's savior, by proposing to cooperate with Iran in Iraq. It said: "The hired terrorists [acting on America's behalf] called ISIS are [by themselves] incapable of igniting the current crisis [in Iraq]... This is the same terror group that the U.S. and its allies operated in Syria. Therefore, the U.S. declaration that it was ready to fight it [i.e. ISIS], and particularly [its] proposal to cooperate with Iran to suppress them, is a sly and unskilled scheme. America is aware that these terrorists, who were dispatched, cannot stand up to the Iraqi army and people, and that sooner or later they will be significantly suppressed. Therefore, the proposal for collaboration with Iran to suppress them is aimed at rehabilitating its [i.e. the U .S.'s] prestige, which was lost due to the support [it] gave to the terrorists and due to the crimes committed in Syria; thus, it will portray [itself] as the redeeming savior of the Iraqi people, following all these savage crimes."[14] On June 19, according to a report published on that date by, Majlis member Ali Mottahari said that Iran was not negotiating with the U.S. on the issue of Iraq, and that it was undesirable, even forbidden, to involve the U.S. in this matter. He noted that the people in Iraq must not agree to U.S. intervention in their country, but must attempt to resolve the crisis by relying on their own internal forces, and added that they must accept no help from other countries, particularly from the U.S. Accepting such help from the U.S., he said, would damage Iraqi sovereignty.

Iran Recruits Volunteers For Operations In Iraq

On June 14, the website YJC, which is close to the IRGC, cited Mohammad Reza Zomorodian, director of the Headquarters for Organizing the Activities of the Popular Organizations in Tehran, as stating that the headquarters has commenced signing up people volunteering to defend the Shi'ite holy sites, in response to repeated demands from revolutionary pro-Iranian regime youth to defend these sites as well as the tombs of the Shi'ite imams. Registration is underway on the website, with some 4,200 signing up in the first 24 hours and declaring their intention to follow the decree of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and, if necessary, to be dispatched to the holy Shi'ite cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq.

Sign-up website for volunteers (Source:, accessed June 19, 2014)

The website provides a registration form for volunteers to fill in their name, gender, date of birth, email address, and "national code" (likely their ID number), to note whether they are members of the Basij or another regime organization, to fill in their military service status, and to declare how they want to help – military/culture/logistics/media. Applicants are also asked to state whether they are willing "to physically participate in the jihadi arena and in battles against the group that desecrates Shi'ite holy sites."

Poster from the volunteer registration site: "Registering those interested in being dispatched, in accordance with a decree by the general commander of the armed forces, the Imam Khamenei, to defend Shi'ite holy sites now being desecrated by the takfiri group ISIS" (Source:

The website also sets out options for volunteers to register: by sending a text message stating "Oh Hussein, we are at your command" to the telephone number 500026663; by applying via (as above); or by applying at registration sites in cities nationwide.

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] See in particular the June 16, 2014 statement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about cooperation with Iran; he said, "I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive" and added that President Obama was conducting "a very thorough vetting of every option that is available." Yahoo News, June 16, 2014.

[2], June 13, 2014.

[3] Fars (Iran), June 14, 2014. Rohani added that the escalating terrorism in Iraq was the result of the rage of those defeated in the Iraqi elections (meaning the Sunnis) but that "you cannot make up for losing an election by killing people." He also said that Iran was willing to assist Iraq under international law, but Tehran has thus far not received such an Iraqi request for assistance.

[4], June 15, 2014.

[5] Javan (Iran), June 14, 2014.

[6] Tabnak (Iran), June 14, 2014.

[7] Asr-e Iran (Iran), June 16, 2014.

[8], June 13, 2014.

[9] IRNA (Iran), June 16, 2014.

[10] ISNA (Iran), June 16, 2014. Foreign Minister Zarif told a German delegation in Tehran that Iran would not send forces to Iraq and that the dispatch of troops was a trap., June 14, 2014. Marzia Afkham said on June 14 that Tehran was opposed to any foreign military intervention in Iraq and added that Iraq could deal with terrorism on its own; she also denied that Iran had sent forces to Iraq. Fars, June 14, 2014.

[11] Following his meeting with American Assistant Secretary of State William Burns on June 16, Foreign Minister Zarif said that the talks ? had concerned only the nuclear issue and had not touched on the issue of Iraq; Aragchi made a similar claim., June 16, 2014.

[12] According to the Reuters report, the official said: "The disastrous situation in Iraq was discussed today. No specific outcome was achieved. Iran is a great country that can play a key role in restoring stability in Iraq and the region." Reuters, June 16, 2014.

[13]Fars, June 18, 2014.

[14] Kayhan (Iran), June 18, 2014.

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