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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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."
Beyond the negative repercussions of a collapse of the talks, the United States and Iran will both bypass a number of historic opportunities. The United States and Iran may not support the same sides or pursue the same long-term objectives in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, but there is an opportunity for some limited cooperation against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.With the collapse of the talks whatever prospect that might exist for tacit collaboration would rapidly dissipate, hurting both the United States and Iran.
Let's be clear: air power alone will not defeat the Islamic State. We cannot defeat the Islamic State, President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, and Iran all at the same time.Some level of cooperation with Iran, however undeclared, however indirect, and carried out exclusively through back-channels will be necessary. A nuclear agreement would set a favorable context for this. As for Iran's nefarious influence on Iraq that many use as an excuse against cooperation with Tehran to defeat the Islamic State, that reality has obtained ever since the American-led 2003 invasion: for reasons of geographical proximity and history, an Iraq partly subjugated by Iran is an inescapable reality until the Iranian regime itself changes. It was only Saddam Hussein's suffocating, totalitarian rule in Baghdad that kept Iran out of there.
There will also be missed opportunities in Afghanistan, where Iran has a long history of opposing the Taliban, and thus can be employed to ease the withdrawal of U. S. forces there.Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan – in probably the closest cooperation the United States and Iran have pursued since the Islamic revolution – Iran played a critical role in supporting the agreement that led to the formation of a new Afghan government. In the aftermath of a nuclear agreement, similar cooperation should be a high priority in the service of protecting our troops.
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Another potential area of cooperation is counter- piracy. Both the United States and Iran have an interest in ensuring the free flow of energy resources and commerce from the Middle East to Asia, Africa and across the globe. Iran’s past participation in international counter-piracy efforts has not raised concerns from regional partners, and those efforts have provided an opportunity for Iran to play a constructive role in a broad coalition- based effort in the region of the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden.18 Indeed, the counter-piracy campaign is one area of Iranian security policy where regime hardliners have empowered the regular Iranian navy.19 The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, complimented the regular Iranian navy as “professional, courteous, and good mariners” for its active participation in anti-piracy patrols in 2012.20
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On several other issues that affect the future sta- bility of Afghanistan, the United States and Iran continue to pursue cooperation. These include containing the Taliban and promoting the general stability of Afghanistan by preventing return to a general state of civil war in the country.26 Iran has joined the United States and other members of the international community in praising the 2014 formation of the Afghan unity government of President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.27 In spite of Iran’s continued objection to the NATO SOFA with the Afghan government, it may see benefits from a small residual NATO force in support of Afghan security forces, which can help stabilize a conflict that has sent two million Afghan refugees into Iran.28
Preventing the flow of heroin and other narcotics from Afghanistan into Iran and onto the global market is another potential area of cooperation. One of the most damaging contemporary social problems in Iran is addiction to opiates, particu- larly heroin, most of which enters the country from Afghanistan. Iran’s moderate factions have generally taken the lead on their country’s anti-narcotics policy, an issue on which they are supported by the hardline factions close to the Supreme Leader.30
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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.
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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