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.
Moreover, sustainable transformation has failed in the face of foes far more vicious than ISIS. An instructive case is the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. Despite cool relations prior to the Second World War, the two powers fought alongside one another against the shared threat of Nazi Germany. Billions of dollars of Lend-Lease aid from the United States gave the Soviets much-needed materiel support, and the Soviets took millions of casualties over the course of the war that might otherwise have been borne by the United States. Yet, when the smoke cleared, the Americans and Soviets emerged not as fire-forged friends, but as bitter enemies. In theory, WWII should have been an easy case for transformation, but the elimination of Germany and Japan in fact led to deterioration in the relationship. Balance-of-power calculations once again carried the day. The lesson is clear: transformation works when the balance of power encourages it. U.S. policy makers should cast a dubious eye on propositions that sacrifice realistic objectives in pursuit of the mirage of transformed relations.
Understanding the futility of a policy aimed at realignment or transformation provides the key for developing an effective U.S. response to the current crisis. Threat equals capability multiplied by intention. If changing Iran’s intentions proves unlikely, the solution left is to constrain its capabilities. A natural policy flows from this analysis: protect the energy markets while Iran bleeds itself white fighting ISIS and Sunni extremism. The United States should take action to contain ISIS as much as necessary to protect global energy markets from strong supply shocks. Rather than endlessly frittering away resources propping up the inept regime in Baghdad, the United States should focus the lion’s share of its men and money where it can do some good, by strengthening regional allies, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, against the forces of instability in Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, the United States should sacrifice its untenable goal of preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity. This is a worthy sacrifice, as the conflict in Iraq offers the United States an unprecedented opportunity to pass the buck of Sunni extremism to Iran. As a Shi’ite, Persian state, Iran is even more the natural enemy of the Sunni Arab ISIS movement than is the United States, and is likely to become the target of both ISIS and the Sunni extremist movement at large. Unlike the United States, Iran does not have the luxury of withdrawal from Iraq. Thus, the fall of Iraq is not an option for Tehran. This is a tolerable arrangement for the United States. ISIS could fight Iran to a stalemate and become an indefinite drain on Iranian coffers, a favorable outcome for the United States. Iraq and Syria could also extinguish ISIS at the considerable expense of Iranian blood and treasure, eliminating ISIS for the United States on the cheap. Every bullet Iran and ISIS fire against one another is a bullet not targeted at the United States. Regardless of the outcome, the quagmire will allow the United States to curb Iranian power at minimal cost.
There may be no such thing as permanent enemies for nations, but there are permanent interests. A day when Iran and the United States reach a consensus may eventually come, but it will come on a day when the balance of power shifts and conditions are ripe for reconciliation. That day is not today, and the threat of ISIS has not fundamentally changed U.S.-Iranian relations. But in danger, there is opportunity. The success of ISIS need not be treated as a disaster. If the United States plays its cards right, it can profit immensely at Iran’s expense. The United States can pass a lot of problems on to Iran, an opportunity not to be squandered in favor of chasing a chimerical rapprochement.
Thomas Vien is a graduate of the George H.W. Bush School of Public Service at Texas A&M University, where he studied US national security policy.
Image: Iran president