The United States and Iran are divided by vivid memories of reciprocally inflicted trauma and the insistent pleading of mutually antagonistic client states in the Middle East. Each has demonized the other. The political costs to leaders in each country of reaching out to the other are immediate. The benefits, if any, are delayed. This inhibits détente and effectively precludes broad rapprochement between the two countries. Their passionate estrangement harms the interests of both. Still, it is an ineluctable reality. No sober effort to reimagine U.S.-Iranian relations can wish it away.
Mutual antagonism is buttressed by the way U.S. and Iranian policies toward Persian Gulf security have evolved since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In 1980, the Carter Doctrine committed the United States to intervene against any outside force attempting to dominate the Gulf. But U.S. policy soon came to emphasize offshore balancing of revolutionary Iran in concert with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Iraq.
The Clinton administration’s unheralded (and still unexplained) announcement of “dual containment” in 1993 replaced reliance on Iraq and the GCC to balance Iran with direct U.S. military confrontation of both Iran and Iraq. This devalued Iraq as a factor in regional balance, paving the way for the United States to invade and occupy it in 2003. U.S. efforts to change the regime in Baghdad unexpectedly led to the incorporation of most of Iraq into an Iranian sphere of influence, which already included Syria and some areas of Lebanon. Three years later, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon gave Hezbollah, Iran's client movement, preeminent political influence in Beirut. In this century, American deference to Israeli hysteria about Iran’s alleged nuclear program and to Gulf Arab alarm at expanding Iranian influence has made containment of Iran and its sphere of influence the principal U.S. objective in the region.
Abraham Lincoln once wisely observed that the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. But there is no existential threat to both America and Iran to provide a compelling strategic rationale for them to set aside mutual hostility, as there was when the Soviet threat to America and China drove them together. And neither Iran nor the United States will sacrifice existing client state relationships or positions of influence in the region to facilitate rapprochement with the other. Those who fear or hope for entente or a return to a collaborative security relationship between Iran and the United States like that under the Shah are misguided. There is at present no apparent basis for a grand bargain between the two.
This said, Iran and the United States have discrete interests that, to a considerable extent, overlap. These represent opportunities for limited but mutually beneficial cooperation or parallel policies and actions on matters of common concern. The prerequisite for such cooperation is recognition by both Iran and the United States that each could benefit from pragmatically pursuing these interests while setting aside irreconcilable differences. To date, no such pragmatic impulse is in evidence in the policies of either side.
Yet, cooperation or parallel action on specific issues could lead in time to widening improvement in relations. Such a bottom-up, building-block dynamic is the only realistic alternative to a stagnant condition of hostility between Iran and the United States. Even if no broad rapprochement ever emerges, both countries could still benefit significantly from selective cooperation under a diplomatic truce along the lines of that established between the United States and China by the Shanghai Communiqué.1
Such cooperation would have to be conducted in such a way as to reassure Washington and Tehran’s respective clients and friends by avoiding or limiting adverse effects on their vital interests. This is a challenging but not impossible requirement. Both America's and Iran's partners in the region could benefit from prudently managed détente between the two.
Iran quite plausibly interprets recent U.S. policy as aimed at eventual regime change in Tehran by either covert action or armed attack. In the interim, Iranians see the United States as colluding with Saudi Arabia and the GCC in organizing regional opposition to Iran and its client states to counter the gains in regional prestige that they view as vindicating both their revolution and Iran's unique cultural identity and traditions. Iran believes that Washington seeks to deny it the ability to deter Israel from assaulting it, as Israel has frequently threatened to do.
To eliminate the threat from the United States, Iran demands the removal of all U.S. forces from the Gulf. To counter the threat of aggression from Israel, Iran arms Hezbollah and bolsters Hamas. To preserve its regional influence, Iran bankrolls Hezbollah and joins Hezbollah in defending the Assad government in Syria, which the GCC, Turkey, and the United States have been attempting to overthrow, and Iran backs Shiite movements in Bahrain and Yemen against Saudi Arabia. It seeks to discredit the Saudis in American and other Western eyes by identifying them with Salafi Jihadi terrorism.
This is a tangle of confrontations that rivals the Gordian knot in complexity. There is no obvious way to pick it apart. But there is also no “Alexandrian solution” to be had.
As long as a pro-Iranian government rules in Baghdad, Iraq will be unavailable to join the Gulf Arabs in checking Iranian regional ambition. So, without the robust participation of American forces, there is no longer any combination of West Asian Arab countries that can hope to balance Iran. Dual containment has degenerated into a permanent U.S. presence in the Gulf directed at containing Iran alone. There is no apparent alternative to this policy that could satisfy the concerns of America’s traditional security partners in the region about Iranian power and influence.
This leaves the United States with no way to extricate itself from the mess it has made of West Asia or to end the blowback its presence there generates. Geopolitical contests in the region have become religious wars. Passion obviates statecraft. Israel’s ongoing dependence on the United States to prevent Iran from challenging its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East is a further factor preventing any rethinking or restructuring of U.S. policies in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s theological discontents, its wounded pride, its outrage at the many deaths it suffered in the U.S. and GCC-backed Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and its sense that its national identity is under attack drive its foreign policies almost as much as its relationships with regional partners like Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiites, or the Syrian government. Iran’s sympathies with Bahrain’s disenfranchised Shiite majority, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Yemen’s Houthis are not feigned, but real.
Meanwhile, the United States swings unpredictably between values-driven and interest-based policies and actions. And Iran’s two major regional antagonists are in a position to obstruct or subvert U.S. policy toward it. Israel has a hammerlock on the U.S. Congress, while Saudi Arabia is backed by influential elements of the U.S. military-industrial complex. The U.S. ability to influence what Israel and Saudi Arabia do is much less than the capacity of both these states to veto American policies they oppose.
In both Iran and the United States more than in most countries, the direction that policy takes is a vector of competing interests enshrined in constitutionally ordained separations of powers. Both systems privilege ideology and domestic politics over attention to interests abroad. The executive branches of government in both find it difficult to implement what they have agreed to internationally. At present, Iran seems to be doing a better job of upholding its end of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) than the United States. That is a problem for both sides, but especially for the United States, which has a lot to lose if its latest diplomatic initiative in the Middle East fails, as so many others have done.
Both Iran and the United States combine ideology with realpolitik in their approaches to foreign affairs. No one should underestimate the domestic political difficulty of either the United States or Iran attempting to temper broad antipathy with selective cooperation with the other. But, if Iran and America are to move beyond their thirty-five-year politico-military impasse, both sides must demonstrate vision, political courage, and skillful diplomacy. All of these qualities were evident in the recently concluded multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran -- the JCPOA. But the deal’s opponents remain unreconciled to it. Its fate therefore remains in doubt..
The prerequisite for even the most limited further advance in US-Iranian relations is the good-faith implementation by both sides of the JCPOA. That means delivering real sanctions relief to Iran. This was the quid pro quo for Iran’s agreement to place limits on its nuclear programs that go beyond the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and related covenants. And it means restraining attempts in the U.S. Congress to move the goal posts by holding implementation of the JCPOA hostage to considerations outside its parameters or purview.
Both sides must also ensure that their client states and movements understand and recognize the potential benefits of selective cooperation on regional issues and the need to set aside overtly sectarian agendas. Saudi, Emirati, Qatari, Turkish, and Israeli acquiescence is necessary for U.S. entente with Iran on any set of issues. Securing such acquiescence (or, better yet, endorsement) will not be easy. Israel, in particular, is an inveterate haggler in foreign affairs, demanding compensation for U.S. improvement of relations with any other state in the region.
Still, with the nuclear issue set aside and appropriate consultations with regional partners, the way should theoretically be open for the United States and Iran to begin bilaterally and with their respective regional partners to explore selective cooperation on a variety of issues. To do this, Washington must put aside its ingrained paternalism and aspirations to incorporate other nations into US-led coalitions. Uncle Sam’s avuncular embrace does not appeal to Iran.
The United States has an interest in reducing the costs of its security responsibilities in the Gulf through burden-sharing, and Iran would welcome a reduced American role. As it did in the talks leading up to the JCPOA, Iran would have to adopt a pragmatic stance that avoided challenging the legitimacy of America’s global role. One way to facilitate this would be to involve the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the “P-5").
The issues to be explored could include how to cooperate against terrorism with global reach, reduce the danger of accidental war, restabilize the disintegrating states of West Asia, secure the energy trade for producers and consumers alike, and address transnational issues of global concern.
Cooperation against terrorism
Under this rubric, Iran, Iran’s neighbors, and the “P-5" might explore how to:
Contain and destroy the self-proclaimed “Islamic Caliphate” or Da`esh.
Restart interfaith and Sunni-Sh`ia dialogue to reduce sectarianism and promote tolerance.
Counter the theology and organization of terrorism both in the region and beyond it.
Reducing the risk of accidental war
Iran, Iran’s neighbors, and the P-5 might consider how to:
Design and implement military confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the Gulf.
Compose and agree a naval code of conduct.
Create an analogue to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to secure values common to all Muslims and regulate rivalry accordingly.
Restabilizing West Asia
The previous initiatives might facilitate consideration of how to:
Reaffirm the territorial integrity of current states in the region and/or agree to processes for agreed adjustments in their borders (e.g., to accommodate “Kurdistan” or the emergence of new ministates from the rubble of Syria and Iraq).
Fashion a stable order in Iraq.
Stabilize Afghanistan and deny control of it to extremists or terrorists with global reach.
Compose a stable post-civil war order in Syria.
Securing the energy trade
The major producers and consumers of oil and gas could all benefit from efforts to:
Compose regional codes of conduct for shipping and rules of the road for interaction between military and civilian vessels.
Enlist an international naval coalition (drawn from nations that are major importers of Gulf energy resources) to supplement the US Navy’s support of unimpeded access to the energy resources of countries in the Gulf.
Endorse these and other regional arrangements through the UN Security Council, demanding global respect for them.
Manage nuclear reprocessing on a regional rather than national basis.
Addressing transnational issues of mutual interest
Iran is a significant international actor that must be engaged on issues of mutual concern if they are to be effectively addressed. Among these, it could be useful to explore how to:
Promote regional police cooperation in curtailing the illegal trade in narcotics. (Iran has a serious domestic drug problem, is deeply concerned about Afghan production and export of heroin, and is a transit zone for heroin headed for Russia and Europe.).
Develop model Islamic legislation on issues like terrorism and substance abuse that can be accepted by all major schools of Islam.
There are other instances of shared U.S. and Iranian common interests. Examples include establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and applying the strict standards of nuclear inspection under the JCPOA to other states in the region. But neither is feasible, given Israel’s insistence on exempting itself from international norms and its ability to exercise a domestic political veto over U.S. policy.
In the end, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other states in the Middle East have no alternative but to come to grips with the reality of the Islamic revolution in Iran. But the end is not nigh. The best the United States can hope to do is to work toward shaping a future in which Iran and its regional antagonists recognize the need to build a peaceful international environment in which each can pursue its own vision of socio-economic transition without fear of aggression or subversion from the others. We are a long way from such a prospect, but sustained, intelligent statecraft can bring it within reach.
The beginning of wisdom in the search for Iranian-American détente is that there is no grand bargain to be struck between Iran and the United States other than an agreement to pursue selective cooperation while reserving major differences for later discussion. The sooner the two sides focus on working together or in parallel on specific interests that they share, the sooner they may be able to muster the mutual confidence to address currently irreconcilable differences.
1The relevant portion of the Shanghai Communiqué text is: “There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use or threat of force. The United States and the People’s Republic of China are prepared to apply these principles to their mutual relations.
“With these principles of international relations in mind the two sides stated that:
--progress toward the normalization of relations between China and the United States is in the interests of all countries;
--both wish to reduce the danger of international military conflict;
--neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony; and
--neither is prepared to negotiate on behalf of any third party or to enter into agreements or understandings with the other directed at other states.”