Slow Thaw: Testing Possibilities for Cooperation with Iran After a Nuclear Deal
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Rouhani and his western-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif currently “own” the nuclear portfolio and, to some extent, tenta- tive efforts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and Turkey. A win on the “nuclear file” might enable Rouhani and Zarif to convince Khamenei to give them greater autonomy and to begin to claw back additional aspects of Iranian foreign policy from the Revolutionary Guards. It is important to recognize, however, that such a shift in some areas of Iran’s foreign policy orientation would not end the competition or rivalry between Iran and the United States (or the latter’s regional allies). For Iran’s pragmatists, a thaw would not result in capitulation or the abandonment of Iran’s role as a revolutionary state. But improved lines of communication with Washington and regional states would permit pursuit of tactical cooperation and “win-win” compromises that could secure Iran’s core interests while reducing international hostility.8
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Both Iran and the United States have interests in avoiding naval accidents and unintentional escalation in the Gulf and North Arabian seas; both countries’ navies operate there, along with the Iranian coast guard and IRGC-Navy.15 In order to manage future crises, the two countries could negotiate an Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) agreement similar to the one the United States had with the Soviet navy during the Cold War.16 If a comprehensive agreement is too ambitious, the two sides could at least establish a hotline for basic communication in the event of an incident or crisis. Perhaps the biggest challenge to this approach is that the area where incidents are most likely to occur is in the very crowded waters of the Gulf controlled by the IRGC-Navy, which would be less likely to be open to this type of cooperation than the more profes- sionalized regular Iranian Navy.17
Taking measures to de-escalate tensions and to pre- vent any accidents from escalating into a shooting war in the Gulf furthers both U.S. and Gulf nations’ interests. Such an agreement would not eliminate the possibility for such incidents, nor would it obviate the need to prepare for intentional provocations, but it would establish common rules of the road as well as military communications channels that could be used in a crisis.
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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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Progress on cooperation with Iran need not – and will not – come at the expense of regional partners. The benefits of increased cooperation could be significant, but seizing those opportunities could also feed anxieties in Israel and the Gulf that the United States is acquiescing to Iranian hegemony or plan- ning a fundamental reorientation of Washington’s geopolitical alignments. At the very least, any cooperation with Iran will have to be accompanied by extensive U.S. consultation with regional partners and paired with efforts in other areas to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities. It may also necessitate creating regional security forums in which U.S. and Iranian discussions are nested within multilateral dialogues involving other regional stakeholders.
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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