If someone said before the rise of ISIS that one day the US, its European allies, Iran, Saudis and Arab countries of the Gulf will all be on the same side of a conflict, it would have raised some eyebrows or elicited ridicule. But such an unlikely situation is exactly what is happening today.
Only the Islamic State, or someone like it, could have brought such a disparate group of nations together. This coalition, however, if we can call it that, is a temporary marriage of convenience, an international version of what in Arabic is called zawaj al-mutah, and its underlying weaknesses are not difficult to see.
For example, despite the common front against ISIS, the US and Iran view each other as incorrigible enemies. Similarly, though Saudi Arabia and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government are both lined up against ISIS, Saudi Arabia is opposed to Shiite domination of Iraq and wants a bigger role for Sunnis, whereas Shiite politicians want more power for themselves. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia along with other Arab countries of the Gulf, are hostile to Iranian domination of Iraq and Iranian involvements in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, whereas Iran is expanding its influence under the cover of fighting ISIS.
The problem for the Saudis, Arab countries of the Gulf, and the US is that they are not willing to commit ground troops on the ground in Iraq whereas Iran has Iranian led, trained, and equipped Shiite militias on the ground. This gives Iran an edge in Iraq over the US, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries,
Despite these fundamental differences, the fact that the US, its European allies, Iran, Saudis and Arab countries of the Gulf will all fighting on the same side should be an eye-opener for how states would form an alliance with other states that they view as a long-term danger in order to confront an entity that they consider a serious and present danger, a text book case of the adage that, in politics, there are neither permanent enemies nor permanent friends, only permanent interests.
With the latest reports of Shiite militias in Iraq committing some of the same atrocities that ISIS was known for, and with increasing antipathy of the Saudi and Gulf countries to the deal shaping up between the US and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program, the question of the durability of the anti-ISIS alliance is no longer a far-fetched academic question. Thomas Friedman’s loud query: “Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?” is another way of phrasing this same question.