Once again, Iran and the United States find themselves thrust into the heart of a Middle East crisis. As the Sunni ISIS militia rampages across Iraq, consolidating its hold on a large area of territory and threatening oil supplies, the two erstwhile adversaries are making positive noises about each other to the extent that many analysts believe that a rapprochement is in the offing.
But the reality of this thaw is a little different and bears explanation. After decades of animosity and mutual recrimination, punctuated by occasional false starts to tentative attempts to mend fences, Tehran and Washington started to talk to each other in earnest following the election of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency, who won on the strength of his pledge to relieve the nation of the increasingly unsustainable burden of international sanctions.
Now, after meeting in New York, Geneva and Vienna and making painstaking but concrete progress in the tortuous negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, the two states have another pressing reason to shed the costly antagonism of the past three decades. The advance of the Sunni militant insurgency in Iraq and the extent to which the lightning conquests of Mosul, Tikrit and other major Iraqi cities laid bare the inadequacy of the country’s national army, have prompted the Obama administration and the Rouhani government to cautiously voice the possibility of co-operating to prevent the fall of Baghdad and the Shia heartlands.
As announced by the State Department, the United States is now ready to include Iraq on the agenda of the steady stream of communications and meetings between Tehran and Washington.
The prospect of security co-operation between Iran and the United States presents considerable challenges. Both Barack Obama and Rouhani face significant domestic opposition to the notion of dialogue with the old foe.
The Iranian president revealed, in an interview in April 2012, that the then-IAEA director general Mohammad El-Baradei visited Tehran in March 2004 and put to him – in his capacity then as chair of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council – an unusual proposal by then president, George W Bush, who had previously described Iran as part of an Axis of Evil but had decided to put all outstanding issues on the table for discussion.
Rouhani’s eagerness to pursue this option was thwarted by the reaction of higher ranking officials, who did not find it “expedient” to negotiate with the United States at the time. Further cautious overtures by Barack Obama failed to gain significant traction early in 2009.
Since his election in September 2013, Rouhani appears to have overcome at least some of the resistance to the development of relations with the US, but still faces a barrage of contrarian voices, particularly from the hardline factions which control Iran’s parliament and from hawkish elements of the media, such as the Keyhan daily, which has long railed against the Geneva accords and the ongoing attempts at détente with the “Great Satan”.
Not to mention more moderate forces on Iran’s political spectrum who press for Rowhani to obtain full recognition, by the West, of Iran’s nuclear rights and prominent regional role and standing. On paper, co-operation on Iraq appears to be less problematic than the intricacies of reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement. A report published by the Iranian Parliament’s Research Centre in the past few days noted that Isis is “far more radical” than Al-Qaeda with regards to Shi'as and the Islamic Republic, as proven by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s rebukes of the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s stance towards Iran, and recommended that Tehran should engage in cooperation with other “major regional players”, including the United States, in order to block and repel the advance of the militant Sunni organisation and restore security in Iraq.
This is not the first time that the two enemies have met over Iraq. Both countries’ ambassadors to Baghdad met directly in 2006, when Iraq was in the grip of multiple insurgencies. Iran has strong influence with Shia militias, both Iraqi and transnational, which have been already active in Lebanon and Iraq in recent years. These could provide a valuable land-based bulwark against ISIS which could usefully be complemented by US air support.
But this is not without its problems. Any strategic understanding with Iran would mean that the United States would have to come to terms with Qasem Soleimani, the famed eminence grise of Iranian regional policy. Soleimani is commander of the overseas branch of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and is rumoured to have visited Baghdad in June to co-ordinate the defence of the Shia heartlands, starting with the shrines of Samarra, which are under the direct threat of Isis attacks. He has regularly been accused of knowing about attacks on US troops in Iraq by militants and working with him could prove difficult to for Washington to stomach.
As well as the practical difficulty of working with Soleimani, the too sides seem to be diverging in the political sphere as well. Embattled Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has revealed (by refusing to comply) that Washington requested his resignation as a condition of air strikes against ISIS. Meanwhile, Iran appears to be wary of dropping its support for a dependable ally who – it appears at least – has the legitimacy of a recent election victory.
These factors, among others, may be behind remarks by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, implying that it may be best to restrict co-operation on Iraq with the Islamic Republic to the realm of the exchange of information rather than plan joint action.
We may be getting it the wrong way round when we imagine that the crisis in Iraq will occasion a thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington. In the nuclear talks, despite a multitude of divergences, both sides have started to contribute to the initial drafts of the comprehensive nuclear agreement which the 5+1 and Iran are seeking to reach by the end of July. This is where the real action is. But a resolution of the nuclear issue, where negotiations are also at a far more advanced stage than the contacts on Iraq, could have the beneficial side effect of engendering a deeper collaboration on Iraq, particularly if ISIS maintains the thrust of its offensive in the coming weeks.
The gravity of the situation in Iraq is not likely, however, to singlehandedly pierce the still considerable wall of mistrust, animosity and antagonism which has been erected by the past three decades of crisis in the relations between the two countries.