Charles Dudley Warner’s oft-quoted suggestion that “politics makes strange bedfellows” is never better illustrated than the prospect of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Stimulated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) rapid military advances in Iraq, both sides find themselves on the same side – albeit for vastly different reasons.
Iran wants to preserve the Shia government and, with it, Iran’s new influence there as part of a broader regional strategy. The Obama administration’s goal is to sustain Iraq as a country, thereby avoiding the creation of yet another “ungovernable territory” in which jihadists can be trained as terrorists and organise attacks on American interests both at home and abroad.
The irony is evident. Tehran and Washington, have fought a proxy war for more than three decades by supporting Hezbollah and Israel. But facing a common enemy, they now contemplate having to co-operate out of necessity. Doing so will not be easy. The leadership on both sides will have to overcome significant domestic and – to no small extent – international opposition in order to do so.
Barack Obama has already faced significant opposition from Republicans at home over the multilateral agreement with Iranians over their nuclear programme. Republicans have a widespread lack of trust of Iran’s mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard. They believe that Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is not in charge: that his reformist agenda is too fragile and that he is not a reliable negotiating partner. He is a more amenable face than his predecessor, the widely despised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but little more.
US divided on Iran
A Pew opinion poll survey of the American public at the end of last year reflected this broad concern. A plurality of 42% disagreed with the multilateral agreement reached with Iran. Interestingly almost exactly the same percentage of the American public – 43% – holds a very unfavourable view of Iran. In other words, there is a solid bloc in the US who will oppose working with Iran on any issue. Most of them, however, can not be counted among the president’s supporters. And in Washington’s partisan climate, his record suggests Obama is unlikely to take their views into account when it comes to deciding on American foreign policy.
The clear exception to this generalisation is America’s Jewish community. They are traditionally stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party. As a whole, they are deeply distrustful of Iran. Yet they fragment on the issue of whether and how to engage its new leaders. A minority, for example, lined up solidly behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s view that the nuclear agreement with Iran was an “historic mistake”. Reluctantly at times, they sided with the president’s Republican critics.
The majority of American Jews, however, supported the nuclear agreement, nonetheless invoking the adage that the US should “trust but verify”. Meanwhile, Israelis are understandably worried by the prospect of Tehran’s further engagement with the US. To them, it is another sign of Iran’s growing regional importance.
No appetite for war
So how can we evaluate the prospects for further US-Iranian engagement against this backdrop? President Obama has clearly repudiated the idea that the United States will return troops to Iraq in large numbers. Poll after poll suggests that the American public is in no mood for a large-scale foreign military intervention anywhere, let alone in Iraq. Having spent the first six years of his presidency extricating America from two wars, President Obama is not inclined to dive back into that morass.
All presidents in their second term look towards their legacy, and he wants to preserve his own as a president who ended wars, not one that initiated them. The purpose of the small troop deployment that will be sent to Baghdad, he therefore made clear, is to protect America’s embassy – and more importantly American lives – should they be needed.
There will be no large-scale deployment of American “boots on the ground” in Iraq. Yet this does not preclude the use of drones or fighter jets to repel ISIS, signaled by the movement of the George H W Bush aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf. The fact that their use against ISIS could effectively reinforce Bashir Al-Assad’s position in Syria will only add pressure on President Obama to then turn his attention again towards Syria, as that humanitarian crisis mounts. As usual, complications in the Middle East abound.
View from Tehran
The clear and abiding question concerns what the Iranians will do with that newfound influence if they do work with the Americans? If, as a result, the mullahs feel emboldened and become more demanding, then any expedient accord will be short lived. In that case a temporary respite to the generally hostile trend of the last three decades could actually be followed to a worsening of the state of affairs. Critics of the president’s policy of engagement will predictably – and perhaps justifiably – accuse him of naivety. The prospect of further nuclear program agreements and an easing of multilateral sanctions against Iran will be irreparably damaged.
If President Obama engages with Iran, he will be taking a grave political risk. Yet if the mullahs reward Obama’s political bravery and set aside their historic antipathy towards America, there is the tantalising prospect of another course of action that could change the future of the Middle East. If they back Rouhani, if they use this moment as a platform for a policy of reassurance towards America and Europe rather than one of confrontation, then it could spark a virtuous circle of improved relations. That co-operation could extend across several key policy issues. Both Iran and the West would benefit from this development. Even Israel might be convinced of its value if – and only if – Iran would subsequently abandon its long-held support for Hezbollah.
Iraq and Syria are in crisis, a crisis that is quickly engulfing the region. But never was the adage that “out of crisis comes opportunity” more evident. Middle Eastern and American leaders have always been quick to reject such opportunities. Maybe this time they will surprise us.