Expert: Impossible to Defeat ISIS Without Knocking Iran Back Down to Size

Defeating ISIS requires fighting against Iran first, Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and senior editor at The Weekly Standard, argued in a lecture to the Middle East Forum, which was published on their website Tuesday. A recording of the talk is available at the link.

Smith began his talk by explaining why Iran presents a greater threat that the Islamic State.

I think that by and large we have incorrectly prioritized our threat level here. I believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a much more serious serious threat to U.S. regional interests and to U.S. allies than the Islamic State is. And the primary reason for that is simply is that Iran is a state with the resources of a state. This is not to dismiss at all the very serious threat that ISIS poses to the United States and our allies, of course not just in the region, but also now as we see in Europe as well. … Iran is the main issue and this is not just because of the nuclear weapons program but this is also because of Iran’s larger regional project where it now controls, as it says, four Arab capitals, as the Iranian officials like to boast – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa.

Later in the talk, Smith explained that if the Obama administration wishes to win back the trust of the Iraqi Sunni tribes who contributed to the surge during the Bush administration, it must first fight against Iran’s influence across the Middle East.

We know how to strip ISIS of its prestige and we know how to knock ISIS back some because this is effectively what the surge was. … It was necessary to get the Arab tribes on board and this was the Sunni awakening. The Sunni awakening was pointed at the foreign fighters, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and this is who took them on. Now this is what the administration is trying to do as well. The Obama administration is trying to get various Sunni tribes to pick up arms again and go after the foreign fighters…the foreign fighters from the region, and the foreign fighters from Europe, and the former regime elements from Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The reason they’re not, the reason they’ve enlisted with ISIS or the reason they believe that they’re better off aligning themselves with ISIS, is because of the Iranian security apparatus that is extending right now from Lebanon to Iraq. The Sunnis feel up against a wall. The Sunnis feel that they are cornered. They feel the United States has switched sides. The United States is working with the Iranians and the Iranian security apparatus and they feel they have no protection. Why should they pick up and go against ISIS when they feel that they’re being pushed by the Iranians. So it’s not just a matter of prioritizing threats, that the Islamic Republic of Iran is more dangerous than the Islamic State, the fact is that there is going to be no way to defeat the Islamic State unless Iran is knocked back down to size first. Iran and its allies have to be knocked back down to size and that includes getting rid of its assets, toppling Assad and getting him out of Syria as soon as possible.

Smith’s analysis is consistent with observations made by Michael Pregent, now his colleague at the Hudson Institute, in On This Battlefield, the U.S. and Iran Work Hand in Hand, which was published in the April 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine.

As President Obama and other senior U.S. leaders have recently observed, the northern Middle East cannot be stabilized without addressing the grievances and interests of the more than 20 million Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. Addressing the disenfranchisement of this large population will be the key to the success of U.S. policy in the region. However, the current U.S. strategy of conducting a narrow military campaign against ISIS using Iranian proxies in both Syria and Iraq is confusing to our Sunni allies in the region and to the Sunnis needed to defeat ISIS itself.

At the moment, the U.S. is urging the Iraqi government to make tangible concessions to both Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, but the U.S. is finding its recommendations subordinated to those of the Iranian regime. Tehran wields more influence over the Shia-led government of Iraq than the United States does, and this close alignment between Baghdad and Tehran is a political dynamic that ISIS and other militant groups continue to exploit for popular support. At the same time, Iran’s political influence in Baghdad is resulting in further disenfranchisement of the country’s Sunni and Kurdish populations.

Moreover, the Sunni population is perplexed by our constrained role in arming them, while we partner with Shia militias that killed Americans and Iraqis during the Iraq War, and that make no distinction between all Sunnis of military age and ISIS.

[Photo: Hudson Institute / Flickr ]