- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Suzanne DiMaggio
Best Defense guest columnist
It is the year 2015.
Since a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was reached some months ago, there have been a few minor missteps on Tehran’s part and the process of rolling back the sanctions has not been entirely smooth. Beyond these hiccups, the IAEA has continued to verify that Iran is complying with its commitments. This has enabled Washington to directly engage Tehran on two strategic priorities that they both hold in common — the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and stabilizing the unity government in Afghanistan.
The United States and Iran have found common cause in maintaining the unity of Iraq. Iran has not joined the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, but discussions between U.S. and Iranian officials on ISIS — which began on the margins of the P5+1 nuclear talks in June 2014 — have moved to ongoing, direct bilateral talks focused on defeating ISIS. Both Washington and Tehran have disclosed that some limited coordination of efforts has taken place. Some believe that this has already been extended to exchanges of intelligence and direct collaboration on military actions.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that Tehran used its influence to get Nouri al-Maliki to step down in Sept. 2014, and then persuaded the government of Haider al-Abadi to share more power with Sunnis and other minorities. The result is an improved but fragile political situation as Sunnis still do not feel represented by the Baghdad government and the military remains dominated by Shiites.
The post-nuclear deal environment has made it possible to test Iran’s willingness to play a constructive role in advancing a political solution in Syria. Recognizing that another Geneva conference on Syria without Iran would be meaningless, Washington is supporting Iran’s participation in a Geneva III meeting soon to be convened by the United Nations. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and representatives of the moderate Syrian opposition and the Assad government also will participate.
In the lead-up to the meeting, both American and Iranian officials have placed an emphasis on immediate assistance to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Syria — and a pledge on the part of Tehran to extend cooperation on humanitarian access is expected. What is less clear is how far Tehran is willing to go to use its leverage to bring about a political settlement that would lead to the eventual departure of Bashar al-Assad. Now that Iran has a long-sought seat at the table, the time has come to show its cards.
Iran’s outreach to Saudi Arabia has made the outlook for Geneva III more promising. Following Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s meeting with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud in New York in Sept. 2014, Zarif traveled to Jeddah to meet with Saudi King Abdullah. It has been reported that they discussed joint efforts to support moderate Sunni opposition to ISIS and de-escalate the destruction brought about by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The nuclear deal, combined with a smaller American troop presence in Afghanistan, has allowed Tehran to respond positively to U.S. requests for direct talks on Afghanistan. So far we have seen a strong public show of support by American and Iranian officials for Afghanistan’s unity government. A working relationship has been established between the American and Iranian ambassadors in Kabul. The Obama Administration has welcomed Iran’s inclusion in a coalition of countries supporting Afghanistan’s transition, harkening back to the days when both countries worked together to help establish Afghanistan’s transitional government that emerged from the 2001 Bonn Conference.
With the easing of sanctions, U.S. and Iranian officials are now able to discuss Tehran’s potential participation in the "New Silk Road," a key pillar of Washington’s strategy to support Afghanistan’s development through trade and transit connections linking Central and South Asia. The joint Indian-Iranian development of a trade corridor from the port of Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province to Afghanistan’s principal highway will enable land-locked Afghanistan to reduce its dependence on Pakistan for transit, providing both it and the United States with expanded diplomatic options in the region.
The United States is moving away from pressuring Pakistan to abandon its long-stymied pipeline project with Iran. In this new atmosphere, Washington is beginning to view the pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from Iran to Pakistan, as a viable way to address Pakistan’s energy crisis.
Yet serious points of contention remain. There are ongoing disputes between Washington and Tehran over appointments within Afghanistan’s government and the structure of security forces. There also are persisting disagreements about the reconciliation process and Ashraf Ghani’s outreach to the Taliban, which Washington appears to be supporting. Iran sees the Taliban as linked to ISIS, which, in turn, is stoking Iranian suspicions of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
U.S.-Iran discussions also are underway to help shore up nascent bilateral relations. Current talks are focused on exploring the reinstatement of direct flights and opening an American interests section in Tehran, which would bring U.S. consular services to Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution. Rumors are flying that President Obama will soon announce the appointment of a U.S. Special Envoy on Iran. Both governments have welcomed an upturn in U.S.-Iran people-to-people exchanges — particularly in the fields of science and technology, religion, sports, and culture.
The events of recent months represent nothing short of historic change. The U.S.-Iran engagement taboo has been obliterated and it’s hard to imagine going back to the way things were prior to the nuclear deal. But profound differences persist. Iran’s poor human rights record endures. And Tehran continues to support designated terrorist groups, including Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, enabling its proxies to provoke and threaten Israel.
One of the most difficult post-agreement challenges for the Obama administration has been managing the anxieties and expectations of Israel as well as members of Congress, who remain highly skeptical of or outright opposed to doing business with Iran. The nuclear deal has also heightened concerns among the Gulf States, who believe they now are more vulnerable to Iranian pressure.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his team continue to be challenged by hardliners who yearn for a return to Iran’s isolation. With Rouhani’s "win" on the nuclear issue, politics in Iran is becoming all the more cutthroat as some are predicting that moderates will outmaneuver their conservative rivals in the upcoming parliamentary elections and the election of the Assembly of Experts, the powerful body responsible for selecting Iran’s Supreme Leader.
What we have been witnessing over these past months is calculated, incremental engagement, not rapprochement in a classic textbook sense. A dramatic "Nixon Goes to China" moment doesn’t seem to be in the making — nor does a "grand bargain." Instead, we have cautious cooperation on a few common strategic objectives, an approach that seems to fit within Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s comfort zone. Washington increasingly sees the benefit of working with Iran, but still in limited ways. Both are faced with the ambiguity of dealing with a government that will not be an ally anytime soon, but is not quite the bitter enemy it once was.
Back to the present: The above scenarios are imagined, of course. But they are well within the realm of possibility should the major powers and Iran succeed in concluding a nuclear deal. Verifiably preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and avoiding a military confrontation over its nuclear program are vitally important goals. Unlocking a channel for broader strategic dialogue between the United States and Iran on issues where both have compelling common interests would also be an enormous achievement.
Suzanne DiMaggio (@suzannedimaggio) is a senior fellow and the director of the Iran Initiative at the New America Foundation.