My enemy’s enemy is my friend – a strategy often used in politics and business – but is it a good strategy?
Let’s take the example of Iran in the late 70s.
The Iranian Hostage Crisis
The Iran hostage crisis lasted for 444 days from November 1979 to January 1981. These were some of the darkest days in US – Iranian relations.
In February 1979 the Shah of Iran had been overthrown in a revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. When he was in power the Shah was supported by the US government, who continued to support him after he was overthrown. They even brought him to the US for medical treatment in October 1979, this further outraged the revolutionary leaders.
After the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini put in place a government led by Medhi Bazargan. This government was believed by some to be trying to build relations with the US.
A small group of students led by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh planned a takeover of the US embassy as a protest. Initially they had intended the takeover of the embassy to be a short-lived protest, lasting a few days at most.
The American embassy was taken over by students on the morning of November 4, 1979. Khomeini was not informed before the takeover, it is believed that if he had been he would have supported his government and stopped the takeover. But once the hostages had been taken he supported the students as it served his purposes and the moderate government collapsed within days.
The strategy in action
At this point we can stop and see the first example of the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ strategy.
Before the takeover by the students the situation was as follows:
1 – Khomeini was an enemy of US;
2 – the Iranian government was trying to build relationships with US;
3- the students were enemies of US, but this was one-sided, they hated the US but were unknown outside of their own country.
At this point Khomeini was a supporter of the government and not the students as there was no political gain to being seen to support the students against his own government.
After the takeover the situation had changed because the students were no longer unknown outside of Iran, they were high profile and clearly enemies of the US.
Now Khomeini went with the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and supported the students. They had a mutual enemy in the US. This was a more powerful driver for him than the support of his own government. He took the opportunity to rally the Iranian people behind an even more hardline anti-American stance.
The hostages were finally released in January 1981. Khomeini remained the Supreme Leader of Iran until his death in 1989, his funeral was attended by millions of people. The strategy he followed during the strategy firmly cemented his position.
The Iran-Iraq war
Four months prior to that, in October 1980, Iraq had invaded Iran to start the Iran-Iraq war which was which was to last until 1988.
Here we see the second example of the strategy in use. The US saw that they shared a common enemy with Iraq and decided that their enemy’s enemy should be their friend, and they supported Iraq in the war.
The war failed and the weapons provided by America would later be turned on American troops in the first and second Gulf Wars.
What makes the strategy succeed or fail?
The strategy worked for Ayatollah Khomeini in his fight against the US but backfired for the US. Why?
The Ayatollah gained a quick win from the strategy as it immediately weakened the moderate government which he could replace with a more extreme one. He was always closely aligned with the students across a range of issues.
The US strategy did not deliver a quick win and long term it turned against them. They had little in common with Iraq except a common enemy, and once there was no quick win there was no reason for the sides to continue to support each other.
The same happened in Afghanistan when the Americans armed the Afghans to fight the Soviet invasion and later found themselves at war with the Taliban.
Is the same happening today in Libya, will the USA and their allies find themselves at war with Libya in ten years time having supported the overthrow of Gaddafi?
The strategy of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ is one that only works for a short period of time while your interests are aligned. Over a longer period of time the reason for you working together will weaken unless a fundamental shift in positions occurs to bring you together on a number of issues.
Today’s Takeaway: A strategy based on a mutual enemy is likely to fail in the long-term if it is the only thing that unites the parties.