The recent nuclear deal with Iran has caused a predictable furor among Middle East hawks. But it offers an opportunity for a much bigger breakthrough: rapprochement and, eventually, even strategic cooperation with Iran.
International alliances morph and shift; relationships freeze and unfreeze. For the last 30 years American-Iranian relations have been stuck in a cycle of suspicion and mistrust, to the detriment of both countries.
America must now begin to think about a gradual realignment of its Middle East policy, one that aims to reintegrate Iran into the international fold and, over time, transform an enemy into an ally.
It won’t be easy. But, in the long term, it would be good for the United States, Israel and the Iranian people.
There are many benefits. Iran, which sits between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, can check Chinese access to critical energy sources, while acting as a buffer against an ever-truculent Russia. It also affects events in Lebanon, through its ties with Hezbollah, and in Israel and the Palestinian territories, through its ties with Hamas. And there won’t be a solution to Syria’s civil war without it.
Iran currently opposes the United States in all those conflicts — largely because of historical enmity with Washington rather than ideological hostility alone. It uses Hezbollah to further its regional interests and rails against Israel to garner popular Arab support, not from a genuine commitment to the cause. And while its support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is more sincere, Iran’s past behavior suggests it might be willing to compromise.
In 2003, fearing American military action, Iran reached out, via the Swiss, to American officials. It offered to put everything — including its support for Hamas and Hezbollah — up for discussion. Controversy surrounds the offer, which Washington eventually turned down. But it showed Iran was willing to use its support for militants as a bargaining chip.
And the United States and Iran have several overlapping interests. Bound by mutual antipathy toward the Taliban, the two countries cooperated in the 2001 war in Afghanistan. Today, both oppose Al Qaeda; Iran can help with intelligence and regional knowledge in that fight.
Iran would clearly benefit from warmer relations. From its 1980-88 war with Iraq to today’s sanctions, it has suffered. The country needs investment in its oil and financial sectors and foreign expertise to develop its economy, but those are impossible without fixing its relationship with the United States.
It’s easy to forget that the two nations were once allies. In the 1970s Iran and Saudi Arabia formed Richard M. Nixon’s “twin pillar” strategy to counter Soviet influence in the region. Part of America’s unpopularity in Iran comes from its support of the hated shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, before he was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. But a realignment today, based on a new convergence of interests, would be a very different proposition.
Becoming a partner of sorts with a member of “the axis of evil” would be extraordinarily hard for America. For a start, the Saudis would be horrified.
But Saudi Arabia’s opposition doesn’t really matter as much these days. The United States built its ties with the Saudis on a need for oil that no longer exists to the same degree; the relationship is artificial and anachronistic.
New fracking technologies have made America the biggest producer of hydrocarbons and non-OPEC exports in the world, while Canadian, South America and African sources are becoming increasingly plentiful. The Saudis still influence oil markets but they can no longer shock the global economy as they did with the 1973 oil embargo. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has little to offer besides oil; it doesn’t have a democratic tradition and its financing of Wahhabi Islam has seriously damaged American interests across the world.
Israel, like Saudi Arabia, fiercely objects to the nuclear deal. But that’s shortsighted. Détente between Iran and America could be good for Israel in the long run. Both the Jewish state and the Persian Shiite state are outsiders in a predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East. They were allies before 1979. And though Iran supports Hezbollah and Hamas, its army has never taken part in the many Arab wars against Israel.
Even after the overthrow of the shah and the subsequent hostage crisis, Israel lobbied hard for the new Islamic Republic in Washington. Seeking to retain Iran’s friendship amid a sea of hostile Arab states, Israel even helped Iran in its war against Iraq.
No matter how many peace treaties are signed with Arab leaders, only Iran has proved it can work with Israel. Moreover, Iran cannot be contained forever; it is far better for the two countries to come to terms based on shared interests.
Iran is still a human rights violator and a sponsor of terrorism. But 30 years of sanctions and silence haven’t tempered its behavior. Conversely, engagement strengthens Iran’s moderates. One of Hassan Rouhani’s first acts as president was to release political prisoners. He has hinted that more concessions could follow if relations improve.
The Iranian people are the West’s biggest asset. During the Cold War, communist governments remained hostile to the West but their citizens’ yearning for Western freedoms contributed to the downfall of those regimes.
Iranians yearn, too. The country has a strong tradition of constitutionalism stretching back more than 100 years and its citizens are sympathetic to American-style democracy and know their lives would be vastly improved through détente with the West. That’s why they voted in large numbers for Mr. Rouhani earlier this year, and for the reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi, four years ago.
Détente won’t happen overnight. Much of Iran’s clerical establishment is instinctively anti-American, and the American right remains hostile toward any rapprochement with Iran.
But both Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani have proved they can go beyond their respective hard-liners to make a deal. The 21st-century Middle East is a new and dangerous place. To lead the region into a better future, Washington must adapt and leave old enmities behind.
David Patrikarakos, a journalist and an associate fellow at the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.