Will The Trouble In Iraq Draw U.S. And Iran Closer Together?

Thomas Erdbink of The New York Times talks to Robert Siegel about the possibility that the U.S. and Iran will cooperate in response to Iraq's unrest.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One big question about Iraq concerns it's neighbor to the east, Iran. What will Tehran do in the face of the ISIS offensive? And do Iran and the United States share sufficient common interests to actually cooperate over Iraq? Well, joining us from Tehran is Thomas Erdbrink, who is the New York Times bureau chief there. And tell us, how worried are the Iranians, first, about what ISIS has done in Iraq?

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, I can say that they are pretty worried. Of course, for the past three years, they have gotten used to news from Iran's other ally, Syria, where Iran allegedly is supporting the president, Bashar al-Assad, with at least military advice. And they've always told me that they don't want to be involved in Syria.

Now Iraq is, of course, a whole different story, because it is the heartland of Shiism in Iran, where the majority of people are Shiites. Many of the people have actually made pilgrimage to the most important Shiite sites in Iraq. They are very sensitive about these sites.

SIEGEL: Well, how realistic is the notion of the U.S. and Iran cooperating over the Iraqi crisis?

ERDBRINK: Well, for that we have to look what cooperation would mean. Would we be thinking of, you know, Iranian boots on the ground, working together with American drones and fighter jets? No, I don't think that will ever happen. But the Iranians, of course, could commit themselves to information sharing. To exchanging military tactics on how to fight ISIS.

And it won't be the first time that they have done this, because in 2001, during the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, which was meant to drive out the Taliban, Iran was all too happy to help out the American forces. So it is not unprecedented for Iran and America to cooperate militarily if they are interests align.

SIEGEL: But while there was cooperation between the U.S. and Iran after 9/11 over Afghanistan, in the intervening years, during the war in Iraq, the U.S. held Iran responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not a thousand, U.S. troops during that conflict. So active was Iran, they said, in aiding Shiite groups in Iraq.

ERDBRINK: Yeah, and this sort of shows the cynical side of foreign-policy, where the enemy of your enemy can be your friend, and the other way around. Alliances can shift. The realities on the ground can change.

And what the reality on the ground now is is that an incredibly powerful movement of Sunni extremists is threatening the government of Nouri al-Maliki, a prime minister that is supported both by Iran and the U.S., who are, in fact, the biggest allies of the Iraqi state.

SIEGEL: I gather you went to the funeral of one of the revolutionary guards - Iranian revolutionary guards who died in combat. Was that in Syria?

ERDBRINK: Well, it is unclear where this young man died. Certain Iranian media outlets are saying that he died in Iraq and was one of the first Iranians to actually die defending the holy shrines, as they call it. So I went to his funeral today. And I must say, it was very impressive, because several high profile Iranian politicians made sure they were there.

They sat on the carpets of one of southern Tehran's most important mosques, weeping for this young man. As one of the chanters, you know, led them into a prayer by saying that - look how they are killing our youth. Look, they are trying to behead our soldiers. We must put an end to this. So the war, which always seemed very far away in Syria is now much closer and, today, was actually brought right upon Tehran's doorsteps.

SIEGEL: And when they said they, they meant ISIS?

ERDBRINK: They meant ISIS. And I guess here's the other interesting thing that you might not expect from the Iranians. They are not playing the sectarian card. What's coming out from Iranian officials is the message that, look, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds need, together, to rule Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki needs to share more power with the other groups. So Iran is framing this as a fight between the good Muslims or the righteous people versus deranged terrorists.

SIEGEL: Thomas Erdbrink, thanks for talking with us once again.

ERDBRINK: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Thomas Erdbrink is the New York Times bureau chief in Tehran. He spoke to us from the Iranian capital.

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