Iran: The Case for Rapprochement

The United States and the Islamic Republic have been flirting. Why not go all the way?

For nearly thirty-five years, Iran and the United States have stumbled into numerous conflicts and crises with each other, in some cases—such as post-2003 Iraq—even when their interests were seemingly aligned. They now appear, not for the first time, to be stumbling toward peace. This is a positive development, but to succeed a concerted effort must be made to define a proper endgame.

In particular, the United States must define its endgame as a genuine U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, rather than a narrow nuclear deal in which Iran agrees to limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Such a nuclear deal is undoubtedly necessary for a larger rapprochement to take hold, but not sufficient in and of itself.

Making U.S.-Iranian rapprochement the endgame will be especially crucial for getting Iranian buy-in for a deal on the nuclear program. Currently, the thinking in the West is that U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports have caused enough pain to force Iranian leaders to agree to a narrow nuclear deal.

This fails to recognize that the sanctions affect certain elite groups within Iran differently. Although President Hassan Rouhani may have a political interest in securing sanctions relief, many of the Iranian hardliners who are predisposed to act as a spoiler in U.S.-Iranian negotiations actually benefit from the sanctions regime.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), for example, operates a massive smuggling network that international sanctions make all the more lucrative. Meanwhile, hardline clerics like Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and possibly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, fear the gravitational pull of the freer flow of non-Islamic ideas.

Furthermore, nearly all Iranian leaders doubt that the current standoff with the United States is actually over nuclear weapons. They point to the fact that the United States and Iran were at odds long before concerns over its nuclear program surfaced. Instead, they argue the United States is simply using the nuclear issue to win greater international support for its pressure campaign against Iran.

As Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has explained:

“The movement [against Iran] is not just a nuclear movement. Today their pretext is the nuclear issue. They use the nuclear pretext to impose sanctions on us. How long is it since the nuclear issue was first brought up? The sanctions have been there for thirty years. Why were they imposing sanctions on us when the nuclear issue did not exist?”

The implication of this is that Iranian leaders believe that if they resolve the nuclear issue, the United States will just find another way to try and undermine the Iranian regime. The example of Muammar Gaddafi is particularly potent in this regard. Iranian leaders understandably fear ending up like the former Libyan leader in that they surrender their nuclear program for sanctions relief, only to find the West continues to hold an antagonist position towards them.

The bottom line is that unless the political dynamics of the U.S.-Iranian relationship are changed, Iranian leaders will be wary of putting significant limits on their nuclear program.

Fortunately, the United States has an equally strong interest in achieving a rapprochement with Iran. The overlap in U.S.-Iranian interests is often discussed in the context of Afghanistan. There is good reason for this; namely, both sides have congruent interests in the country and this fact, along with Iran’s proximity to Afghanistan, would make it a valuable asset in shoring up the Afghan government following NATO’s withdrawal, or at worst minimizing the fallout if the Taliban seizes power in southern Afghanistan.