Now that the U.S. has reached an agreement with Iran over its nuclear energy program, supporters of the accord are hoping that it will lead to a broader rapprochement between the two adversaries. One arena that advocates of closer cooperation cite is the campaign against The Islamic State or ISIS. However, the U.S. should avoid the appearance that it has aligned itself with Iran. Failing to do so could alienate Sunni-majority Arab countries which are playing a vital role in that effort. Publicly acknowledging cooperation could actually bolster ISIS’ recruitment efforts. Lastly, with the exception of its involvement in Iraq, Iran does not have a proven record in countering ISIS. Therefore, the U.S. should not treat defeating ISIS and deepening its rapprochement with Iran as two mutually reinforcing objectives.  

The brutality of ISIS and its seeming resilience has led the U.S. to forge a broad coalition whose goal is to reverse ISIS’ military gains and degrade its capability. However, there is a disconnect in threat perceptions between the U.S. and its Arab partners. While they all view ISIS as a threat to the stability of the region, the Obama administration appears to see Iran as part of the solution to the troubles of the Middle East, while its Arab allies see it as part of the problem. 


The decision of the U.S. administration to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria while electing not to target the forces of Bashar al Assad confirmed to many in the Middle East that the U.S. considers ISIS to be the main security threat facing the region. That view however, is not shared by some countries in the Arab world. 

Saudi officials maintain that the Assad regime’s suppression of what was initially a peaceful protest movement is the main reason ISIS has been successful in constructing a jihadi narrative that has turned Syria into the favorite destination of Islamist militants.  However, in remarks made after the signing of the nuclear agreement, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made it clear that Iran will not stop supporting Assad.  

Sunnis across the Arab world and beyond have also expressed concern over the actions of Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq, some of which are giving ISIS a run for its money in terms of their brutality.  

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are playing a crucial role in the campaign against ISIS by providing logistical support and by participating in the airstrikes against it in Syria. These countries are also taking the lead in discrediting ISIS’ narratives on religious grounds. However, should the U.S. and Iran cooperate openly, these Arab allies will reassess the political cost of aligning themselves with the U.S. According to some in these countries, Iran is a bigger threat to their security than ISIS. 

The ability of ISIS to recruit foreign fighters to its “Jihad” has confounded the international community. ISIS has exploited the indiscretions of Iraqi Shia militias and the brutality of the Assad regime. Both are portrayed as doing Iran’s bidding. 

Long before the conflict in Syria erupted, Al Qaeda had maintained that the U.S. was at war against Islam. Even before the Iran agreement was finalized, Sunni extremists had been warning their supporters of a U.S.-Iranian conspiracy against them. The notion that ISIS is an Iranian “creation” has gained wider acceptance in the Arab Gulf states, although it is not as prevalent as the notion that ISIS – and Al Qaeda before it – are American constructs.  

Finally, those who argue that the U.S. and Iran are “natural” allies in the fight against ISIS, also overlook a crucial detail: Iran lacks a track record of success in fighting ISIS. While Iran has supported Arab and Kurdish militias fighting ISIS in Iraq, many across the Arab world puzzle over the fact that ISIS has not conducted any attacks inside Iran.  

Although there is no evidence suggesting that Iran and ISIS are colluding, the fact that a number of senior Al Qaeda figures had passed through Iran after escaping from Afghanistan in 2001, has made Iran’s record in fighting Sunni militants suspect at best.  

The U.S. administration has done a commendable job of selling the Iran deal to the Arab world. However, and while many countries in the region have begrudgingly accepted the argument that there is no viable alternative, they have also made it clear that they consider Iran’s “meddling” in the Arab world to be a source of instability.  

The success of the U.S. campaign against ISIS hinges on the continued support of its Sunni Arab allies. The U.S. is committed to defeating ISIS and appears interested in deepening its rapprochement with Iran. Those two objectives, however, should be pursued on separate tracks.

Nazer is a senior political analyst at JTG Inc. Previously, he worked as a terrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of State (contractor) and as a political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington.