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.
Not only would Iran be able to lend its own support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, but it would act as a force multiplier in at least three crucial ways. First, it would give the United States a route into (or out of) Afghanistan, irrespective of Pakistan. Second, a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would give India a freer hand in using Iran as a conduit to project its own power and influence in Afghanistan. Thirdly, Iran’s shared border with Pakistan’s already unstable Balochistan Province could be used as leverage in deterring Islamabad’s destabilizing activities in Afghanistan. Completing the Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline would further increase Tehran’s leverage over Islamabad.
A rapprochement with Iran would also greatly enhance America’s ability to influence events in the Middle East. The United States has recently been suffering from a deficit of influence in the region mainly because it lacks sources of leverage. The past decade has shown that Washington doesn’t understand the region’s messy politics, and this failure has constrained its ability to harness its superior military force to secure political ends in the Middle East. Additionally, as the coup in Egypt this summer made abundantly clear, U.S. economic aid will rarely be decisive by itself given the oil wealth of Persian Gulf states. Thus, with the exception of advanced military technology, the United States isn’t holding many cards in its Middle Eastern hand at the moment.
A rapprochement with Iran would change these dynamics virtually overnight, once again making the United States the “indispensable power” in the Middle East. This is because it would place the United States in the unique and enviable position of maintaining strong ties to all the major sides—the Sunnis, Shi’as and Israelis— of an increasingly divided region. The solution to every major issue in the Middle East would run through Washington.
Consider that, if a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement had predated the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the United States would have been well positioned to negotiate a political settlement that excluded Bashar al-Assad and Al Qaeda. If unusually lucky, Vladimir Putin would have at most managed to sneak into the photos of the deal being signed.
There is precedent for this; by engaging Israel’s adversaries following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Henry Kissinger was able to all but eliminate the Soviet Union as a political factor in the Middle East. No country benefitted more from this than Israel, which has yet to go to war with an Arab national army since, and indeed has signed peace agreements with many of its former adversaries. When Egypt was a Soviet ally, this would have been unthinkable.
A U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is likely to have similar implications for Israel. Currently Tehran pays no price for its intransigence towards Israel. An alliance with the United States would change this by giving Iran more to lose in unnecessarily antagonizing Israel than it currently gains from doing so. Even if an explicit peace between Iran and Israel was not forthcoming, Iran’s antagonist actions towards Israel would drop off precipitously. The Iranian nuclear threat to Israel would also vanish. This would free up Israeli leaders to concentrate on challenges closer to home, such as the rising power of Sunni Islamist parties in neighboring countries, many of which coincidentally also threaten Iran. In turn, eliminating the Iran threat would put the United States on stronger grounds to push for a two state solution, should it choose to continue doing so.
The United States would also benefit economically from a rapprochement with Iran. Not only would it open up a market for American exports, but decades of sanctions have left Iran’s infrastructure in desperate need of investment. The United States would be well positioned to capitalize on these investments, particularly in developing Iran’s much-underutilized oil and natural-gas potential. American companies would also be able to build pipelines to ship oil and natural gas from the Caucasus and Central Asia to markets in Asia and Europe via the Persian Gulf. The U.S. policy of trying to create a twenty-first century Silk Road to stabilize Afghanistan would also be furthered by removing U.S. opposition to the North-South Transport Corridor, of which Iran is a crucial part.
Having Iran as an ally would also strengthen America’s hand vis-à-vis China. To begin with, after 2014 the United States’ considerable military assets in the Middle East will almost all be geared towards containing Iran. A rapprochement with Iran would therefore free up important resources for the Pacific theatre. Moreover, China’s growing engagement in Central Asia, southern Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan is slowly encircling Iran. This is almost certain to create greater tensions between Iran and China in the years ahead.
For instance, Beijing taking possession of the Gwadar port in southwestern Pakistan appears designed to give China the option of someday dominating the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf, which will be crucial to protecting its growing investments in Middle Eastern energy. Iran has long opposed an extra-regional power dominating these waters, and it is the only country standing between Gwadar Port and China’s growing presence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
The United States and Iran have a crucial overlapping interest in checking China’s inroads in these areas, and each side’s ability to do so will be enhanced through cooperation. By contrast, a continuation of U.S. policy towards Iran could very well force Tehran into a dependent relationship with China, enabling rather than checking China’s encroachment on its strategic interests.
In short, by making rapprochement with Iran its explicit endgame, the United States will increase the likelihood of reaching a negotiated settlement over Tehran’s nuclear program, while also furthering many other important U.S. interests. It would be the exact type of shrewd diplomacy that made the United States the indispensable power in the first place, but has been conspicuously absent from American policy for much of the post–Cold War era.