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Burying the Hatchet With Iran

For over three decades, Washington and Tehran have been mortal rivals. Can they use the nuclear deal to mend ties and build a new order in the Middle East?​

An Iranian woman walks past an anti-US m
An Iranian woman walks past an anti-US mural painted on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran on November 19, 2011. The United States said Iran was now locked in "unprecedented" isolation after UN bodies overwhelmingly condemned its nuclear programme and an alleged Tehran-planned terror plot. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

With the deadline to strike a deal over Iran’s nuclear program roughly a week away, the odds continue to favor an agreement between the international powers and the Islamic Republic. This is because, for the first time in 35 years, both the United States and Iran see it in their interest to reach an accommodation. But the larger question remains: Will an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program translate into a wider rapprochement — one that might lead to cooperation against common threats such as the Islamic State, and capable of overcoming other significant disputes, such as the war in Syria and Iran’s support of terrorism?

Since the founding of the Islamic Republic, there have been roughly seven efforts to improve relations between the United States and Iran, with the majority of these efforts actually initiated by Tehran. All failed for more or less the same reason: Neither side viewed engagement to be in its interest. When one side extended an open hand, the other viewed it as weakness or as an opportunity to exploit. Both the United States and Iran bear responsibility for these earlier failures, which have kept them suspended for decades between peace and war. 

This current dialogue has been the most significant interaction between Iranian and American diplomats since the days of the Shah. It came about because a number of factors altered Iranian security calculations. First, the United States significantly increased its military force in the Persian Gulf under then U.S. Central Command commander Gen. James Mattis. International sanctions also increased both popular discontent and a national sense of isolation, while leading to economic stagnation and limited opportunities for Iran’s young and well-educated population. Popular displeasure has not abated: In 2014, there was a significant increase in demonstrations on Iranian university campuses, and though the protesters did not direct their anger at the government, this continued unrest alarmed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Finally, the recent decline in oil prices placed additional pressure on the regime. Current prices are roughly half of what Iran’s budget depended on, forcing Iran’s Central Bank to increase the money supply, which only exacerbated the economic stress.

Tehran has also learned that there are real costs to a failure to reach an agreement. When the negotiations failed to lead to a deal last November, resulting instead in an extension of the deadline to the end of this month, the Iranian stock market dropped 5 percent and the Iranian rial lost 6 percent of its value in just one week.

But the most significant factor influencing Iranian leaders is the growing Sunni-Shiite conflict, which threatens to consume the Middle East. A key component of Iran’s foreign policy is a focus on defending Shiites across the Arab world against the Sunni majority. The most significant threat to Iran now stems not from the United States, but from Sunni radicals like the Islamic State. In this regional conflict, a nuclear weapon offers little security compared with the advantages of increased financial resources provided by sanctions relief.

Supporting its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen has strained Iranian resources. Economic growth and increased oil exports would allow Iran to contend with the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia in what Tehran sees as a long war for dominance of the Middle East.

The United States also needs a nuclear agreement, simply because there are no other good alternatives. Sanctions helped bring Iran to the table — but increased sanctions will be viewed by Iran as an act of war, and Tehran will respond accordingly. International consensus made the sanctions effective, but there is no guarantee that the sanctions regime will hold together, especially if the United States is viewed as the culprit in a failed nuclear deal. European businesses are already lining up to tap into a market of 80 million Iranians who yearn for Western goods. If the talks fail, Washington could find itself in the worst of all worlds — with sanctions unraveling and no inspection mechanism over Iran’s nuclear program.

A military option to set back Iran’s nuclear program is doable, but would create more long-term challenges than it resolves. The ensuing war would create even more volatility in the region and expose U.S. service members in Iraq to Shiite militia attacks. It would halt the unstated cooperation to counter the Islamic State and curtail even the remote possibility of reaching a mutual agreement on Syria. It would end international oversight of Iran’s nuclear program and guarantee an Iranian Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon. An Iranian drive for a nuclear bomb could only be checked by a massive, long-term military campaign — an “Operation Iranian Watch” that would dwarf the air campaign conducted for 10 years over the skies of Iraq.

Make no mistake: 35 years of U.S.-Iranian enmity will not dissolve immediately following the signing of a nuclear agreement. Dogmatic hard-liners on both sides are determined to undermine any détente. The recent open letter to the Iranian leadership signed by 47 Republican senators, who have always been opposed to accommodation with the Islamic Republic, is one such salvo from Washington. In Iran, Khamenei has publicly rebuked senior military leaders opposed to any dialogue with the United States, which could result in a deal that undermines their profitable black market businesses.

Iranians still obsess over past American indignities, both real and perceived. The 1979 Iranian revolution enshrined anti-Americanism as a key pillar of Iranian foreign policy. The young men who shouted death to the Shah and overthrew an unpopular U.S.-supported dictator may have gray in their beards, but many of their attitudes remain unchanged. And Khamenei, the most important figure within this circle, remains wary of the ramifications of engagement, especially the corrupting influence of Western culture.

It’s not only this long history of animosity that must be overcome, but Tehran’s and Washington’s dueling visions for the Middle East. Iran has different strategic goals in the region than the United States and is motivated by competition — not cooperation. While both sides reject the Islamic State, Iran harbors suspicions that the United States and its partner, Saudi Arabia, secretly formed the Sunni extremist group as a means of striking back at the Shiites. While the pragmatic commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, acquiesced to the U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq, he remains committed to minimizing American influence there. The development of the popular mobilization forces — Shiite volunteers who joined the fight against the Islamic State last summer, following a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — serve as his counterbalance to any increase in U.S. influence achieved through the rebuilding of the Iraqi security forces.

In Syria, too, the United States and Iran find themselves in a temporary alliance to defeat the Islamic State. However, as the American training and equipping effort for the armed opposition grows and the threat of the Islamic State recedes, Soleimani will correctly view U.S. support of the opposition as shifting to the removal of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Tehran rejects the current status quo of American preeminence in the region — and that is not going to change, whether or not it agrees to a deal over its nuclear program. It chafes at the size of the U.S. military presence in the region and views the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the U.S. military bases surrounding its country as all aimed at Tehran. Most Iranian officials see America’s ultimate goal as overthrowing their revolution — which, listening to current rhetoric in the U.S. Congress and past administrations, seems to have merit. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld succinctly stated in an Aug. 19, 2002, memo to President George W. Bush, “the long-term goal should be regime change and not accommodation.”

Washington is equally hostile to Iranian attempts to expand its influence across the Middle East. Tehran’s support for Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen is viewed as a threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and one designed to undermine the U.S. strategic position in the region. U.S. officials are also well aware that Iranian leaders have American blood on their hands: At the behest of Tehran, Iranian proxies struck the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in the 1980s, killing hundreds of U.S. servicemen. In Washington, the specter of the Marine barracks exploding — causing the highest loss of life for the U.S. Marines Corps in a single day since the battle for Iwo Jima — remains fresh.

Overcoming this historical baggage will not be achieved quickly; improved relations will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. There will be no “Obama goes to Tehran” moment — true rapprochement will fall to the next generation’s leaders, who were not colored by their countries’ experiences in 1979. But if the United States and Iran achieve a nuclear agreement, it will represent a major step forward on that journey. At a minimum, it will help ensure that the two sides maintain high-level diplomatic engagement in order to relay each side’s red lines and to rapidly deescalate the frequently tense interactions between their military forces in the Persian Gulf.

The old order in the Middle East, forged after World War I, is breaking down. But the old lesson that the United States learned from the fall of the Shah still applies: Don’t place all your eggs in one basket. Saudi Arabia remains a key ally in countering Iranian expansionism, but it has also fueled the sectarian conflict. President Barack Obama’s persistent effort to improve relations with Iran has been aimed not for the short-term crises, but at long-term security goals. The hope is that an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program could begin to thaw a relationship frozen for three decades and over the course of time lead to a broader rapprochement.

Iran’s wealth of resources and its industrious population make it destined to be a major force in the Middle East. If Tehran could be reincorporated into the regional security architecture as a responsible actor — despite its differences with the United States — it would serve as an effective counterbalance to the next version of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

This article represents David Crist’s views alone and does not represent those of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense.



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