WASHINGTON — Don’t make the enemy of your enemy your friend. That’s the message some lawmakers hope to convey to the Obama administration as they consider its request for a war authorization to combat ISIS.
Concerns about how best to shape such an authorization without empowering Iran — a concern shared by Israel — are emerging as a factor, as lawmakers consider President Barack Obama’s request for what is known formally as an Authorization for Use of Military Force, in this case against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in an interview said that he was wary of dedicating resources to combating ISIS because he felt Iran posed the greater threat to the U.S. and Israel.
“Iran is a much, much bigger threat to the United States than ISIL can ever be,” Nadler said, using an alternative acronym for the group.
“The only real strategic threat to the United States on the horizon today is Iran,” Nadler said. “Iran is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. There is no purpose to an ICBM other than to carry a nuclear warhead to America.”
Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, agreed with that assessment. ISIS and Iran are like “cholera and the plague,” he said. “I think Israel with the United States should fight against both. But the more grave danger is the Iranian danger.”
Although ISIS has shown competence as a fighting force with massive annexations of territory last year, it has also suffered recent defeats at the hands of well-trained Kurdish troops in the Syrian city of Kobani, Maoz said.
By some estimates, Iran, by 2020, will have perfected intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
Obama administration officials have been adamant that there is no coordination between Iran and the United States as they confront their shared enemy, ISIS. But they have acknowledged that they share information and strategies with a mutual ally, Iraq, and that it likely conveys information to Iran, if only to prevent confrontations between Iran and the U.S.-led alliance.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said awkward alliances may be necessary considering the threat ISIS poses to regional stability.
“I think our first priority has to be to defeat ISIS, and I think that this fight is going to make strange bedfellows,” Murphy said. “We’re obviously talking to the Iranians on issues like their nuclear future while fighting them on other issues like their support for other terrorist organizations. You know, our partner is never perfect in the Middle East.”
The United States is part of nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the direction of the talks, saying they are heading for a deal that will leave Iran on the threshold of becoming a nuclear weapons state. Israel is especially wary of victories by two proxies for Iran combating ISIS, Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria.
On Feb. 11, the White House sent Congress a request for military authorization. Currently, the U.S. military is operating under broad military authorizations passed during the administration of President George W. Bush. The first, from 2001, authorized the president to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Another from 2003 authorized the use of military force in Iraq.
The administration wants to consolidate congressional backing for any expansion of military action.
“Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions, I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to working with the Congress to pass a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL,” Obama wrote in a letter accompanying the proposal.
Netanyahu has not discounted the ISIS threat and has said that Israel offers whatever assistance it can.
“We’re fully coordinated with the United States,” he said late last year on CBS’s Face the Nation. “We exchange all the information that needs to be exchanged and I really don’t want to go beyond that, but I will say that I think we have a global conflict here.”
Win-win would mean the defeat of Islamist extremists of all persuasions, he said.
“The militant Islamists led by al Qaeda and — and ISIS on the Sunni side, the militant Islamists led by Iran and Hezbollah on the Shiite side, we want both of them to lose,” Netanyahu said. “The last thing we want is to have any one of them get weapons of mass destruction.”
Nadler said there’s a limit to the military action Americans will support.
“We have fought two stupid wars so far: in Iraq, in Afghanistan,” he said. “We wasted lives, we wasted money and we wasted credibility with the American people. I am concerned that if we do too much with ISIL, if and when we need to really do something with Iran – which is a real threat to us potentially – there will be little patience on the part of the American people.”
Republicans generally back a war authorization targeting ISIS but add that they do not want half-hearted measures.
“We need to be assured that the White House’s strategy is to decisively win and defeat ISIL,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who served as an Army officer in Iraq and is Congress’ sole Jewish Republican. “It’s important for me to know exactly what the president’s strategy is going to be to ensure victory before I would ever hope to commit American troops to put life and limb in harm’s way. I would never support that if we were going to give it a half-hearted effort.”