It’s a desperately sad historical irony: in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq because its secular dictator was allegedly about to supply Islamist terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. About three years after the withdrawal from Iraq, Islamist terrorism is in the ascendant as never before.
The US-installed Iraqi government with its US-trained and equipped armed forces has been unable to prevent jihadists from taking over significant stocks of chemical weapons – weapons the West helped Saddam to produce more than 20 years ago to gas Iranian soldiers.
Yet while the advance of Islamic State (IS) has showcased America’s failure in Iraq, it also provides for a major opportunity: the cooling of the dangerous and unnecessary tensions between the US and Iran.
Two of a kind
There are signs that Washington intends to take advantage of this chance. In the latest of a series of careful moves towards rapprochement with Iran the US president, Barack Obama, reportedly sent a secret letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. Written in mid-October 2014, the letter urges the striking of a deal on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme and emphasises Washington and Tehran’s common strategic interests in the fight against IS.
But this is hardly the first time the US and Iran’s interests have converged – and, if it comes to nothing, it will be far from the first wasted opportunity to change things.
The US and Iran have in fact shared vital interests ever since 9/11. After all, the US spent most of the 2000s embarked on a crusade against two of Iran’s arch-enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Only a few years before the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Tehran was itself at the brink of war with the Taliban, following the Sunni fundamentalists’ 1998 assassination of several Iranian diplomats. Accordingly, it was hardly surprising that Iran gladly helped the Americans with intelligence and logistical support at the start of the Afghanistan war.
And US-Iranian relations had been on the brink of a real thaw even before 9/11. In 2000, the then secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had for the first time acknowledged US responsibility for the 1953 coup against the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq. At the same time, the reformist Iranian government of Mohammed Khatami was interested in improving its relations with the West in order to achieve a relaxation of economic sanctions.
Understanding the practical value of Iranian support, the US State Department tried to use this window of opportunity to begin closer co-operation. But rather than listening to his diplomats, US president George W Bush wasted that opportunity by naming Tehran as part of his “Axis of Evil” – just as he was ramping up for a war on one of Iran’s greatest enemies.
In 1980, Saddam Hussein started a war against Iran that lasted eight years, killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians, and traumatised an entire generation. At the time, Saddam could still count on significant financial and military support from the US, including the aforementioned assistance in gassing Iranian soldiers. Saddam only became a pariah himself when he chose to attack US-allied Kuwait shortly after the war with Iran.
In 2003, Tehran was still willing in principle to assist in the removal of Saddam Hussein, in spite of the fact that Iran was already on Bush’s blacklist. Any such a co-operation would most likely have been helpful to counter the US military’s lack of intelligence, regional knowledge or even up-to-date maps. But the neo-conservative hardliners in the White House strictly rejected any rapprochement.
The invasions greatly inflated the already substantial US presence in the Gulf states. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were now just across most of Iran’s borders, while Bush regularly referred to Iran as a “rogue state”, dropping ominous and deliberate hints about “pre-emptive strikes” and “regime change”. Western economic sanctions continued to hurt the Iranian civilian population.
As a consequence, both the religious establishment and the public lost confidence in the moderate camp around Khatami – and the anti-American hardliners gained the upper hand.
While Iran is hardly a role model for democracy, Iranian voters can actually have an impact on the country’s political direction, unlike the citizens of most Western-allied Middle Eastern states, notably Egypt, where a democratically elected government was removed by a military coup last year and replaced by a government run by a general, who has targeted his opponents for arrest and imprisonment and whose regime the US continues to supply with arms.
Unsurprisingly, the 2005 elections removed the moderate camp and replaced it with the populist hardliners around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Not only did the US miss the chance to improve relations with Iran, it had also helped pave the way for a radically anti-Western president.
But history repeats itself, and once again the reformers have the upper hand in Tehran. Once again, Iran and the US share a key strategic interest. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, may not be a secular Western-oriented liberal, but neither is he the wolf in sheep’s clothing that Israeli and American hardliners paint him as.
No, the state of human rights in Iran is not acceptable; no, the West should not stay silent about outrageous events such as the recent hanging of a woman for killing her alleged rapist. But neither should the West held Iran to a higher standard than most of the various Western-allied Gulf monarchies – in particular its old ally Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are much more restricted and whose influence on the region has been far from stabilising.
By comparison with other Middle Eastern regimes with whom the US is willing to co-operate, Rouhani enjoys the highest standard of democratic legitimacy. Above all, he is the best partner the West is going to find in Iran for the foreseeable future – and he happens to be in office at a particularly fortuitous moment.
Obama is right to be reaching out to him. As we hurtle towards the deadline for the nuclear negotiations, the chance for a new US-Iran relationship must not be fumbled yet again.