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.
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.
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Despite Iran's undoubted success in embedding itself deeply into Iraqi politics and its continued, almost gleeful defiance of the United States, the EU, and the IAEA on the nuclear issue, it would be unwise for Iran's leaders to take their current good luck for granted. The Islamic Republic faces significant social and economic challenges that can only be made more difficult by alienating the West. The embarrassing and objectionable statements by its new president calling for Israel's destruction have harmed Iran's international image and aroused further anxiety domestically regarding his behavior. Regionally, Iran has poor relations with its Arab neighbors, and it cannot be assumed that Iraq's Shiite community will remain friendly and grateful indefinitely. Iran's vital national interests could be helped by ending the standoff with the United States. Likewise, the United States has more to gain than lose if it adopts a more coherent and pragmatic policy toward the Islamic Republic.
To reinforce their commitments to one another, the United States and the Islamic Republic would also cooperate in dealing with problems of regional security. In particular, U.S.-Iranian cooperation on postconflict stabilization in Iraq should be the basis for erecting a multilateral regional security forum for the Persian Gulf and the Middle East more broadly. Such a forum would go beyond U.S. collective security efforts in the Middle East -- essentially a series of bilateral arrangements with allies like Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf Arab states -- to create a cooperative security framework for the region. This framework would function as a regional analogue to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.Similarly, renewed U.S.-Iranian cooperation over Afghanistan could be the basis for expanding cooperation on other security issues in Central and South Asia. During their dialogue with U.S. counterparts over Afghanistan in 2001-03, Iranian diplomats indicated their interest in working with the United States to establish a regional security framework focused on Central Asia. Other senior Iranian officials raised such a possibility with us in 2003-04. Unfortunately, prospects for U.S. leadership on multilateral security cooperation in Central Asia has been complicated by the maturation in recent years of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- in which Iran now has observer status. This is another issue on which the Bush administration's refusal to move on comprehensive diplomacy with Iran has imposed unnecessary costs on the U.S. position.
Demanding a regional Iranian surrender would risk the nuclear talks. In contrast, resolving the nuclear issue would improve the chances of addressing other disputes. A more prosperous Iran would naturally have more regional influence and important differences would remain. But there are important areas for U.S.-Iran cooperation. The two governments could work together in Afghanistan and anti-piracy operations. Iran is a de facto ally against the Islamic State (and before that against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban). Further improvements in relations with Washington could draw Iran away from some of its more radical attachments. Said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council: after signing a nuclear agreement the two nations “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other."
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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