The Trump administration’s attempts to isolate Iran politically, especially with respect to the war in Syria, and to intensify military and economic pressure against the Islamic Republic could prove counterproductive for regional stability in the long run.

Rather than attempting to undermine a growing Russia-Iran alliance, threatening direct strikes on Iranian targets or opening a shadow war with Iran, the US should at a minimum avoid provocations until the Mosul offensive is complete, and ideally seek to resume diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

The Trump administration’s main political strategy to counter Iran is to bolster US ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council and convince Russia to roll back its partnership with Iran. We have been here before. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were locked in a competition to resolve the Iran-Iraq war and become the arbiter of peace and influence in the Middle East. Russia maintained diplomatic channels with all parties but leaned slightly in favor of Tehran to stem fears of US hegemony in the region. The US favored GCC states and Iraq and lacked channels to Iran and Syria in the wake of the Iran Contra scandal. Iran’s initial response to Soviet and US pressure during this period was to dig in its heels and press on with the war. The same was true for Iran’s main Arab ally in the conflict, Hafez al-Assad, who resisted détente with Iraq despite immense economic pressure.

The current administration is naïve to think the alliance between Iran and Syria can be broken with the help of Russia. Russia has no incentive to further US interests in the region and views Iran as a counterpoise for US hegemony. Today, Russia again has simultaneous diplomatic relations with the GCC, Israel, Syria, and Iran—quite a feat. The US should respond by expanding its own diplomatic relations rather than limiting itself to “traditional allies.” 

The US only expedited the inevitable when it removed Saddam Hussein from power. The memory of Iraqi missiles raining down on Tehran and images of Iranian soldiers frozen in motion by Saddam’s chemical weapons (whose precursors were provided by the US) are seared into the collective Iranian memory. The consequence of this unfortunate history is that Iran views Western and GCC influence in Iraq as an existential threat. But Iranian interests in Iraq transcend strategic considerations. People to people ties run deep. The clerical elite of each country intermarry. The religious leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is an Iranian from Mashhad. Iran’s Chief Justice, Sadegh Larijani, was born and raised in Najaf, Iraq as part of an elite Iranian clerical family. The notion that Iran’s influence in Iraq is merely an opportunistic response to failed American interventionism is the epitome of a revisionist reading of history.

If the US is to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, it must choose between success through an “unholy alliance” with traditional foes or the failure that results from a strategy of regional hegemony. American forces in the region will never possess the staying power of the Taliban in Afghanistan or Shiite militias in Iraq. In 2008, Gen. David Petraeus received a message from Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani advising that he controlled Iran’s military policy for the region.  Petraeus’s audacious if not brazen response was for Soleimani to “pound sand.” Petraeus has long since left the ranks of the national security community. Soleimani, however, never stopped pounding sand in Iraq and Syria.

“He has played his hand well. But this is a long game, so let’s see how events transpire,” Petraeus said of Soleimani in 2015. What Petraeus fails to acknowledge is that this “long game” benefits Iran. Iran can exert its often-invited influence in Iraq at a fraction of the cost of the US. When Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers tour the battlefields of Mosul, they do not worry that the Shiite militias they advise may shoot them in the back—literally. Furthermore, Iranian commanders need not invoke empty platitudes rooted in “Iraqi” nationalism to motivate their allies. The US must accept that the destinies of Iraq and Iran are inextricably linked and therefore Tehran will always assert its influence in Baghdad.

The achievement of the nuclear agreement left the door open for further cooperation and engagement between the US and Iran. Hardliners on both sides quickly slammed it shut. If the resumption of trade proves too high a hurdle, then military cooperation certainly seems out of the question. However, on the ground, IRGC commanders, Iranian-influenced Shiite militias, the Iraqi military, US Special Forces and US aircraft are engaged in a successful if slow-moving campaign to liberate Mosul. This is nothing less than extraordinary when one considers that just ten years ago US Marines and Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia were engaged in daily battles.

Iranian-backed Shiite militias are now relieved by air support provided by the same US gunships they once sought to down. This means there is battle-space deconfliction between the IRGC and US troops—likely through the Iraqi army and the Kurds as intermediaries. This is the kind of symbiotic military relationship that can only occur when the threat posed by a mutual enemy supersedes the limits of diplomacy. Threatening this equilibrium will distract US soldiers and the Iraqi army from the fight against ISIS and insert battlefield confusion.

Saudi and US hegemony in the Persian Gulf is another trigger point for Iranian foreign policy. The US 1988 downing of Iran Air 655 is to the Iranian national psyche what the hostage crisis of 1979-81 is to Americans. In an ideal scenario for Tehran, IRGC boats can assert Iranian strength without engaging in actual combat. In a worst-case scenario for both parties, US ships will fire first and Iran will claim US aggression. It is critical that rules of engagement are not applied mechanically and the US does not engage in an unnecessary exchange of fire with the IRGC. While Iran’s defensive capabilities may be overcome by US projection of power, any strike will produce uncertain consequences that will be played out in Iraq and Syria to the detriment of US forces and their allies.

If normal diplomatic relations between the US and Iran are still practically or ideologically untenable, then the Trump administration should focus on defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria and commit itself to maintaining the status quo in the Straits of Hormuz. This strategy will permit both Iran and the US to cooperate against a mutual enemy while saving face.

Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps where he served in Afghanistan. He is a policy intern at the National Iranian American Council and has contributed to Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Newsweek, and regularly writes for the London School of Economics Middle East Centre blog.