On August 19, the world watched in horror as ISIS terrorists announced the beheading of American journalist James Foley. Less than two weeks later, it watched again as intrepid journalist Steve Sotloff met the same fate at the extremists’ depraved hands.
This barbarism—beheadings, crucifixions and attempted genocide against Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Shias—evokes anger and fear in the hearts of those opposing Al-Baghdadi’s vision of a Sunni caliphate in the Arab world and beyond.
Enraged by these primal acts, the United States and Europe have rightfully vowed to destroy ISIS through direct airstrikes, aid for Peshmerga and support of an ethnically inclusive Baghdad, or at least one sans Nouri Al-Maliki.
But as we embark on yet another operation against armed extremists in the Middle East, it is important that we put the threat that ISIS poses in perspective and not allow its cacophony of terror drown out our long-term threats and interests in the region.
In particular, Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit remains the greatest long-term threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Should Iran develop a nuclear arsenal, it would provide Tehran a sufficient deterrent to more aggressively support terrorist groups like Hezbollah and expand Quds force operations. In other words, whereas ISIS remains susceptible to U.S. attacks, an Iranian nuclear arsenal may allow the Shiite theocracy to spawn numerous terrorist organizations with impunity in Iraq, the Levant and beyond.
Iran may already have the capability of executing sophisticated terrorist attacks against the U.S. at home. In 2011, Iran allegedly attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. and destroy the Saudi and Israeli embassies. Though the plan was foiled, the incident shows how close to home well-funded and state-supported terrorism can strike.
Also, Iran is allegedly the source of repeated cyberattacks against America. These attacks are damaging rather than crippling. Nonetheless, as cyberwarfare advances and becomes a more strategic threat to the U.S. homeland, an emboldened Iran via a nuclear weapon may fund and execute more brazen attacks against our critical infrastructure, directly threatening both our citizens and military.
More significant than the immediate threat of Iran-backed terrorism is the domino effect of nuclear proliferation that would likely occur should Iran develop the bomb. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf States might acquire nuclear weapons of their own to counter the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon. This could engender an arms race in the region and threaten the fragile umbrella deterrent that the U.S. has fought to establish globally, from Tokyo to Riyadh.
The looming threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, however, should not discount the ISIS threat. Whereas the Iranian threat to America lies dangerously dormant during current negotiations, ISIS directly threatens our alliances with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, and requires immediate action from the United States.
In particular, should ISIS infiltrate the already strained Hashemite Kingdom, it could eventually serve a coup de grâce to our close ally King Abdullah II Hussein’s slowly liberalizing monarchy and increase instability in nearby Lebanon.
These outcomes would jeopardize most of the U.S. strategic goals in the region. They would provide a hotbed for terrorist attacks in a more systemic way than Al-Qaeda found refuge in the Taliban’s Afghanistan pre-September 11; they would put the finishing touches on the moderate opposition in Syria, further emboldening both ISIS and Bashar Al-Assad; and they would stymie any prospect, albeit fleeting, of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, as the Israelis would not make concessions in any way jeopardizing their border security in a time of heightened instability.
ISIS has also begun knocking on the mighty doors of Saudi Arabia, a stalwart ally against terrorism and in balancing Iran. ISIS would not need to invade Saudi Arabia, whose U.S. backed military likely has the capability of battling the terrorist group, but could stoke sufficient instability to effect a homegrown resistance against the royal family that not even oil revenue and a brutal police response could put down.
There is little doubt that ISIS poses the most immediate threat to the shaky yet valuable postcolonial power balance in the Middle East. America and its allies must meet that threat by attacking ISIS from the skies and directly supporting anti-ISIS resistance groups like the Iraqi government and peshmerga on the ground.
But still, the same balance of power that ISIS threatens would be drastically altered and unrecoverable under Iranian acquisition of a nuclear arsenal. And Iran is already well on the path to weaponization. Despite international pressure, its secretive and secluded enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow remain capable of highly enriching uranium, and its heavy water reactor at Arak has paved the way for the plutonium route to the bomb.
Although it may not be the opportune moment for Iran’s accession to the list of nuclear states, the status quo provides it with carte blanche once the international community’s attention is sufficiently distracted. This was the case with North Korea, which feigned genuine cooperation with the international community until it broke out as a nuclear state. Despite the deft diplomacy of its Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, Iran is well positioned to follow suit, especially if it successfully miniaturizes a nuclear warhead.
Regardless of which is greater, the threats posed by Iran and ISIS are now converging. Recently, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei granted consent for Iran to cooperate with the U.S. to defeat ISIS. Although the U.S. has denied explicit coordination with Iran, this revelation has worried U.S. allies with stakes in preventing Iranian proliferation, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and puts the U.S. in a precarious position.
One the one hand, the U.S. must implicitly leverage Iran’s opposition to ISIS to take down the terrorist group; on the other, the U.S. must ensure that Iran’s involvement does not prevent the U.S. and its allies from defanging the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program by diplomacy or military action. Furthermore, the U.S. and its allies must ensure that the newly formed government in Baghdad increases Sunni and Kurdish participation, even as Iran leverages its ties to promote its Shiite influence in Iraq.
The enemy of mine enemy is my friend. Iran is indeed the enemy of our enemy, but it cannot be our friend—at least not while its nuclear program continues to pose the greatest, long-term threat to the Middle East. Despite the loud threat of ISIS, Iran must know that President Obama is serious when he reminds the world that, “all options are on the table” if Iran is unwilling to stymie the military aspects of its nuclear program, even as it concurrently fights the good fight against ISIS.
But in the meantime, expect the lines between friend and foe to further blur, as do the Middle East’s borders at this tumultuous period in the region’s history.