Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran’s relationship with the United States has been antagonistic at best.
1979 was the year Islamist revolutionaries overthrew the sometimes brutal US-backed dictator, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Islamists took 53 Americans prisoner for over a year, demanding the return of the former dictator who had fled to America on “medical grounds.”
In the US, the hostage crisis helped sink Jimmy Carter’s presidency and burned Iranian chants of “Death to America” into the public’s collective consciousness. In Iran, opinions were later hardened by America shooting down a passenger aircraft and killing 290 Iranian civilians in 1988, and when President Reagan backed Saddam Hussein while he used chemical weapons on Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war.
But with historic nuclear talks now underway, a reformist president in Iran, and joint interests in combatting ISIS and stabilizing Iraq, now marks the highest point for the relationship in decades. It helps that Iran already is one of the more liberal and stable countries in the Middle East.
While it’s by no means certain, the idea of Iran and the United States developing further ties through military and economic cooperation is starting to look likely.
Allied Against ISIS
“Both Iran and the US view the expansion and threat of Islamic State as extremism that could spill over, it’s a Sunni extremist ideology it could also be a threat to Iran’s Shiites and its influence in Iraq,” Princeton-based Iranian expert Emad Kiyaei told Business Insider.
“Iran and the US have clear common interests. Had it not been for political obstacles domestically and internationally, [an alliance] would be a complete no-brainer,” said Trita Parsi, author of “A Single Role Of The Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.”
Kiyaei and Parsi
lead American-Iranian advocacy organisations, and both told
Business Insider the emergence of Islamic State as a primary US adversary is only the latest in a series of common US-Iranian security issues.
After 9/11, Iran assisted NATO with its military strategy and aided in the formation of a new government in Afghanistan — though the US State Department has also accused Iran of supporting anti-government elements fighting against the US in the country, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
Despite divergent visions for Iraq’s future, the US and Iran also both supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, with Iran having fought a long and brutal war with the dictator in the 1980s.
“It is in the national interest of United States to cooperate with Iran on Islamic State — they have the intelligence, knowhow and people on the ground,” Kiyaei said.
America reportedly reached out to the Iranians earlier this week, only to be slapped down publicly by Iran’s outspoken supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Political power in the country is balanced between the hardline supreme leader and the more moderate, internationally-minded president, Hassan Rouhani.
Kurds battling Islamic State in northern Iraq report that Iran was thefirst country to respondwhen they requested support. Although they’re not publicizing it, reportsfrom al Arabiyashow the country has been has been supplying weapons and even ground forces to fight against ISIS for more than a month.
Even if direct coordination with Iran is out of the question, the two countries appear to have been working in tandem on key issues.
Kiyaei told Business Insider that after the US urged Iraq’s divisive leader Nuri al Maliki
to stand down in June, it was the Iranians who eventually forced his resignation last month. “Tehran was the straw that broke the camel’s back in Iraq, with a successor approved by both the Americans and the Iranians,” he said.
Currently, Kiyaei believes the military establishment in Washington may be further ahead on the idea of Iranian cooperation than politicians. “That’s not really not an unusual thing considering that they are fighting the same enemy in three major military theatres Afghanistan, Iraq, and the mess that is Islamic State,” Kiyaei said.
Kiyaei pointed to reports that Saudi Arabia, a close American ally, is the largest sponsor of Islamist terror groups, arguing that “the US has more in common with Iran than Saudi Arabia at this point.”
However, Washington still has a way to go before it catches up, “Washington’s foreign policy in the Middle East has not shifted enough to see convergence of Tehran and Washington interests,” he said.
But while common security interests are strong pragmatic motivators, there is still a long list of issues both sides will have to work through.
For one, there’s the ongoing nuclear talks, with Western powers attempting to curb Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program in exchange for relief from punishing sanctions.
With Rouhani staking his presidency on mending ties with the West, there’s a strong incentive for him to strike a deal this November. “Political isolation has created tremendous economic and political problems for Iran,” Parsi told us.
Iran’s more hardline and conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appears to be in no mood to become friends anytime soon. Khamenei — often at odds with his President — reportedly intervened to prevent talks on further cooperation, and is publicly critical of the US role in the region.
Parsi explains that older revolutionaries like Khamenei still appeal to the sentiments behind the ’79 Islamic revolution. “Hard-liners in Iran don’t want to lose their revolutionary credibility by collaborating with the US,” he said.
Kiyaei told Business Insider that while President Rouhani wants better relations with America, the Iranians still consider the US to be it’s primary strategic threat. “Iran does not fear Israel, it does not even fear Saudi Arabia, it considers it’s number one concern the US presence in every country which is surrounding it,” he said.
Officially listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, Iran has shrewdly armed insurgents and terror groups to act as proxies against adversaries it deems as threats, such as Israel and America. The country provides material support to Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria’s Assad regime, Iraqi sectarian militias, and allegedly the Houti rebel insurgency in Yemen.
America’s allies in the region would also prefer to keep the US and Iran at odds.
“There’s a lot of losers if the U.S. and Iran mend their relationship and unfortunately the mentality for the Israelis is that it will be at a cost to their security, it’s the same mentality the Saudi’s have,” Kiyaei said.
But Kiyaei believes that far from destabilizing the region, a closer relationship between Iran and the US would de-escalate tensions and reduce Iran’s strategic impetus for proxy support.
Parsi says neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia have been particularly helpful to the Obama administration, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actively working against a potential nuclear deal.
Parsi told us that Netanyahu’s condemnation of any deal with Iran resonates strongly with Congress. “It’s difficult for the Obama administration to convince Congress that this is a good deal when they hear from Benjamin Netanyahu that it is a very very bad deal,” he said.
But while the opinion of allies might hold sway in America, Iran sees them as no real threat.
“They don’t think the Israeli’s have the balls to attack Iran, and they don’t think the Saudi’s have the capacity,” Kiyaei told us.
Common security interests in the region aren’t the only things which could bind Iran and the US together. Compared to many other countries in the Middle East, they have surprisingly similar values as well.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran allows women to work, drive, vote, travel alone and even serve in government (though not as president). Women form the majority of Iranian university students, leading to Islamist reactionaries at some universities calling for affirmative action for male students and banning women from certain courses.
Opinion polls also show the majority of Iranians hold a favourable opinion of the United States, making Iran second only to Israel as America’s most supportive country in the Middle East. As reported in The Atlantic, a clear majority of Iranians want the current Iranian — US nuclear talks to succeed.
Yet the country still doesn’t live up to Western standards of liberalism. Iran has 850 political prisoners, and is rated “not free” by Freedom House. Homosexuality is punishable by death and Ba’hai groups claim roughly the country’s roughly 350,000 Ba’hais suffer systematic persecution with their leaders frequently arrested. Iran was also the world’s second-biggest jailer of journalists in 2013, ahead of China and behind only Turkey.
In a statement released on the resumption of nuclear talks this week, Parsi said both sides still faced domestic political challenges, but that “negotiators should not forget the dangers of returning to the escalatory route which will only put us back on the path to war.”
“Each side has stepped firmly away from that dangerous path and have invested time and political capital to achieve a diplomatic resolution. Neither side can afford to turn back now and squander the opportunity to finally resolve this standoff peacefully … History will judge whether the parties make the most of this pivotal opportunity.”
Ultimately, both Iran and the United States have much to gain from an improving relationship. However, with hawks on all sides working against any reconciliation, the skill and influence of presidents Obama and Rouhani will be sorely tested.
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