The place to start working with Iran

With the nuclear deal in pocket, it’s understandable that people are talking about the future of the US-Iran relationship. It’s especially understandable when Iranian and US interests in the Middle East overlap on so many issues: ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the stability of the Iraqi government in general, dealing with Syria’s civil war, Hezbollah-Israel, Hamas-Israel, and so on. Where you stand on the possibility of a broader thaw US-Iran relations depends on whether you think that thaw will come about because Iran starts to moderate its foreign policy or because you think the US is going to start looking the other way while Iran keeps doing what it’s been doing for decades now. There’s no denying that Iran engages in a lot of behaviors in the Middle East that run counter to US interests (and vice versa, of course), but GCC and Israeli fears aside, there’s no indication that Washington is planning to start ignoring that fact just because the nuclear agreement has been reached. There’s also no denying the degree to which US and Iranian interests not only overlap, but align with one another, most obviously when it comes to ISIS, and so it would be a lost opportunity if these two countries didn’t at least try to build on this deal and find some paths toward broader engagement.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you’re not going to reverse the effects of 36 years of poisoned relations anytime soon. Nor would you want to try; moving too fast toward better relations would reinforce the fears of hardliners on both the US and Iranian sides and risks destroying whatever fragile progress has been made by wading into more heated subjects before the relationship can withstand that. The US and Iran both want to see ISIS driven out of Iraq, for example, but the US has serious reservations about using Iranian-backed Shiʿa militias in the process, since those forces alienate Sunni Arabs and exacerbate the underlying problem that Iraq is facing. Washington wants Baghdad to treat its Sunni Arab citizens better to forestall future unrest that can be exploited by ISIS or some similar group. Tehran has been just fine with Iraqi governments, specifically Nouri al-Maliki’s, disenfranchising those Sunni Arabs. For Washington and Iran to try to work together in Iraq without being in agreement themselves could actually be worse for the relationship right now than not working together.

In Syria, though again both countries want ISIS gone, there’s a complete disagreement on Bashar al-Assad’s future. The US wants Assad gone, even though it’s been reluctant to do anything to help bring that about for fear that taking such action would help ISIS. Assad is slaughtering his own people, he’s explicitly focused on weakening non-ISIS rebel groups because he wants to get to the point where the world has to choose between him and ISIS, and his continued presence makes it almost impossible for the US to rally any rebel forces against ISIS, as they all (justifiably) see Assad as their number one enemy. Iran has hedged a little in the amount of support it’s offered to Assad, but it has remained pretty unwavering that he should remain in power at least while the country is transitioning. This is a fundamental gap that isn’t going to be bridged without serious and frank discussions, and again, the US and Iran aren’t ready for that yet. Their engagement needs to start smaller, on something less contentious.

On the other hand, these situations in Syria and Iraq are imminent crises (and I mean imminent as in “people are dying every day over this stuff”) that could be more effectively addressed if the US and Iran can come to some understandings about Baghdad’s approach to its Sunni population and (especially) about transitioning Assad into an undeserved but still welcome cushy retirement somewhere. So limiting bilateral contact for the time being to things like scientific and cultural exchanges (which are great and should absolutely be a key part of building up this relationship) means that things won’t be developing fast enough to help people in those countries who desperately need relief. Working with Iran on something more substantial than low-level exchanges would help develop the relationship faster, but only if it was something that won’t guaranteed dispute.

What about stabilizing Afghanistan? That’s a pretty big issue, and it’s one where the US and Iran are pretty clearly pulling on the same side of the rope, since both countries have good relations with Kabul and would like to see Ashraf Ghani’s government finally put down the continuing Taliban resistance. Both would also like to see Ghani do something to get his country’s opium trade under control. There’s some history to build on here, since after 9/11 Iran was briefly part of the coalition effort to overthrow the Taliban and replace it with a democratic Afghan government (in fact, the US Institute of Peace describes it as the US joining an already existing anti-Taliban coalition). Even “Axis of Evil” didn’t end Iran’s interest in working with the US (though it didn’t help), so the Bush administration (deliberately or not) clearly missed a window of opportunity to improve the US-Iran relationship back then. Maybe Iranian hardliners would reject collaborating with the US in Afghanistan now, even though they didn’t back then, but for the sake of argument (and because this collaboration is still in Iran’s interests) let’s assume that Iran would participate in something like this.

Afghanistan clearly needs more help. Faryab Province, in the north, is in critical danger of falling to the Taliban (and/or, possibly, Islamist fighters from Uzbekistan), and Kabul seems unable to do anything about it. Iran has reportedly been meeting with Taliban representatives, not because Tehran suddenly loves the Taliban, but because they prefer it to ISIS, which is moving in to the region. The country is still being run by that bizarre (and unconstitutional) ad hoc government that was put together to ease the country out of the last presidential election. The country is supposed to have a parliamentary election this year, but thanks to serious disputes over the electoral system nobody seems to know when that might happen. Ghani has been such a smash success as president that many Afghans are looking back fondly at the wonderful governance of the Hamid W. Bush Karzai era. A big chunk of the country is effectively a narco-state, the rest is awash in corruption, and most Afghans continue to suffer with crippling poverty, food insecurity, and high mortality rates.

Ghani and his government, quite apart from whatever Iran is doing, are also talking with the Taliban — the two sides met in Pakistan earlier this month. The peace talks have been endorsed by none other than the reclusive Mullah Omar, who is the one figure with enough broad-based prestige among the various Taliban factions to maybe get them all to fall in line behind a serious peace effort. So this could be a crucial moment in ending Afghanistan’s civil war, but both the US and Iran would like to see that happen without the Taliban returning to power. That requires a concerted effort to help the Kabul government gain the upper hand on the Taliban on the battlefield as well as to push Ghani to get his government in order and to get to work improving the lives of his citizens. The US has stepped up airstrikes in Afghanistan lately, against both Taliban and ISIS positions, and likely sees this as a way to improve Ghani’s position in negotiations. But bringing Iran in alongside the US would further strengthen Ghani’s hand and make sure that the Iranians don’t take any actions that could undermine the US, Ghani, or both.

The US and Iran working together could bolster the Afghan army (through training, funding, equipment, etc.) and lean on Ghani to fix the country’s electoral and corruption problems. There’s no assurance that the US working with Iran could help Ghani right Afghanistan’s ship, but it seems undeniable that having Afghanistan’s two biggest allies working together on that project is better for Kabul than having them working independently. Given Iran’s historically considerable influence when it comes to Afghan affairs, it’s likely that US efforts to stabilize the country without working with Iran are inevitably going to fail. Afghanistan provides an opportunity for high-level US-Iran collaboration on an issue of tremendous regional importance, but where major disagreements between the two countries aren’t likely to crop up and threaten to upend recent improvements in that relationship. Plus, US-Iranian collaboration on Afghanistan (non-Arab, far away from Israel) is unlikely to arouse the same fears of a US “pivot to Iran” in Israel and the GCC countries as similar collaboration over Syria and Iraq would. As collaborating over Afghanistan improves the US-Iran relationship overall, then the more challenging work on Iraq and Syria can be attempted.

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