America and Iran: The Morning After a Nuclear Deal

Can Washington and Tehran go from being “enemies” to being “rivals”?

From a broader U.S.-Iranian-relations perspective, the successful resolution of the nuclear issue and the unprecedented level of bilateral discussions that have taken place between Washington and Tehran over the past year can be used as a stepping stone to cooperation on an array of regional and international issues of common concern. Reportedly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated during his visit to the UN General Assembly last September that U.S.-Iranian relations had to start with one step: resolving the nuclear impasse to build confidence so that further steps could be taken. After all, thirty-five years of mistrust and enmity cannot be forgotten so rapidly as evidenced by the Obama administration’s rejection of Iran’s UN ambassadorial nominee.

To be sure, many areas of overlapping strategic interests between the United States and Iran could serve as areas of further regional cooperation. Both countries have an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq; both would like to see a significant decrease in sectarian strife across the Middle East; and both would like to see the crisis in Syria resolved in a way that prevents the country from becoming a breeding ground for extremism. Other areas of cooperation could also include countering drug trafficking out of Afghanistan, combating piracy in international waters, or working with Iran to become an alternative source of natural gas to Europe, negating the need for Russian supplies during this time of deteriorated relations between the West and Russia.

Managing U.S.-Iranian Relations

For the United States, managing the relationship with Iran after a comprehensive nuclear agreement will require continued engagement and leadership at the senior levels of the administration. In fact, nuclear talks picked up pace in secret bilateral meetings at the direction of the Obama administration after President Rouhani assumed office. Both countries could opt to pursue other issues of common concern in similar fashion, only to disclose it publicly if a breakthrough or agreement is made. In doing so, they can leverage the relationships that have developed over the past year. There has already been an unprecedented amount of interaction at the highest levels of the State Department and the Iranian Foreign Ministry, including phone calls and bilateral meetings between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif as well as interactions between Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. These engagements will be crucial in moving U.S.-Iranian relations forward as it may be some time before diplomatic relations are normalized. With that being said, both sides will likely be prudent in moving the new bilateral relationship forward. As Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif indicated: “Iran will prudently manage its relations with the United States by containing existing disagreements and preventing further tensions from emerging unnecessarily, thereby gradually easing tensions.” As others have pointedly remarked, the United States does not naively think that Iran will become its new “BFF”.

Bilateral cooperation beyond the nuclear issue could prove difficult as ideological differences continue to divide both countries. Despite these differences, both sides share common concerns in areas where deep divisions exist. Case in point: Syria. The United States and Iran support opposing sides in Syria, however, both countries oppose the influx of extremists and the increase in fundamentalism in that country. Further impediments could stem from U.S. regional allies who oppose a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. However, contrary to what some in Israel and Saudi Arabia believe, a collaborative U.S.-Iranian relationship on common-cause issues does not have to be at their expense. Tehran has no interest in a patron-client relationship, as NIAC’s Research Director Reza Marashi puts it, and is interested in a competitive yet cooperative relationship with Washington akin to Russian and Chinese relations with the United States. The United States understands this and is testing to see if both countries can go from being “enemies” to being “rivals”.

Needless to say, a comprehensive nuclear deal could be the beginning of a strategic recalculation in Washington and Tehran and could lead to further regional cooperation. It could all begin on July 21.

Navid Hassibi is doctoral student with the Research Group in International Politics at the University of Antwerp and was recently a Visiting Scholar at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.

Janne E. Nolan is Chair of the Nuclear Security Working Group and Research Professor of International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Her most recent book, Tyranny of Consensus, was published in 2013. The views here represent the authors’ own.

Image: Iran President photo