Cracks in the Persian Puzzle
There is nothing exceptional or sui generis about the Iran-US rivalry and current impasse. A window may have opened. It should be seized
Iran and the US have not had diplomatic ties since the Iran Hostage Crisis and the 1979 Revolution. For over three decades, relations between Tehran and Washington have been defined by hostility and deep-seated distrust. And yet, as improbable as it may seem, closer relations between these two former strategic allies offer a long list of mutual advantages, with hugely positive implications for the security and stability of the entire Middle East.
Can this impasse be broken? Recent Iranian goodwill overtures toward the US, and public promises of “constructive engagement” by Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected President of Iran – topped off by a historic first phone call between Rouhani and President Obama – seem to suggest a rare window of opportunity to reassess and recast the relationship.
Still, the challenges standing in the way of Iran-US rapprochement are manifestly non-trivial. First and foremost, both sides suffer from powerful psychological biases and barriers, rooted in sour historical experiences and mutual grievances that cannot easily be cast aside. Over time, these barriers have become institutional in nature in the sense that the demonization of the other side has become part of the political DNA of both Tehran and Washington.
The psychological barriers mean that – reactive devaluation oblige – overtures by either side are, with the rarest of exceptions, dismissed out of hand as not being genuine. President George W. Bush rejected outright the 2003 ‘grand bargain’ offer made by former Iranian president Khatami, a reformer. And Obama’s initial engagement policy in 2009 was interpreted by certain factions in Tehran as not necessarily representing a sincere or authentic extension of an olive branch, but instead a tactical move to solicit Iranian cooperation on US projects in the region – notably Afghanistan and Iraq – at a time of diminishing American power and influence.
There are also, of course, important strategic considerations that clearly militate against rapprochement. To date, both Iran and the US have been competing for broader influence in the Middle East in a fierce, zero-sum contest. This contest is complicated by rivalry and intrigue among other regional players, with a number of states wary of closer Iran-US relations often fuelling the antipathy between Tehran and Washington.
Having said this, there is, in historical terms, nothing at all exceptional about the character and content of the Iran-US relationship that should render it impervious to change. Relations between the US and the former USSR, and also between the US and Mao’s China, were far more complex, involving polar-opposite ideologies. And yet the parties managed to establish dialogue, avoided full-scale confrontation and, if they did not establish comprehensively amicable relations, still arrived at a modus vivendi that opened up numerous important avenues for cooperation.
The current ruling elite in Tehran are, for the most part, pragmatic actors in their foreign policy calculus. They can be engaged in serious negotiations. Seasoned American analysts and strategists recognize that war with Iran over the country’s nuclear programme is a costly and unpredictable option that would be best avoided. These same people would concede that an American posture of unrelenting confrontation has failed to bring about regime change in Tehran. This leaves diplomacy as the only viable path to pursue in order to advance US strategic interests vis-à-vis Iran and its immediate neighbourhood.
As for Iran, the country finds itself increasingly isolated – a situation that would be gravely aggravated were the Assad government in Damascus to fall. Sanctions have hurt the economy, placing growing domestic pressure on the national government in Tehran. While the Iranians know full well that the US’s military options are limited, and while they have doubtless taken copious notes about Obama’s indecision in respect of any Syrian intervention or strikes, they cannot discount the possibility of war coming to their shores given the pressure placed on Washington from a handful of countries, which have long been pushing for a tougher stance on Iran. Tehran therefore still has reason for apprehension, and motivation to become serious about engagement.
The new Iranian President and his team appear to grasp the fact that pragmatic policy positions should not be hampered by ideological rigidities. Resistance can pay dividends by causing the enemy to respect you (even if such respect is grudgingly acquired) and by forcing changes in the strategic calculus of these same enemies. But resistance for its own sake, sans end goal and at any cost, tends invariably to the realm of folly. Indeed, in the end, Iranian miscalculations about the capabilities and intentions of adversaries – caused by poor information, poor analytics, or simply surenchère, could result in catastrophe for the country.
The new leaders in Tehran – of course, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains extremely powerful – recognize that an Iran free from the pressures of international sanctions and scrutiny could focus on building the country, improving its economy, and achieving greater independence and prosperity. Seen in this light, a conciliatory posture toward a rival does not signify weakness, and does not mean that the country has to sacrifice its autonomy, standing or honour. Abandoning isolation in favour of rapprochement does not mean forgetting the past or denying a nation’s outrage (consider the 1953 Mossadegh coup, in respect of which Obama recently acknowledged American involvement), but rather the channelling of national energies into policies and postures that issue in greater real returns for the country and its citizenry.
The US, for its part, must begin to question the conventional wisdom in Washington policy circles that has undergirded a longstanding and ineffective containment policy toward Iran. Iran is today surrounded by US military bases, and yet these have proved futile in restraining Iran’s growing clout in the region. Having failed to topple the regime or otherwise coerce Tehran into capitulation on the nuclear dossier, US policy toward Iran has merely aggravated Tehran’s security perceptions and deep sense of isolation, provoking Iranian belligerence. On the other hand, the unrelenting economic sanctions levelled against Iran over the last 30 years are probably pushing the country ever closer to economic collapse. To think that a weak and divided Iran – a coherent, historically important regional power occupying the landmass where Western Asia and Central Asia meet – is somehow advantageous to US interests in the region is terribly short-sighted. For a scenario of Iranian state collapse would squarely put US interests in the region in jeopardy. Without Iranian cooperation, the US will continue to face great challenges in advancing its objectives in the region, from securing the free flow of oil – key to the world’s economy – to resolving the region’s major conflicts, from Afghanistan to Syria and the Arab-Israeli impasse.
Bref, if the US wishes to remain relevant in the Middle East over the long-term – at a time of Chinese ascent and renewed Russian relevance – and also to ensure regional security, then Washington cannot indefinitely continue to ignore and attempt to contain Iran. Indeed, the reverse is true: brought in from the cold, Iran could become a strategic partner for the US in the region. In historical terms, this would not necessarily be an uncomfortable partnership for Tehran.
US-Iran relations are now at a crossroads. The mutual strategic benefits to be derived from the normalization of these relations should focus and guide the parties’ actions. Both sides need to manage their internal political dynamics – keeping spoilers and hardliners at bay, at least temporarily in order to give real diplomacy an opportunity to succeed.
The code to the not-so-unique ‘Persian puzzle’ can be cracked. A new policy of sustained engagement – based on mutual respect and recognition of each other’s legitimate interests, rights and anxieties – can reignite relations. Should Iran’s recent offers of “constructive engagement” elicit a favourable response from Washington, then the path to détente will require a rapid series of concrete confidence-building initiatives – expanding the discussions to include items other than only Iran’s nuclear programme. Areas of common interest and potential cooperation should be identified (there are many). A statement of guidelines or principles should be crafted (consider the 1972 Shanghai communiqué), and a roadmap should be set for the normalization of relations (as was done for Vietnam-US relations in 1991). Iranian security anxieties can be assuaged through bolstered defence capabilities (and by a loosening of the noose or necklace of American assets around Iran’s perimeter). The signature of a formal non-aggression pact is not inconceivable – en attendant a more comprehensive regional security and cooperation architecture.
Countless mines pave the route toward this rapprochement. Yet never in the past three decades have the stars lined up so nicely – necessity and circumstances oblige – as to enable Tehran and Washington to break with the past and reverse their decades-long antagonism. After the recent Iranian charm offensive, the ball in many ways seems to be in the US court.
Sam Sasan Shoamanesh is the Managing Editor of Global Brief. The views expressed herein are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of his previous or current employers.