On its face, taking the Iranian side in a sectarian war in which the Islamic State stands on the other side may make sense in an enemy-of-my-enemy way. What could be wrong with using Iran to kill the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, even if the price is keeping a few bad guys in power in Damascus or Sanaa? Unfortunately, lots.
There is no reason to believe that a Shiite version of the one-stop dictator shop that characterized U.S. diplomacy for much of the 20th century will work any better than the earlier Sunni compact that denied tens of millions their democratic aspirations and paved the way to today’s turmoil.
What eludes the Obama administration, as it did George W. Bush, is that the battle for the future of the Middle East is a war of ideas. Taking sides in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian war will not restore the illusory stability of old. Rather, the path to long-term stability means working with groups that eschew violence, respecting religious preferences without sacrificing minorities, pressing toward market economies that empower individuals and building toward a region that rests on the consent of the governed. There is no secret path to peace, not through Tehran, not through Riyadh, not at all.