The recent framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China—removed a major hurdle toward resolving the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. Though a final deal between Iran and the West before the self-imposed June 30 deadline is far from guaranteed, it cannot be excluded and now seems more reachable than ever before. But would such an agreement also bring about a broader rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran? And what changes to Iran’s regional policy can be expected if a nuclear deal is reached and sanctions on the Islamic Republic are lifted?
More than three decades after the Iranian Revolution, the driving force behind Iran’s foreign policy remains largely misunderstood. Iran has often been accused of being a hegemonic power, driven by a desire to dominate the Middle East and a messianic calling to spread its ideology. While describing Iran in these terms has often been politically appealing, particularly in Washington, evidence for such an assessment of Iran’s foreign policy has been limited at best.
Indeed, with Iran and the West now on the cusp of reaching the historic nuclear agreement, much of the conventional wisdom about Iran has proved to be false. Contrary to the prediction that it may “not be possible for the United States and Iran to reach a diplomatic accommodation as long as [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is Leader,” Iran’s supreme leader has firmly backed President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomacy with Washington and justified it in terms of Iran’s state ideology, casting the shift as a sign of “heroic flexibility.”
As Akbar Ganji has written in Foreign Affairs, “Khamenei does not want Iran to be at open conflict with the West, nor does he want it to be a supplicant to the United States. He is signaling that rapprochement is possible, but not at the price of abandoning Iran’s resistance to Western hegemony.”
Western observers failed to appreciate Khamenei’s strategic and ideological flexibility. He was cast in unbending and rigid terms, underestimating his and the Iranian regime’s ability to use ideology to justify both the status quo as well as a shift in policy. Khamenei turned out to be less rigid than the conventional wisdom in Washington regarding him and the entire Iranian regime.
This should not have come as a surprise, given the Islamic Republic’s historical willingness to change its approach in response to changing circumstances. It should also be central to any assessment of what the regional implications of a successful nuclear deal could be.
Change and Continuity Since the Revolution
What is remarkable about Iranian foreign policy since 1979 is how little its ultimate objectives have changed compared to the period before the Islamic Republic. Despite some obvious differences, there is surprising continuity between the current regime’s goals and those of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Like the shah, the current regime believes that Iran must play a leading role in the Middle East and that its geopolitical weight destines it to be a pre-eminent regional power. But it is not hegemony so much as the position of first among equals that Iran desires. While the shah cast this role in secular and nationalist terms and sought to achieve it by striking alliances with the U.S. and Israel, the current regime describes the same goal in Islamic terms and uses the ideology of political Islam as the instrument to overcome the obstacles Iran faces.
Perhaps most important among these obstacles is the fact that Iran was and remains a majority Persian and Shiite state in a region dominated by Arabs and Sunnis. And as the shah discovered, simply outgunning the Arabs was not sufficient to secure regional pre-eminence. Despite Iran’s military strength during Pahlavi’s reign, he never managed to win acceptance from the Arab states.
The revolutionary government tried to bridge the Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shiite divides through political Islam and venomous anti-Israel rhetoric. Its net effect, however, was the opposite. If the Arab states disdained the shah, they were terrified of Ayatollah Khomeini and his use of political Islam. If Pahlavi’s Iran was a threat to Arab power in the region, Khomeini’s Iran threatened the very survival of the Arab regimes.
So while the radicalism of the revolutionary government won a degree of acceptance on the Arab street, it alienated Arab governments. And instead of vying for leadership, Iran had to defend itself against attempts to completely isolate it. This set in motion a self-perpetuating phenomenon, whereby the more radical Iran became, the more its neighbors and great powers sought to isolate it. And the more isolated Iran became, the more it sought to break out of that isolation, paradoxically by adopting even more radical policies.
For instance, as I described in “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.,” Iran aided the U.S. in the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Tehran’s hope was that after the war, the U.S. and Iran would be able to come to terms with each other and end Iran’s containment. At one point, then-Secretary of State James Baker said that after the war, a new security architecture should be built for the Middle East and that Iran should be included in it. This was music to the ears of the Iranians.
Despite this statement, Washington moved in the opposite direction after the war, intensifying its efforts to isolate Iran due to pressure from Israel. Having failed to convince Washington to change its containment policy through positive outreach and collaboration, Tehran concluded that its only remaining option was to make the policy as costly as possible for the U.S.
Tehran began targeting what it viewed as the weakest link in Washington’s regional strategy: the Middle East peace process. Iran’s efforts to undermine any potential agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was more an attempt to force Washington to give up the containment policy than an expression of ideological opposition to peace with Israel, as demonstrated both by Iran’s secret collaboration with Israel in the 1980s and its later non-opposition to the Camp David negotiations in 2000.
A decade after the Gulf War, Tehran assisted Washington in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Again, the regime’s hope was to demonstrate its strategic utility to Washington and convince the U.S. to end Iran’s isolation. Despite this initially fruitful collaboration, U.S. President George W. Bush subsequently described Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq and North Korea in a 2002 speech, and the U.S. again intensified efforts to isolate Iran. Predictably, Iran responded by ending its collaboration with the U.S. in Afghanistan, and instead began undermining the campaign there and, later, in Iraq, in an attempt to bog down the U.S. in both countries.
Washington and Tehran then engaged in a zero-sum escalation game. Iran increased its nuclear capabilities, while Washington increased Iran’s isolation and imposed unprecedented multilateral sanctions. But neither side could win. Iran wasn’t going to capitulate, and the U.S. would never accept an Iranian nuclear fait accompli. By late 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama knew he needed to try something new in order to avoid the worst option—war. In June 2013, with the election of Rouhani, that opportunity arrived.
Seizing the Opportunity for a U.S.-Iran Truce
If the nuclear deal now signals a degree of American acceptance of Iranian power in the region, and if the lifting of sanctions ends Iran’s status as a pariah state, does that mean that Iran will have fewer incentives to play the destabilization card?
Such an outcome cannot be ruled out. In fact, if previous patterns hold, Iran is more likely to pursue a less aggressive foreign policy going forward. In a televised speech to the Iranian people after the conclusion of the recent nuclear understanding, Rouhani stated: “Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say it is neither of those, there is a third way. We can have cooperation with the world.”
The role that Iran chooses to play in the region will depend in large part on the nature of U.S.-Iran relations in the years ahead. Contrary to the fears of Israeli and Saudi decision-makers, Iran and the U.S. are not likely to become allies anytime soon, even if their tensions are reduced. As I recently wrote in Quartz, the U.S. and Iran share many common interests, but both sides are hindered by domestic political considerations. As one senior Iranian official explained to me, Iran sees advantages in positioning itself as a leading regional and international critic of the U.S., while in Washington, there is deep disdain for Iran throughout most of the federal government.
Therefore, Iran and the U.S. will remain rivals. But their rivalry does not need to be hostile. It could be a codified rivalry that enables both sides to sustain their surface-level posture of mutual opposition, while ensuring that their differences do not lead to a military confrontation. Within the context of such a rivalry, both tactical and strategic cooperation are possible.
Tehran’s new openness to such a relationship is the result of a debate that has raged for more than three years within the Iranian security establishment over relations with major powers, especially the U.S. Given recent regional developments, in particular the rise of the self-declared Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, Iran had reached a point where a constructive relationship with Washington was necessary. What the parameters of that relationship will be or how it will be established remains to be determined.
However, a few hints have emerged. For instance, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told the Financial Times in December that even if a nuclear deal is reached, the U.S. and Iran still would not be partners. But the two “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other,” Shamkhani explained.
Instead of partnership, Tehran is offering Washington a truce.
Prospects for Disentanglement From Israel
What practical implications would such a truce hold? The first place to look is Iran’s posture toward Israel. Already, prior to reaching a final nuclear deal, Iran’s approach to the Jewish state has changed dramatically since U.S.-Iran diplomacy began in earnest under Rouhani. On the rhetorical level, Iran went from questioning the Holocaust under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to tweeting Rosh Hashanah greetings to the Jewish people worldwide under Rouhani.
There was more to this tweet than met the eye. Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust was widely perceived as questioning the Jewish people’s right to exist. By wishing “all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah,” Rouhani was signaling the exact opposite—a recognition and celebration of the Jewish people.
From the outset of the Islamic Republic, Tehran has adopted a harsh line on Israel in order to portray itself as a leader in the Islamic world. The anti-Israel card served many purposes, including the desire to bridge the Persian-Arab and Sunni-Shiite divides in the region. But the rhetoric did not always reflect the real policy Tehran pursued. The anti-Israel rhetoric only translated into actual policy when Iran’s ideological and strategic imperatives coincided. Whenever Iran had to choose between its geopolitical interest and its ideological impulses, however, hard-nosed geopolitical concerns always prevailed. In the 1980s, for instance, strategic imperatives drove Tehran to quietly seek Israel’s aid in its war against Iraq, while Israel repeatedly sought to get Iran and the U.S. back on speaking terms.
In the past two decades, Tehran’s strategic and ideological imperatives once again harmonized. Israel was viewed as a strategic rival due to its efforts to prolong Tehran’s isolation and exclusion from regional affairs, as well as its efforts to push the U.S. to bomb Iran. At the same time, ideologically, the Islamic Republic’s pretense to leadership in the Islamic world rendered Tehran’s support for Palestinian resistance to Israel all the more valuable.
For Iran’s posture on Israel to change, the interplay between its ideological and geostrategic imperatives must once again be put out of sync. As I argued in 2007, such a scenario would be more likely to occur in the context of a broader U.S.-Iran accommodation.
Indeed, with the election of Rouhani and the initiation of determined diplomacy toward a nuclear deal, Iran’s ideological anti-Israeli impulse once again began to clash with its geopolitical interest to find a positive balance with Washington. Consequently, anti-Israel rhetoric has subsided significantly. Even during last year’s Gaza war, Iran’s profile was unusually low.
It is reasonable to expect that this trend will not only continue, but will also be strengthened if a nuclear deal paves the way for a larger U.S.-Iran truce. Moreover, notwithstanding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to sabotage this deal—even at the cost of an unprecedented rift in U.S.-Israeli relations—the nuclear dealcarries a significant peace dividend for Israel.
Resolving the Crisis in Syria
The U.S.-Iran truce also opens up opportunities to contain the conflict in Syria. Washington has thus far refused to invite Tehran to the Geneva conferences on Syria without imposing various conditions that the Islamic Republic will not accept. Predictably, without Iran’s presence, all efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war have failed. Iran’s presence would not guarantee success, but its absence all but ensures failure.
Commonalities in Syria between Washington and Tehran have now increased given that both are fighting IS, and Washington has recently begun distancing itself from earlier calls for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally. A recent RAND report even argued that the collapse of the Assad regime would be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests. Meanwhile, the Iranian red line has not been Assad per se, but the broader regime around him. Tehran has argued that the collapse of the regime and the state apparatus would be the worst outcome, as it would turn Syria into a failed state even beyond what it already is. Washington seems to have come to a similar conclusion.
Still, Tehran has an interest in resolving the Syrian conflict, as it fuels sectarianism, which Iran identifies as its principal national security threat, and increases tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But in order to play a constructive role, Iran demands a seat at the table.
While both sides insist that they have not negotiated over Syria, Iraq or other regional issues, Iranian officials have indicated to me that the self-imposed prohibition is on “negotiating” such matters—not discussing them. In reality, the bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Iran during the nuclear negotiations have also addressed numerous issues of regional importance, primarily Syria and Iraq. Once the nuclear deal has been sorted out, the door will be open for greater U.S.-Iran engagement.
Nevertheless, expectations for a Syrian deal should be tempered. Iran is not likely to betray Assad’s regime. It can help work out a compromise, but not capitulation. After all, Iran has aided Assad—at a great cost to itself—in part to signal loyalty and reliability to its existing and prospective allies alike. As such, Tehran cannot betray the Syrian regime now. Instead, the Iranians can help first to secure local cease-fires, and then later to begin a political process. It will not be a neat and clean solution, but it can help stop the bloodshed.
Yemen and the Iran-Saudi Fault Line
Rouhani started his presidency by declaring that mending fences with Saudi Arabia would be a top priority. Two years later, after being repeatedly rebuffed by the Saudis, patience with the House of Saud has run out, and Tehran has shifted gears: It will no longer chase after Riyadh, but instead will wait for Riyadh to come calling. In the meantime, it will demonstrate its ability to inflict pain on the Wahhabi kingdom.
This is now visible in the current fighting in Yemen, which didn’t start off as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war, but is increasingly turning into one. Yemen carries at best secondary strategic importance to Iran. It is useful, however, to keep the Saudis busy and drag them into an unwinnable war. Tehran believes that the Saudis have been seeking to destabilize Iran’s borders for some time, through support for both separatist groups and jihadists like al-Qaida. Just this month, for example, the Salafist group Jaish al-Adl killed eight Iranian border guards. Jaish al-Adl was founded by members of Jundallah, which the Iranians accuse of being funded by the Saudis, and which is also classified by the U.S. State Department as a terror organization. In Yemen, Tehran argues, Saudi Arabia is now tasting its own medicine.
Tehran and Riyadh’s approach to Yemen will only further destabilize the region and deepen sectarian strife, even though the conflict lacks clear sectarian roots. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry can only be tamed by getting both sides back on speaking terms. Absent some form of Saudi-Iranian modus vivendi, the power vacuums in the region are likely to continue sucking the two into increasingly destabilizing proxy wars—nuclear deal or not.
The diplomacy deficit the whole region suffers from exacerbates each of these more localized problems. Once there is a U.S.-Iran truce, however, diplomatic activity can increase, not only between Washington and Tehran, but also between Iran and other regional actors. If the U.S. plays its cards right, it might even be able to facilitate a Saudi-Iranian dialogue.
Clearly, any thaw in U.S.-Iran ties will be a lengthy process. Mutual suspicion and hostility run deep, and some wounds are still fresh. For instance, many in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps held the U.S. responsible for Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War even before the CIA’s role was unearthed in 2013. At the same time, many in the U.S. military hold Iran responsible for the deaths of U.S. servicemen and women at the hands of Shiite militias in Iraq.
But Iran is not the only country in the region from which threats to U.S. security interests emanate. Some of America’s closest allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, have in many ways been the source of as much if not more harm to the U.S.—for example, by turning a blind eye to private Saudi financial support to al-Qaida and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen recently argued, the U.S. must “re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.”
In the Middle East, distinguishing between friendly enemies and hostile friends is a daunting task. Yet key conflicts of interest between the U.S. and Iran are slowly fading, making a regional rebalancing necessary. Iran’s desire to play a central role in the region puts it at odds with the U.S. aim of being the dominant power in the Middle East. But as Washington shifts its attention to the Asia-Pacific and seeks to avoid costly military engagements in the Middle East, Iran’s ambitions could come in handy. Iran’s desire to be a leading power brings with it the responsibility to fight back against destabilizing elements such as IS. In this context, Iran has already proven itself, while America’s closest allies have either failed to provide support against IS beyond symbolic measures or have at least indirectly supported the group.
Some would argue that the nuclear deal is destabilizing the region and increasing tensions. That is a misdiagnosis. It is not the nuclear deal, but rather certain U.S. allies’ reaction to Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, that is increasing tensions. Such reactions are neither automatic nor inevitable. These states can choose to react differently. They can address what they perceive as negative side effects of a nuclear deal without resorting to destabilizing measures.
For Obama, alliance management following the conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran cannot only focus on reassuring these states’ of America’s commitment to their security. It must also include insisting that America’s allies themselves redouble their commitment to regional stability. However, everything hinges on the nuclear issue being fully resolved first.
This piece originally appeared in the World Politics Review.Back to top