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US-Iranian Cooperation on Islamic State Problem Makes Sense

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
PARIS -- The fight against the Islamic State is making for some odd bedfellows -- namely, the U.S. and Iran. Perhaps that isn't a bad thing, as average Americans could be the ultimate beneficiaries.

U.S. military action against the Islamic State has already cost $2.44 billion, according to the Pentagon. For that price, the terrorist group has actually GAINED ground. As much as it might make other regional players nervous, America's best bet to wipe out the Islamic State is the Iranian army.

The U.S. and Iran appear to have come to an understanding on military cooperation, with America focusing on airstrikes while Iran leverages its field intelligence to strike at the Islamic State on the ground. Iran is currently helping old foe Iraq and its beleaguered military reclaim a major oil refinery from the Islamic State, and the Iranians also helped win back Saddam Hussein's birth city of Tikrit.

When asked about the nature of Iranian-U.S. cooperation, anonymous U.S. officials were mum, citing operational security. Iran is playing it equally coy. I asked my own anonymous Iranian official sources this week, "You guys aren't cooperating with the U.S. against the Islamic State, are you?" The response: "Oh, really? We aren't?" Get these guys a room already. While avoiding being caught holding hands in public, they sure seem to be spending a lot of time in the backseat at the drive-in.

It wouldn't be surprising if the Iranian military soon decided to sweep through Syria and Iraq to wipe the Islamic State off the face of the Earth. Syria is a critical Iranian ally, and you've got to figure that Iran views Iraq as a highly attractive power vacuum.

Who else in that region is going to get rid of the Islamic State? Not the U.S. alone, apparently. And not Saudi Arabia, which provided the seed funding for the Islamic State back when it was part of the Syrian rebel movement. Besides, the Saudis really aren't ready for prime time. They haven't done much militarily since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, and they've recently demonstrated their lack of might by getting their rarely used warplanes bogged down in squabbling with Houthi insurgents (Iranian allies) right on the Saudis' own border. As for Israel, it already raises ire in the Middle East by virtue of its mere existence and likely isn't keen on creating more trouble for itself.

Iran has the military power and the intelligence capabilities to wipe out the Islamic State. And Iran has been quietly playing footsie under the table with the U.S. for longer than many Americans are probably aware -- much to the frustration of the French, who consider it to be two-faced behavior by their ally. The Lausanne accord -- trading oversight of Iran's nuclear energy program for the lifting of American, European and international sanctions against Iran -- is expected to be finalized by early July. But this sort of cooperation between Iran and the U.S. wasn't an overnight development.

In 2010, the New York Times pointed out that the U.S. government had granted special licenses to bypass Iranian sanctions under the guise of humanitarianism to scores of American companies, including General Electric, Citigroup, Bank of America, Pfizer, Siemens, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills and even the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Feeling left out? There's been an invitation-only Death/Welcome to America party going on in Tehran for a while.

And yet the U.S. has imposed fines on foreign companies for violating sanctions against Iran -- like France's largest bank, BNP Paribas, which was recently ordered to pay a $8.9 billion penalty. Such companies must feel like they've been stopped at the velvet rope outside a nightclub -- or worse, bounced out of the club entirely.

If Iranian sanctions are dropped, other American companies will have a shot at the Iranian market, rather than just the select few chosen by the U.S. government.

Will all of this mean that Iran won't have a nuclear weapon someday? Maybe not. Thus far, Iran has largely ignored attempts to thwart its nuclear program anyway. At least if it's heading toward joining the nuclear club, economic cooperation will likely mean that we'll learn about it faster.

The West simply can't afford to sacrifice real economic benefit to fight pre-emptive ideological wars in the Middle East or elsewhere. The U.S. is best served by having a constructive economic presence in the Middle East, creating new jobs and opportunities for Americans and fostering joint interests instead of parking troops there indefinitely and throwing more money down the well.

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