Nuclear talks with Iran have failed to yield an agreement, but the deadline for a deal has been extended without a hitch. What would have been a significant crisis a year ago, replete with threats and anxiety, has been handled without drama or difficulty. This new response to yet another failure to reach an accord marks a shift in the relationship between the United States and Iran, a shift that can’t be understood without first considering the massive geopolitical shifts that have taken place in the Middle East, redefining the urgency of the nuclear issue.
These shifts are rooted in the emergence of the Islamic State. Ideologically, there is little difference between the Islamic State and other radical Islamic jihadist movements. But in terms of geographical presence, the Islamic State has set itself apart from the rest. While al Qaeda might have longed to take control of a significant nation-state, it primarily remained a sparse, if widespread, terrorist organization. It held no significant territory permanently; it was a movement, not a place. But the Islamic State, as its name suggests, is different. It sees itself as the kernel from which a transnational Islamic state should grow, and it has established itself in Syria and Iraq as a geographical entity. The group controls a roughly defined region in the two countries, and it has something of a conventional military designed to defend and expand the state’s control. Thus far, whatever advances and reversals it has seen, the Islamic State has retained this character. While the group certainly funnels a substantial portion of its power into dispersed guerrilla formations and retains a significant regional terrorist apparatus, it remains something rather new for the region — an Islamist movement acting as a regional state.
It is unclear whether the Islamic State can survive. It is under attack by American aircraft, and the United States is attempting to create a coalition force that will attack and conquer it. It is also unclear whether the group can expand. The Islamic State appears to have reached its limits in Kurdistan, and the Iraqi army (which was badly defeated in the first stage of the Islamic State’s emergence) is showing some signs of being able to launch counteroffensives.
A New Territorial Threat
The Islamic State has created a vortex that has drawn in regional and global powers, redefining how they behave. The group’s presence is both novel and impossible to ignore because it is a territorial entity. Nations have been forced to readjust their policies and relations with each other as a result. We see this inside of Syria and Iraq. Damascus and Baghdad are not the only ones that need to deal with the Islamic State; other regional powers — Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia chief among them — need to recalculate their positions as well. A terrorist organization can inflict pain and cause turmoil, but it survives by remaining dispersed. The Islamic State has a terrorism element, but it is also a concentrated force that could potentially expand its territory. The group behaves geopolitically, and as long as it survives it poses a geopolitical challenge.
Within Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State represents elements of the Sunni Arab population. It has imposed itself on the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq, and although resistance to Islamic State power certainly exists among Sunnis, some resistance to any emergent state is inevitable. The Islamic State has managed to cope with this resistance so far. But the group also has pressed against the boundaries of the Kurdish and Shiite regions, and it has sought to create a geographical link with its forces in Syria, changing Iraq’s internal dynamic considerably. Where the Sunnis were once weak and dispersed, the Islamic State has now become a substantial force in the region north and west of Baghdad, posing a possible threat to Kurdish oil production and Iraqi governance. The group has had an even more complex effect in Syria, as it has weakened other groups resisting the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, thereby strengthening al Assad’s position while increasing its own power. This dynamic illustrates the geopolitical complexity of the Islamic State’s presence.
Countering with a Coalition
The United States withdrew from Iraq hoping that Baghdad, even if unable to govern its territory with a consistent level of authority, would nevertheless develop a balance of power in Iraq in which various degrees of autonomy, formal and informal, would be granted. It was an ambiguous goal, though not unattainable. But the emergence of the Islamic State upset the balance in Iraq dramatically, and initial weaknesses in Iraqi and Kurdish forces facing Islamic State fighters forced the United States to weigh the possibility of the group dominating large parts of Iraq and Syria. This situation posed a challenge that the United States could neither decline nor fully engage. Washington’s solution was to send aircraft and minimal ground forces to attack the Islamic State, while seeking to build a regional coalition that would act.
Today, the key to this coalition is Turkey. Ankara has become a substantial regional power. It has the largest economy and military in the region, and it is the most vulnerable to events in Syria and Iraq, which run along Turkey’s southern border. Ankara’s strategy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been to avoid conflicts with its neighbors, which it has been able to do successfully so far. The United States now wants Turkey to provide forces — particularly ground troops — to resist the Islamic State. Ankara has an interest in doing so, since Iraqi oil would help diversify its sources of energy and because it wants to keep the conflict from spilling into Turkey. The Turkish government has worked hard to keep the Syrian conflict outside its borders and to limit its own direct involvement in the civil war. Ankara also does not want the Islamic State to create pressure on Iraqi Kurds that could eventually spread to Turkish Kurds.
Turkey is in a difficult situation. If it intervenes against the Islamic State alongside the United States, its army will be tested in a way that it has not been tested since the Korean War, and the quality of its performance is uncertain. The risks are real, and victory is far from guaranteed. Turkey would be resuming the role it played in the Arab world during the Ottoman Empire, attempting to shape Arab politics in ways that it finds satisfactory. The United States did not do this well in Iraq, and there is no guarantee that Turkey would succeed either. In fact, Ankara could be drawn into a conflict with the Arab states from which it would not be able to withdraw as neatly as Washington did.
At the same time, instability to Turkey’s south and the emergence of a new territorial power in Syria and Iraq represent fundamental threats to Ankara. There are claims that the Turks secretly support the Islamic State, but I doubt this greatly. The Turks may be favorably inclined toward other Islamist groups, but the Islamic State is both dangerous and likely to draw pressure from the United States against any of its supporters. Still, the Turks will not simply do America’s bidding; Ankara has interests in Syria that do not mesh with those of the United States.
Turkey wants to see the al Assad regime toppled, but the United States is reluctant to do so for fear of opening the door to a Sunni jihadist regime (or at the very least, jihadist anarchy) that, with the Islamic State operational, would be impossible to shape. To some extent, the Turks are floating the al Assad issue as an excuse not to engage in the conflict. But Ankara wants al Assad gone and a pro-Turkey Sunni regime in his place. If the United States refuses to cede to this demand, Turkey has a basis for refusing to intervene; if the United States agrees, Turkey gets the outcome it wants in Syria, but at greater risk to Iraq. Thus the Islamic State has become the focal point of U.S.-Turkish ties, replacing prior issues such as Turkey’s relationship with Israel.
Iran’s Changing Regional Role
The emergence of the Islamic State has similarly redefined Iran’s posture in the region. Tehran sees a pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad as critical to its interests, just as it sees its domination of southern Iraq as crucial. Iran fought a war with a Sunni-dominated Iraq in the 1980s, with devastating casualties; avoiding another such war is fundamental to Iranian national security policy. From Tehran’s point of view, the Islamic State has the ability to cripple the government in Baghdad and potentially unravel Iran’s position in Iraq. Though this is not the most likely outcome, it is a potential threat that Iran must counter.
Small Iranian formations have already formed in eastern Kurdistan, and Iranian personnel have piloted Iraqi aircraft in attacks on Islamic State positions. The mere possibility of the Islamic State dominating even parts of Iraq is unacceptable to Tehran, which aligns its interests with those of the United States. Both countries want the Islamic State broken. Both want the government in Baghdad to function. The Americans have no problem with Iran guaranteeing security in the south, and the Iranians have no objection to a pro-American Kurdistan so long as they continue to dominate southern oil flows.
Because of the Islamic State — as well as greater long-term trends — the United States and Iran have been drawn together by their common interests. There have been numerous reports of U.S.-Iranian military cooperation against the Islamic State, while the major issue dividing them (Iran’s nuclear program) has been marginalized. Monday’s announcement that no settlement had been reached in nuclear talks was followed by a calm extension of the deadline for agreement, and neither side threatened the other or gave any indication that the failure changed the general accommodation that has been reached. In our view, as we have always said, achieving a deliverable nuclear weapon is far more difficult than enriching uranium, and Iran is not an imminent nuclear power. That appears to have become the American position. Neither Washington nor Tehran wants to strain relations over the nuclear issue, which has been put on the back burner for now because of the Islamic State’s rise.
This new entente between the United States and Iran naturally alarms Saudi Arabia, the third major power in the region if only for its wealth and ability to finance political movements. Riyadh sees Tehran as a rival in the Persian Gulf that could potentially destabilize Saudi Arabia via its Shiite population. The Saudis also see the United States as the ultimate guarantor of their national security, even though they have been acting without Washington’s buy-in since the Arab Spring. Frightened by Iran’s warming relationship with the United States, Riyadh is also becoming increasingly concerned by America’s growing self-sufficiency in energy, which has dramatically reduced Saudi Arabia’s political importance to the United States.
There has been speculation that the Islamic State is being funded by Arabian powers, but it would be irrational for Riyadh to be funding the group. The stronger the Islamic State is, the firmer the ties between the United States and Iran become. Washington cannot live with a transnational caliphate that might become regionally powerful someday. The more of a threat the Islamic State becomes, the more Iran and the United States need each other, which runs completely counter to the Saudis’ security interests. Riyadh needs the tensions between the United States and Iran. Regardless of religious or ideological impulse, Tehran’s alliance with Washington forms an overwhelming force that threatens the Saudi regime’s survival. And the Islamic State has no love for the Saudi royal family. The caliphate can expand in Saudi Arabia’s direction, too, and we’ve already seen grassroots activity related to the Islamic State taking place inside the kingdom. Riyadh has been engaged in Iraq, and it must now try to strengthen Sunni forces other than the Islamic State quickly, so that the forces pushing Washington and Tehran together subside.
America’s Place at the Center of the Middle East
For Washington’s part, the Islamic State has show that the idea of the United States simply leaving the region is unrealistic. At the same time, the United States will not engage in multidivisional warfare in Iraq. Washington failed to achieve a pro-American stability there the first time; it is unlikely to achieve it this time. U.S. air power applies significant force against the Islamic State and is a token of America’s power and presence — as well as its limits. The U.S. strategy of forming an alliance against the Islamic State is extremely complex, since the Turks do not want to be pulled into the fight without major concessions, the Iranians want reduced pressure on their nuclear programs in exchange for their help, and the Saudis are aware of the dangers posed by Iran.
What is noteworthy is the effect that the Islamic State has had on relationships in the region. The group’s emergence has once again placed the United States at the center of the regional system, and it has forced the three major Middle Eastern powers to redefine their relations with Washington in various ways. It has also revived the deepest fears of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ankara wants to avoid being drawn back into the late Ottoman nightmare of controlling Arabs, while Iran has been forced to realign itself with the United States to resist the rise of a Sunni Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as the Shah once had to do. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has raised Saudi fears of U.S. abandonment in favor of Iran, and the United States’ dread of re-engaging in Iraq has come to define all of its actions.
In the end, it is unlikely that the territorial Islamic State can survive. The truth is that Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all waiting for the United States to solve the Islamic State problem with air power and a few ground forces. These actions will not destroy the Islamic State, but they will break the group’s territorial coherence and force it to return to guerrilla tactics and terrorism. Indeed, this is already happening. But the group’s very existence, however temporary, has stunned the region into realizing that prior assumptions did not take into account current realities. Ankara will not be able to avoid increasing its involvement in the conflict; Tehran will have to live with the United States; and Riyadh will have to seriously consider its vulnerabilities. As for the United States, it can simply go home, even if the region is in chaos. But the others are already at home, and that is the point that the Islamic State has made abundantly clear.