Nuclear talks with Iran have failed to yield an agreement, but the deadline for a deal has been extended without a hitch. What would have been a significant crisis a year ago, replete with threats and anxiety, has been handled without drama or difficulty. This new response to yet another failure to reach an accord marks a shift in the relationship between the United States and Iran, a shift that can't be understood without first considering the massive geopolitical shifts that have taken place in the Middle East, redefining the urgency of the nuclear issue.
These shifts are rooted in the emergence of the Islamic State. Ideologically, there is little difference between the Islamic State and other radical Islamic jihadist movements. But in terms of geographical presence, the Islamic State has set itself apart from the rest. While al Qaeda might have longed to take control of a significant nation-state, it primarily remained a sparse, if widespread, terrorist organization. It held no significant territory permanently; it was a movement, not a place. But the Islamic State, as its name suggests, is different. It sees itself as the kernel from which a transnational Islamic state should grow, and it has established itself in Syria and Iraq as a geographical entity. The group controls a roughly defined region in the two countries, and it has something of a conventional military designed to defend and expand the state's control. Thus far, whatever advances and reversals it has seen, the Islamic State has retained this character. While the group certainly funnels a substantial portion of its power into dispersed guerrilla formations and retains a significant regional terrorist apparatus, it remains something rather new for the region - an Islamist movement acting as a regional state.
It is unclear whether the Islamic State can survive. It is under attack by American aircraft, and the United States is attempting to create a coalition force that will attack and conquer it. It is also unclear whether the group can expand. The Islamic State appears to have reached its limits in Kurdistan, and the Iraqi army (which was badly defeated in the first stage of the Islamic State's emergence) is showing some signs of being able to launch counteroffensives.
A New Territorial Threat
The Islamic State has created a vortex that has drawn in regional and global powers, redefining how they behave. The group's presence is both novel and impossible to ignore because it is a territorial entity. Nations have been forced to readjust their policies and relations with each other as a result. We see this inside of Syria and Iraq. Damascus and Baghdad are not the only ones that need to deal with the Islamic State; other regional powers - Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia chief among them - need to recalculate their positions as well. A terrorist organization can inflict pain and cause turmoil, but it survives by remaining dispersed. The Islamic State has a terrorism element, but it is also a concentrated force that could potentially expand its territory. The group behaves geopolitically, and as long as it survives it poses a geopolitical challenge.
Within Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State represents elements of the Sunni Arab population. It has imposed itself on the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq, and although resistance to Islamic State power certainly exists among Sunnis, some resistance to any emergent state is inevitable. The Islamic State has managed to cope with this resistance so far. But the group also has pressed against the boundaries of the Kurdish and Shiite regions, and it has sought to create a geographical link with its forces in Syria, changing Iraq's internal dynamic considerably. Where the Sunnis were once weak and dispersed, the Islamic State has now become a substantial force in the region north and west of Baghdad, posing a possible threat to Kurdish oil production and Iraqi governance. The group has had an even more complex effect in Syria, as it has weakened other groups resisting the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, thereby strengthening al Assad's position while increasing its own power. This dynamic illustrates the geopolitical complexity of the Islamic State's presence.
Countering with a Coalition
The United States withdrew from Iraq hoping that Baghdad, even if unable to govern its territory with a consistent level of authority, would nevertheless develop a balance of power in Iraq in which various degrees of autonomy, formal and informal, would be granted. It was an ambiguous goal, though not unattainable. But the emergence of the Islamic State upset the balance in Iraq dramatically, and initial weaknesses in Iraqi and Kurdish forces facing Islamic State fighters forced the United States to weigh the possibility of the group dominating large parts of Iraq and Syria. This situation posed a challenge that the United States could neither decline nor fully engage. Washington's solution was to send aircraft and minimal ground forces to attack the Islamic State, while seeking to build a regional coalition that would act.