Since 9/11, Iran And America Have Been More Than Foes

October 22, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IranNuclearJCPOASanctionsMiddle East

Since 9/11, Iran And America Have Been More Than Foes

An examination of the post-9/11 era reveals that U.S.-Iranian dialogue has yielded valuable, yet imperfect, results. To avoid a future clash, Washington must talk with Tehran.

Over time, U.S. redlines would prove more flexible: preparations in the lead-up to the Mosul campaign, the Los Angeles Times revealed, saw the U.S. military train some PMF groups that had previous ties to Iran. The Pentagon also frequently communicated with the Iranians through, The New York Times found in 2014, “a single Iraqi officer” to deconflict Iraq’s busy airspace, while the Obama administration passed messages to Tehran via Baghdad. Notably, U.S. and Iranian anti-ISIS military strategy complemented one another perfectly: U.S. fighter jets bombarded ISIS positions while Iranian IRGC officers—including Qassim Suleimani—advised, equipped, and led Iraqi militia forces on the ground. Fighting in close proximity to one another against shared targets, teamwork became inevitable, and Iran responded to this reality by instructing its proxies to avoid targeting the small number of U.S. military troops still deployed on Iraqi soil. Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent asserted in Foreign Policy that the United States somewhat tolerated this arrangement, tacitly enabling Iran’s campaign by having U.S. military aircraft bomb targets that had been selected and passed on to Iraq’s Defense Ministry by IRGC Quds Force agents and their allied militia commanders. “Iranian intelligence operatives,” the authors wrote, had become “America’s eyes on the ground.”

U.S.-IRANIAN relations have once again plunged to a historic low since President Trump came to the White House. Yet, with the 2020 presidential elections nearly upon us, it appears prudent to offer lessons from the aforementioned experiences that would be useful to whoever holds the Oval Office in 2021.

The supreme leader is Iran. Despite the existence of real Iranian elections with contested politicking, Iran is indeed a dictatorship when it comes to national security policy. With this in mind, analysts Ariane Tabatabai and Henry Rome correctly argue that the next U.S. president should not expect Iran’s 2021 presidential election to fundamentally change Tehran’s behavior vis-à-vis the United States. Instead, the inchoate effort to replace Iran’s octogenarian supreme leader, who is in purportedly poor health, will be far more decisive in shaping the trajectory of U.S.-Iranian relations. If at all possible, it is this transition that the United States should seek to affect, though that ship has likely already sailed.

Yet this is not to say that personalities are irrelevant. Well-placed Iranians, such as Qassim Suleimani and Mohammed Javad Zarif, can give Washington critical insight into Tehran’s opaque decisionmaking process and influence Iran’s internal affairs. Remembering that it was Zarif’s established rapport with John Kerry that helped defuse an imminent confrontation in 2016 after U.S. Navy sailors were seized by IRGC personnel, the next U.S. president should look to leverage this affinity to support U.S. objectives, particularly as it relates to America’s return to the JCPOA. However, additional progress with Iran will be difficult as Tehran responds to Trump’s assassination of Suleimani, one of Khamenei’s most senior advisors, and demands that the United States both re-enter the nuclear deal and “compensate” it for the harm caused by Trump’s sanctions policy. In these troubled times, engagement and personal diplomacy will matter.

Iran’s security forces are not a monolith. In recognizing that the supreme leader directs Iranian policy, the United States should not assume that Iran’s hardliners, or its security forces, are implacably opposed to dialogue. In fact, the IRGC’s common staffing of and participation in Iranian diplomatic initiatives—as illustrated by Suleimani’s 2007 offer to Khalilzad to open a bilateral diplomatic channel via the Quds Force months before Crocker and a veteran IRGC officer-turned-diplomat met in Baghdad—show that there is less daylight between Iran’s security and diplomatic forces than is commonly believed. Furthermore, as Johns Hopkins University professor Narges Bajoghli described in a 2018 piece titled “Iran Will Never Trust America Again,” some of the regime’s most steadfast adherents had been eager for engagement with the West, at least before Trump’s repudiation of the JCPOA reverted relations back to hostility. 

In light of this, the United States should seek to engage both Iranian hardliners and moderates with the goal of buttressing advocates of diplomacy and reform. Unfortunately, Trump’s Iran policies, which have explicitly sought to diminish Iran’s regional aggression, have undermined that objective by launching a counterproductive two-front war on Iran’s reformist and pro-engagement camps. As Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal became, in the words of journalist Rohollah Faghihi, a “death knell” for Iran’s political reformist movement, the president’s 2019 decision to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization provoked and empowered anti-American sentiment within Iran’s security services. This occurred even as the White House’s reinstatement of sanctions made the Iranian economy ever-more dependent on the IRGC’s extensive black market enterprises. A more cognizant U.S. Iran policy should seek to reverse these trends, especially since Iran’s support for foreign terrorist and proxy groups—behavior which was not addressed by the JCPOA and continues to concern U.S. allies—has never been contingent on Tehran’s access to financial resources.

Cooperate when you can, compete when you can’t. Just like how President Richard Nixon restored U.S. relations with Syria in 1974, despite Damascus’ recent war on Israel and its status as a Soviet client, the United States must learn to simultaneously cooperate and compete with Iran. This strategy worked out well for the Obama administration: U.S. diplomats concluded a nuclear deal and the U.S. military engaged in “coopetition” with Iran in Iraq’s anti-ISIS tussle, despite that the two nations were fighting on different sides of Syria’s civil war. It will not be easy to bridge the U.S.-Iranian political gap on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria, but Washington and Tehran need not so carelessly clash that Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro considers hosting Iranian missiles on his territory, potentially sparking a lesser twenty-first-century Cuban Missile Crisis.

PRIOR TO Trump’s 2018 JCPOA abrogation, Iran repeatedly insisted on negotiations with the United States without preconditions to test Washington’s willingness to engage and make concessions for improved relations. While the Bush administration’s responses to the 2003 Guldimann memorandum and Khamenei’s 2007 overtures made it clear that Washington was not yet prepared to redefine the U.S.-Iranian relationship, the Obama administration was able to employ focused sanctions to achieve progress on the critical nuclear issue without allowing ongoing disagreements—even violent ones—to stymie limited bilateral progress in other areas. Iran may currently reject talking with Trump, but it has made its penchant for diplomacy well-known. Iran knows that it must talk with the United States, since Washington is the preeminent hindrance to its foreign policy and threat to its national security. Has the United States recognized that Iran, too, can be either a useful interlocutor or an implacable spoiler for its regional policies? It will not be easy for the United States to create a new Middle Eastern paradigm that accepts Iran as a pillar of regional security, but to give up before it even tries is to condemn America to further decades of regional conflict. It’s time for a change.

Adam Lammon is assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He received his MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @AdamLammon.