An Arab proverb advises, “A problem is solved when it gets tougher.”
Illustrating that point, the advance in Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State poses a threat to the United States while clarifying choices for U.S. policymakers. The question confronting the United States and Iran is no longer whether to work together but how to do so. And in light of decades of distrust and animosity, communications between the two countries can be greatly facilitated by reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement in talks underway in Vienna. Failure, however, would leave only bad options.
If the Islamic State is to be contained, the United States and other nations will have to reconsider past policies and manage enmities.
For Iran, the breakup of Iraq and the creation of a radical Islamist Sunni state next door would be catastrophic. Iranian leaders now must decide whether to join Iraqi Shiites in a bloody sectarian war or, along with the use of force, work with others to build a federalized Iraq in which ethnic groups share in the responsibilities and benefits of statehood.
Meanwhile, after years of clandestinely supporting radical Sunni Islamists throughout the Middle East, the Persian Gulf monarchies face a choice between denouncing the Islamic State, which poses a significant threat to them as well, or continuing to emphasize the sectarian struggle with the Shiites.
In Syria, the choice for Bashar al-Assad’s government is either to turn its military power against the Islamic State or to continue to kill fellow Syrians. It makes no sense for the West to support a war against Assad as well as a war against the Islamic State. Assad is evil, but in this case he is certainly the lesser evil.
The Turkish leadership seems to have decided already to support Kurdish military action against the Islamic State, choosing to risk enabling more independence for the Kurds given that the alternative is a radical Islamist regime on its border. Israel, too, must see that this violent Islamist turbulence requires it to reconsider which foreign power represents its most serious threat.
Iran and the United States share interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran’s intelligence network, religious identity, political influence, history and geography give it a pre eminent role in both countries. At the same time, U.S. air power, special forces, military advisers, recent history and a commitment not to waste the lives and money the United States invested in both places likewise assure that it has a major part to play. While some direct, low-key talks on Iraq have already taken place, the nuclear negotiations must be resolved before the United States and Iran will agree to have regular talks on the issue. Any such discussions must also be sensitive to the reactions of Sunnis, particularly those in Iraq who loathe Iran.
Both sides are clearly committed to making a maximum effort to get a nuclear agreement by July 20, and a good accord is within reach. Despite the expectations of many observers, remarkable headway has been made. Iran has already met most of the demands of the six nations involved in the talks, and the sides are working to establish a practical time frame for Iran to comply with limits on its nuclear program under extraordinary monitoring and safeguards. The negotiations have been more civil than anyone imagined a year ago. But important — perhaps deal-breaking — details regarding the ultimate size and scope of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program remain unresolved.
A breakdown of the talks — still a possibility — would revive the specter of military conflict and result in the collapse of the worldwide alliance that helped bring Iran to the table. It would make bilateral communications impossible, with both sides blaming the other. As the U.S.-built coalition crumbled, Iran might succeed in establishing its own trade and political relationships with Russia, China and Western Europe.
Failure would also undermine the hopes for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government and could lead to the removal from office of those Iranian leaders who have sought to put the confrontational Ahmadinejad era behind them.
A new strategic relationship between the United States and Iran may seem impossible and risky, yet it is also necessary and in the interests of both. While an alliance is out of the question, mutually informed parallel action is essential.
Another Arab proverb advises, “At the narrow passage there is no brother or friend.” Indeed, as we enter a new era of Middle East conflict, the path is narrow and fraught, and the United States will have to work with many strange bedfellows. But with the right nuclear agreement and pragmatic strategic decisions by Tehran and Washington, there is a way forward.
Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, is dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. William Luers, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia, is director of the Iran Project. Thomas Pickering was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997 to 2000 and ambassador to the United Nations from 1989 to 1992.