The broad advantage of opening at least some cooperation with Iran is obvious. It is a large, powerful state of nearly 80 million industrious and well-educated citizens situated in the center of a geopolitically important region. Iran has an ancient civilization of which they are deeply proud, a capable and innovative military with nearly a million servicemen and women, large hydrocarbon reserves, and a leadership role in the Shi’a world. Working with it where we can might help nudge the world’s most turbulent region toward more stability.
So why now? Given all the doubts surrounding Iranian long-term strategy and motives, why should we even consider an opening? A Persian proverb says that “Doubt is the key to knowledge,” and even with all our doubts and skepticism, we should closely examine the possibilities of re-imagining the relationship. There are several reasons for doing so.
First is the presence of the relatively new secular leader, President Hassan Rouhani. While some have dismissed his outreach (both in traditional political fora and on social media), it seems clear that he is at least somewhat approachable personally and might be willing (within the dangerous constraints he faces from the Supreme Leader) to consider a new version of the U.S.-Iranian relationship.
Second, the sanctions put in place to give pause to the Iranian nuclear program have truly begun to bite. They are a big reason the Iranians are at the negotiating table on the nuclear issue. Their effectiveness is providing a modicum of leverage that can be exploited.
Third, there are several potential openings that have emerged with greater vibrancy in recent months, including the rise of a sweeping Sunni violent extremist movement, the so-called Islamic State, which is very concerning to the Iranians as well as to their major regional foes — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Taken together, there may be some openings for slight but not negligible zones of cooperation.
The first opening is in Iraq. While we have no interest in an Iranian-dominated Iraq, we do want an Iraq that remains united as a political entity and does not fall into anarchy at the hands of the Sunni extremists. We do not need to become an “ally” of Iran, but we should recognize that we will need to provide military support to the Iraqi government in the time ahead — and, indeed, our special forces are already on the ground there. Iran will do the same. We will therefore have U.S. security activities alongside those of Iran in the Iraqi national battlespace. We should at least discuss the situation, and at a minimum, de-conflict our activities, from special forces advisors to airstrikes.
A second potential opening is at sea. Both the U.S. and Iran have a strong interest in defeating the efforts of pirates operating from the unstable Horn of Africa. Iran’s ships have already undertaken counter-piracy missions similar to those of the U.S., NATO, the European Union and other nations acting either independently or in coalitions. Expanding this to operational activity to include potentially exchanging information and intelligence on piracy matters would make sense. So would opening a dialogue in general about how to defuse confrontations at sea in the Arabian Gulf by creating a protocol for ships to use when in close proximity. We have such discussions with the Russians and the Chinese, and given the tension and high stakes in the Gulf, this would make sense with Iran as well.
Thirdly, there are the dangers posed throughout the region by the flow of opium and heroin from the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Iran has both an internal addiction problem as well as corruption and violence resulting from its presence in the transit zone as the drugs move from Afghanistan to the Caucuses, Balkans, Russia, Europe, and on to the U.S.A. Having our drug enforcement teams cooperating with Iranian counterparts would be another potential zone of cooperation. There have been some nascent efforts in this area which could be expanded over time.
Naturally, all of this would depend on further progress in the nuclear talks, which have been extended for another four months and have at least some hope of a positive outcome. We need to continue to lead in the P5 + 1 negotiation process and stand firm on a sharply reduced level of capability (e.g. centrifuge numbers) in Iran’s nuclear program, as well as full and complete international oversight. And we will continue to violently disagree on a range of other issues, including Hezbollah activities and the current Syrian regime.
Clearly there are many challenges and roadblocks to all of this. Yet all is not lost in terms of the long-term possibilities of eventually having a more productive relationship with Iran. Another Iranian proverb says that “Necessity can change a lion into a fox.” The U.S. historically tends to approach foreign policy like a lion, which has its benefits, but it may be time to think more like a fox in our approach to the Persian state.
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