Machiavelli, Not Metternich: The Pipe Dream of Realignment with Iran

Don't let the ISIS crisis fool you. U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is not on the horizon. Here's why.

ISIS’ recent triumphs in Iraq have created a new strange bedfellows scenario: Iran and the United States supporting the Shi’ite Iraqi regime against Sunni extremists. This has led to the trumpeting of a historic rapprochement with Iran” and the possibility of a long-term strategic realignment in the Middle East, with the United States and Iran squaring off against the forces of Sunni extremism, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Over time, this realignment could redefine our competitive relationship with Iran into a cooperative relationship, setting the stage for a long-term transformation in the relationship.

This would be a very good outcome for the United States. Deprived of an existential threat, Iran would be much likelier to follow through on denuclearization, a vital U.S. interest. The United States would potentially be able to free up resources tied down by Iran and redirect them to other regions of U.S. interest, namely the Pacific. But despite the shared threat of ISIS, realignment is an unrealistic outcome. The goals of Iran and the United States are incompatible. And without a realignment, there can be no transformation and no rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

The traditional narrative spun by advocates of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is that “political hardliners” have been the greatest obstacle to mended relations. These same advocates reflexively reach for the example of the Sino-American rapprochement of the 1970’s as a model to demonstrate that reconciliation between bitter foes is possible. Upon closer examination, however, the much-touted Sino-American rapprochement tells a very different story than the traditional narrative: Nixon, among the most hardline Cold War warriors, was able to engineer a strategic realignment of Communist China because the Soviet Union was the mortal enemy of both China and the United States.

This is emphatically not the case in the Middle East, where irreconcilable goals have primed the United States and Iran for competition. The rise of ISIS does not change the fact that the United States and Iran are each other’s greatest rivals for dominance in the Middle East, a decidedly zero-sum game. Contrary to the traditional narrative, the greatest obstacle to any form of reconciliation is likely to be the balance of power in the Middle East, not “political hardliners”.

The overused example of Nixon’s opening of China is clearly not the winning model for U.S.-Iranian realignment. A more appropriate model for U.S.-Iranian realignment would be the Concert of Europe, which followed the defeat of Napoleon. Having witnessed the fearsome power of revolutionary France, the conservative great powers of Europe reached a consensus to maintain the status quo and joined forces to crush revolutionary nationalism, nineteenth-century Europe’s rough equivalent to Islamic extremism. The allure of the Concert of Europe as a model for U.S.-Iranian realignment is that it appears to promise a world where the threat of revisionist nonstate actors trumps rivalries between great powers.

Would the United States and Iran be able to arrive at a consensus to set aside their differences to collectively address Sunni jihad? Unlikely. Balance-of-power considerations do not evaporate simply because virulent nonstate actors are the threat of the day. The Concert brought the European great powers together because they perceived revolutionary nationalism as a greater threat to their security than they posed to each other. When the great powers no longer held that assumption to be true, the Concert quickly collapsed. Media hype aside, ISIS has not displaced Iran as the greatest threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. The same is true on the Iranian side. This suggests that those who hope for strategic realignment will be disappointed.

Critics of this analysis would argue that even if full realignment is unrealistic, cooperation with Iran against ISIS would offer opportunities to incrementally build trust with Iran and transform the U.S.-Iranian relationship in the long term. But without a strategic realignment, the United States is unlikely to lift sanctions and other means of constraining the power of its greatest foe in the Middle East. This would render an opening of relations a nonstarter with the Iranian regime. Even assuming that the United States takes the first steps to détente, the road to transformation is uncertain and requires a lot of time. Surrounded by hostile states, it is unclear that the shared threat of ISIS has the staying power to support a lengthy transformation of the U.S.-Iranian relationship.