Nuclear deal would open up opportunities to work with Iran on other issues in the region
Successful completion of the nuclear deal would open up opportunities for the U.S. and Iran to cooperate more openly on issues that affect both countries. Specifically, Iran is already a de facto ally against ISIS as well as both al-Qaeda and the Taliban and there are multiple opportunities for the U.S. to cooperate with Iran to address these extremist threats. Additionally, Iran has interests in Afghanistan and Iraq and the U.S. would benefit from cooperating with Iran to help stabilize these countries.
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Of all the issues presented here, Syria will pose the greatest challenge for cooperation. There are potentially some areas of overlapping interests, but on others, Iran and the United States have been on opposing sides for years. Before the emergence of ISIS, Syria represented a fairly clear-cut proxy war between Iran (with the active support of Russia) and its client Assad regime on one side, and on the other, the Sunni Gulf partners of the United States. The emergence of ISIS – a threat to the interests of all parties – represents an opportunity for de- escalation and, potentially, cooperation. Together, both sides could push toward an end to the conflict by forcing a concerted pause in fighting, establish- ing local ceasefires and governance and then rolling those ceasefires into a political transition.39
Iran could have an interest in achieving that level of cooperation due to the high cost of supporting the Assad regime. Iran has sent large amounts of money and significant numbers of its fighters, and has encouraged its regional proxies, including Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, to take up the fight in Syria. Those efforts have consumed vast resources at a time when sanctions have hit hard on Iran’s domestic economy, and have also cost Iran dearly in terms of regional influence. The increas- ingly sectarian complexion of regional conflicts has undermined Iran’s pan-Islamic bid for influence across the Middle East, including until recently splitting Hamas from Iran’s camp.40 Syria’s civil war has also placed a costly burden on the IRGC and the Quds Force, which have been deployed to reinforce the Assad regime militarily by build- ing a nation-wide National Defense Force militia network modeled after the IRGC’s Basij paramilitary force.41 At least six senior Quds Force officers and as many as 60 operatives have reportedly been killed in the Syrian conflict to date.42
The Levant will likely be in a state of violent and chaotic conflict for decades, much as Afghanistan has been since the late 1970s. The more the United States and Iran coordinate with each other, the less chance there is that America will have to put additional boots on the ground in the Middle East. If the United States is serious about the pivot to Asia, its objective should be to get regional powers, including Iran, to carry the burden of stabilizing Syria and Iraq.
There is more. A future, relatively congenial Iran might be less inclined to make trouble through its Hezbollah and Hamas allies in southern Lebanon and Gaza. It might help secure al-Qaeda-infected Yemen, via Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen (the Houthi are Zaidi Shiites who have been overrunning Yemeni territory). It could even counteract future Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf: Already, Iran and India have joined forces to develop the Arabian Sea port of Chabahar in Iranian Baluchistan. This port could one day compete against the nearby port of Gwadar, which China and Pakistan are working jointly to further develop. An American-Iranian understanding could also ensure the overall security of the Gulf sheikhdoms—an Iran in dialogue with America is an Iran less likely to be militarily aggressive toward its neighbors. And a more friendly Iran might conceivably help balance against Russia’s influence in the Transcaucasus, where Vladimir Putin has made a satellite out of Armenia, put troops near a weakened Georgia, and pressured energy-rich Azerbaijan into a closer relationship.
Despite its slowdown in growth, the Indo-Pacific region remains the heartland of the world economy, home to the most important sea lines of communication and many economic powerhouses, some of which (like Japan and South Korea) are treaty allies of the United States, and others of which (like Vietnam and Malaysia) are consequential de facto allies. Since Obama’s first term, his administration has rightly been determined to focus more on Asia, in order to both defend U.S. allies against Chinese naval expansion and protect global trade. Of course, turmoil in the Middle East has interfered. But the increasingly tense military standoff in maritime Asia demands that the United States find a way, at least over time, to reduce its granular involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East.
There is no more efficient way to do this than to enter into a strategic understanding with Iran. Like the understanding that the United States forged with China in 1972, this would be less a matter of treaty language than of mutual respect and of expectations quietly agreed to by leaders on both sides.
The United States needs Shia Iran to fight the extremist Sunnis of the Islamic State, and at the same time to pressure the Shia government in Baghdad to moderate its posture toward the Sunnis, in the name of internal stability in Iraq. Should the unhelpful Islamic government in Turkey grow more intractable, Iran could also prove helpful in balancing against it. (After all, Iran and Turkey have uneasily coexisted and offset each other since the Safavid-Ottoman War of the early 17th century.) In addition, Iran and the United States could potentially work in tandem in Syria to preserve the political power of the country’s ruling Alawites—the Alawite sect being an offshoot of Shia Islam—even as they work together to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power. Furthermore, Iran could help steady neighboring Afghanistan in the wake of an American troop withdrawal, by serving as a buffer against pro-Taliban Pakistani and Saudi elements. The American military has already quietly encouraged Iranian involvement there.
All of this would be in Iran’s interests, and in America’s too. And while Iran might do some of these things on its own, doing them in coordination with America would measurably help stabilize the greater Middle East.
Fourth, ISIS and other jihadist groups threaten both Iran and the U.S. Yet coordination and collaboration between the two against these violent terrorist organizations has been minimal because neither side has the political ability to expand coordination until the nuclear dispute has been settled first.
A well-placed Iranian source told me recently that in a post-deal environment, Iran is ready to put in 40,000-60,000 ground troops to eliminate ISIS over the next three years. Ideally, the U.S. would provide air support, he explained. The source made clear the commitment would not be a quid pro quo to get a nuclear deal.
If true, this would be the first commitment of ground troops by any state in the region to take on ISIS. But even short of this, Iran has already provided more support in the fight against ISIS thanany of America's actual allies.
There is near-consensus that airstrikes alone will not defeat ISIS. Ground troops are needed, but who will provide them? The American public is certainly not in the mood for putting more troops on the ground in Iraq. The Iraqi army has proven desperately inadequate. The nuclear deal may help square this circle.
MYTH: 3) Iran will be even more emboldened in the region after a deal is signed.
On the contrary. Deal or no deal, Iran has always been a regional power, and it always will be. Instead, Washington should be asking itself whether Tehran's power projection calculations can be affected in such a way that Iranian and American power peacefully co-exist. Recent history shows that it is possible - if political leaders are willing to take risks for peace. In 2001 and 2003, Iranian officials tried to realign relations with the U.S. after its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Geopolitical realities changed, and Iran sought to change with them. The Bush administration rebuffed Tehran's overtures. The rest is history.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, geopolitical realities have once again changed, and Iranian strategy has changed accordingly. Ending the nuclear impasse is only the tip of the iceberg. Surrounded by a region ablaze, Iran has offered viable plans for Syria, Yemen, and the fight against violent extremism. It has repeatedly reached out to Western and regional actors seeking détente. Today, its foreign policy is premised on the reality that durable solutions require the buy-in of every actor with the capacity to wreck the solution. Iran will continue challenging foreign power when interests diverge, but it is more likely to do so with diplomats rather than bombs or bullets.
Finally, there are also opportunity costs of a no-deal outcome. It is difficult to know whether a deal will moderate Iran’s regional behavior or improve U.S.–Iranian relations and cooperation on issues of common concern, such as countering Sunni extremist forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are probably more constraints on such radical transformations of U.S.–Iranian relations than some pro-deal advocates may acknowledge. Regional neighbors have good reason to worry that Iran’s links to destabilizing groups throughout the region will continue.
But what is certain is that the absence of a deal will foreclose possibilities for even limited cooperation and the possibility of moderating Iran’s behavior over time. As U.S. President Barack Obama noted in a discussion of his administration’s revision of Cuba policy, current policies of pressure and isolation haven’t worked, so logic dictates a new approach. The same can be said of the United States’ Iran policy: The policies of isolating and punishing Iran—which has spanned Democratic and Republican administrations—have not produced more moderate Iranian behavior at home, in the region, or across the globe. It might be time to test whether engagement with a nuclear-constrained Iran can produce better results.
[Peter Beinart] But we can’t talk about Iran’s position in the region without acknowledging that today, the group most likely to commit another 9/11 on U.S. soil is ISIS. And Iran wants very badly to destroy ISIS, which is, after all, a genocidally anti-Shia group near their border. There are problems with Iran’s fight against ISIS, of course. It alienates the Iraqi Sunnis who we need to turn against the jihadis in their midst. But on the ground, Iran is the most potent force fighting ISIS—and if it has more money to do so, that’s not all bad. What’s more, if this deal makes it possible for the U.S. and Iran to coordinate their fight against ISIS more effectively, that’s good for American national security. And morally, if we can liberate the people who’ve been living under ISIS hell for the last year, that’s good too.
To my mind, one of the biggest problems with much contemporary Beltway foreign-policy discourse is the refusal to prioritize, to accept that foreign policy sometimes requires working with the lesser evil, which is still really evil. From a national-security and moral perspective, ISIS is the greatest threat and Iran, like Stalin during World War II or China during the Cold War, is a highly problematic partner against it. But in terms of ability to project power, it’s the best partner we’ve got.
I also think that the history of the 20th century shows that cold wars produce regional wars that are brutal for the people whose countries become battlegrounds. Syria is a proxy war, partly between the Sunni powers and Iran, and partly between the U.S. and Iran and Russia. If there’s ever going to be a deal to end that nightmare, Iran is going to have been at the table, along with the U.S. If Iran doesn’t feel the U.S. is going to attack it, it becomes easier to imagine that Tehran could accept a deal where [Syrian President] Assad goes. I’m not saying this is going to happen anytime soon, but when the Cold War ended, proxy wars ended across the globe. And if the cold war between the U.S. and Iran thaws, it makes it easier to craft a solution in Syria. It also makes it somewhat easier to imagine a political solution in Afghanistan, a country where Iran has significant influence.
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The United States and Iran share common interests in Afghanistan and in fighting ISIS. After the fall of the Taliban, Iran played a helpful role in forming the first Afghan government at the Bonn Conference 2001.26 It has remained an enemy of the Taliban, though it has on occasion engaged in some tactical cooperation out of fear that a long-term U.S. force presence in Afghanistan would threaten Iran’s security. While ambivalent towards President Ashraf Ghani, Iran quietly accepted his presidency.27 With the United States drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, any irritant in the U.S.-Iran relationship on Afghanistan should recede and common interests could trump competition.cnas.org
In Iraq, Iran and the United States share a com- mon interest in fighting ISIS. The IRGC-QF has been active in training Shia militias that have fought ISIS, and at a minimum there has been an effort to tactically de-conflict American and Iranian operations in Iraq, with the Iraqis play- ing the coordinator role.28 American and Iranian officials have also acknowledged that some level of dialogue on this issue has occurred on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations.29 Though those conversations have been limited for now, they could significantly expand in the aftermath of an agreement.
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The possibility of al Qaeda figures finding refuge in Iran was an issue that administration hardliners regularly used to undermine expanded tactical cooperation between Tehran and Washington. In the course of the U.S.-Iranian dialogue over Afghanistan, U.S. officials exhorted their Iranian counterparts to take steps to prevent al Qaeda and Taliban operatives from seeking sanctuary in Iran. In response, Iran deployed additional security forces to its border with Afghanistan and took several hundred fugitives into custody; the identities of these individuals were documented to the United Nations. In 2002, a number of these individuals, of Afghan origin, were repatriated to the new, post-Taliban Afghan government; others, of Saudi origin, were repatriated to Saudi Arabia. In the same year, a group of senior al Qaeda figures managed to find their way from Afghanistan into Iran, most likely via longstanding smuggling and human trafficking routes into Iran's Baluchistan province. In response to U.S. concerns, Tehran eventually took these individuals into custody and, in the spring of 2003, offered to exchange them for a small group of senior commanders among the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cadres in Iraq. Even though the MEK has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, the administration refused to consider any such exchange.
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Moreover, the official enmity between Washington and Tehran belies the convergence in their interests in specific areas. The strategic imperatives of the United States and Iran are by no means identical, nor are they often even congruent, but they do intersect in significant ways, particularly with respect to the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan. In both these countries, the short-term needs and long-term vision of Washington and Tehran are surprisingly similar. Although they may differ profoundly on specifics, both the United States and Iran want post-conflict governments in Iraq and Afghanistan that respect the rights of their diverse citizenries and live in peace with their neighbors. The hostility that characterizes U.S.-Iranian relations undermines these shared interests and squanders the potential benefits of even limited cooperation. As tenuous new governments in Baghdad and Kabul embark on precarious post-conflict futures, the United States and the region cannot afford to spurn any prospective contributions to its stability.
The author warns that valuable civil society programs and diplomatic exchanges between the U.S. and Iran are at risk if the Trump administration undermines the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
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Whether a nuclear deal with Iran will pave the way for a new opening on peace talks in Syria remains to be seen. Increasingly, though, world leaders are explicitly linking the two, with the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, suggesting last week that a nuclear agreement could spur Tehran to play “a major but positive role in Syria.
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