The Real Reason America Needs to Engage with Iran
In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement with Iran, indications from both Washington and Tehran are that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is strictly an arms control deal. U.S. policy makers argue America should prioritize implementation of the agreement, reassuring Israeli and Gulf partners, and countering Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East. But if the United States focuses exclusively on mitigating the risks of the agreement and does not test opportunities for collaboration with Iran, it may close off a historic opportunity to reshape relations with the Islamic Republic.
When it comes to Iranian intentions and actions, there is much to be skeptical about. A naïve policy that seeks to turn Iran into an ally and ignores its provocative actions will not work. In many arenas, American and Iranian interests are fundamentally at odds. Iran supports and arms the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia militias in Iraq. Only last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that Israel will not exist in twenty-five years.
There are also significant objections from two long-standing allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both fear this agreement is the beginning of an American pivot towards Iran that will come at a cost to their interests. While the United States does not always see eye-to-eye with its partners, they have been reliable bedrocks of American strategy in the Middle East for fifty years. Undermining those relations by putting all of the chips on Iran is a risky and unnecessary gamble.
But even if comprehensive rapprochement is not in the cards, a slow thaw characterized by increased engagement and limited cooperation can create opportunities to advance U.S. interests while not undermining relations with key partners. Such an approach is compatible with a strategy that also pushes back on Iran’s nefarious activities, recommits to regional partners and emphasizes vigorous implementation of the JCPOA. Indeed, for the past ten years, the United States successfully pursued a dual track strategy of diplomatic engagement and economic pressure to address the nuclear challenge. This duality characterizes relations with Russia and China, with whom the United States both cooperates on issues of common interest even as it aggressively competes in some arenas.
The place to start is with better communication. For the first time in thirty-five years there is no taboo on direct high-level channels between the United States and Iran. Few foreign officials have spent more time with Secretary of State John Kerry then his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. To deepen communication, the United States should remove the outdated policy which forces rank and file diplomats to seek high-level approval before engaging Iranian counterparts on even minute issues. A channel between Susan Rice, the American National Security Advisor, and Rice’s counterpart, Ali Shamkhani, head or the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, should be established. Shamkhani’s influence—bolstered by his position, military background, relationship with the Supreme Leader and nonideological foreign-policy positions—make him an ideal interlocutor.
There is also an opportunity to cooperate on discrete issues of common interest. An agreement on incidents at sea, which creates protocols for de-escalation in the event of a naval incident in the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf, would be in all parties’ interest. In Afghanistan, Iran and the United States share an interest in stability and stifling the opium trade, and have worked together in the past—most notably in 2001, when Iran played a central role in the Bonn Conference that brought a new Afghan government to power after the fall of the Taliban. The United States and Iran are already de-conflicting operations to counter ISIS in Iraq with the Iraqi government acting as a go-between.
The United States should also expand exchange and people-to-people programs in fields such as sports, business and academia. This could strengthen the hand of pragmatic forces such as Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. While far from a liberal democrat, Rouhani leads a faction that prioritizes economic development and international engagement over the nuclear program and aggressive regional policies championed by the hardliners. Historically, the hardliners have controlled Iranian policy, but the Iranian ruling class’ acquiescence to the nuclear agreement represents a historic victory of pragmatism over extremism. It portends a coming political struggle, one where positive American engagement can provide marginal assistance to more pragmatic actors.
Reshaping the U.S.-Iranian relationship will be a long and difficult process with no guarantees of success. A policy that simultaneously counters bad Iranian behavior while increasing engagement will not turn two old enemies into allies. But it may over time turn them into “just” competitors, which would be a meaningful improvement.
Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as the Iran Team Chief in the office of the Secretary of Defense.