Since Hassan Rouhani was elected Iran’s president in June 2013, relations between Iran and the United States have significantly improved – though they remain very fragile. To explain why, most analysts point to the new commitment both sides have brought to resolving the longstanding deadlock over Iran’s nuclear programme.
That’s undoubtedly a factor – but equally, one of the crucial building blocks in the new constructive dialogue was that both sides broadly agreed that US policy in the Middle East failed because it was overly militarised. The Obama administration had the advantage of accepting that invading Iraq in 2003 was a disastrous mistake that must never be repeated. In short: the chances of a real thaw while the US was actively engaged in military action in Iran’s back yard were zero. Engagement was most likely to succeed if pursued by a US administration, probably in its second term, concurrently trying to reduce the American footprint in the Persian Gulf.
This means that Obama’s new commitment to a military solution against Islamic State (IS) could seriously undermine an even more important foreign policy goal: preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, a prospect that has often been characterised as the single gravest threat to global security.
Both the Obama and Rouhani administrations have critical interests in protecting the critical nuclear negotiations from the tectonic shifts at work in the Middle East. For Obama, failure to resolve the nuclear issue would jeopardise what might be his only indisputable foreign policy legacy.
Rouhani, meanwhile, has staked his presidency on ending the international sanctions that have long threatened to completely cripple Iran. And both sides are desperate to avoid anything that might stir up their respective domestic hardliners, who oppose any sort of rapprochement.
The brutal civil war in Syria, in which Iran has supported Bashar al-Assad while the US has backed the opposition, has been a major test for whether external events would disrupt US-Iranian diplomacy. US military intervention against a Syrian military backed by Iranian-supplied firepower and Iranian special forces would have almost certainly ended what was an increasingly promising diplomatic process.
Both Iran and the US breathed a sigh of relief, therefore, when that prospect was shelved by a timely diplomatic intervention from Russia, that saw Syria’s chemical weapons destroyed. At the same time, Obama could largely ignore IS as long as it was only butchering Syrians. Nor was IS a direct threat to Iran. Iran doesn’t have to worry about defending a shared border with Syria - its core interest lay in propping up the Assad regime.
This strategy has been broadly successful, though at considerable cost to Iran’s already fragile economy and shaky regional standing. Steadily, even the tentative Obama administration became wary of the total collapse of the Assad regime in the face of an Islamist insurgency.
For a while, it looked like the Syrian hurdle was surmountable – but the sheer brutality of IS’s actions and the scale of the territory it now controls in Iraq have thrown the situation badly out of balance.
Obama may have promised to bring US troops out of Iraq, but neither he nor the American public are comfortable with IS controlling huge swathes of a country thousands of Americans died to “liberate”.
And once IS started beheading American citizens and tweeting videos of it around the world, Obama was of course compelled to act. Iran, meanwhile, faced the prospect of sharing a 1,458km border with a failed state populated by heavily armed Sunni fanatics.
But even though the threat from IS is a shared one, it’s highly unlikely to serve as a basis for any strategic US-Iran alliance – and is in fact seriously undermining the push for a deeper rapprochement.
How times change
The post-Ahmadinejad US-Iranian engagement was built on a shared interest in rolling back America’s military presence in the Persian Gulf, not re-asserting it. Iran’s leaders do not believe in a military solution to the IS threat; they are also understandably incensed that botched US policies have left them facing a lethal threat just across their border.
As Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham recently said: “The pronounced goals of this coalition in the fight against terrorism are inconsistent with certain past and present deeds of its main architects and some of its members.”
The US’s coalition of regional powers, now lining up to combat IS wherever it can, has deliberately excluded Iran, and has accordingly met with a stony reception from Tehran. Iran’s leaders are shaking their heads in wonderment that regional Sunni powers are now seen as key US allies.
After all, they did all they could to fuel the insurgency in Syria, and it was their cack-handed efforts to depose Assad by proxy that provided IS with recruits, battlefield experience, and ultimately vast swathes of territory.
With countries such as Turkey having allowed foreign fighters to pour into Syria, Iran sees itself as the only country providing ground support to Iraqi Shia and Kurdish troops fighting IS.
Iran’s leaders must smile ruefully when John Kerry tells reporters that it would not be “appropriate” to invite Iran to join the anti-IS coalition.
They also profoundly distrust any American offer of strategic cooperation, an impulse that dates back to the post-9/11 fracas of late 2001. Back then, the shared foe was the Taliban; veteran US diplomat Ryan Crocker has described how, after 9/11, American and Iranian diplomats explored ways they could cooperate in ousting the heinous regime in Afghanistan. But in the end, Iran’s only reward for providing intelligence and operational support was to be pigeonholed in George W Bush’s “axis of evil”.
But the inescapable fact is that any coalition will not succeed in defeating IS, stabilising Iraq, or ending the brutal civil war in Syria without some degree of cooperation with Iran. This inconvenient truth is lost on no-one; even US lawmakers who have built careers on hostility to Iran have admitted that Iran can help to prevent a total catastrophe in Iraq.
And at a more basic level, US airstrikes will have to be coordinated to avoid hitting Iranian operatives on the ground, a diplomatic nightmare waiting to happen. This is reportedly already being addressed via Iraqi intermediaries – but the larger problem remains.
A new US-led war in Iraq will empower Iranian hardliners, just as the chaos in global politics makes Iran’s leaders are less likely to agree to a deal that doesn’t meet their minimum requirements. The West is simultaneously trying to confront Russia in Ukraine, deal with the rise of IS, and prevent a nuclear Iran: a delicate balancing act to say the least.
Israel, the leading country calling for military action against Iran, is practically an international pariah since its brutal destruction of Gaza. And the sort of Western military threats made against Iran in 2012 are simply no longer seen as credible in Tehran.
With all of this chaos at work, it’s looking less and less likely that Iran and the P5+1 will meet their November deadline for a nuclear deal. And without one, it’s hard to imagine how Western-Iranian relations as a whole will ever find a way forward.