If there’s a single theme that has dominated American discussions about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, it is damage control. How much can we constrain Iran’s “breakout capacity”—its ability to build a bomb should it renounce a deal down the road? How low a ceiling can we place on the number of centrifuges Iran can have? More broadly, how can we keep Iran from rejoining the world too soon and engaging in normal commerce and collaboration?
Indeed, in some circles, the prospect of a less ostracized Iran is considered a major downside of any nuclear deal—at best a regrettable necessity, at worst reason not to do a deal at all. According to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a deal will just allow Iran to “continue its worldwide terror activities, while it is no longer internationally isolated and its economy has been strengthened.”
These discussions might be moot, of course. With talks fast approaching a July 20 deadline, “very real gaps” remain between the two sides, says Secretary of State John Kerry, despite a reported new offer by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Failure would be very costly, however, and not just because of the nuclear issue. If the two sides come to agreement and Iran is helped out of isolation, its unshackling could be immensely beneficial to America and the West. A more engaged Iran will be less likely to support terrorism and more likely to collaborate with the United States in ways that will serve American interests and the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East.
The current security crisis in Iraq has underscored anew how quickly American and Iranian interests can converge, and in how many ways. The immediate shared goal is to beat back the threat posed by the violent group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known simply as the Islamic State. More broadly, Iran’s interests in Iraq are to prevent the emergence of a hostile and aggressive regime like the one that in 1980 started the extremely costly Iran-Iraq War, as well as to avoid severe instability in the country on Iran’s western border. So naturally Iran will work to shore up the Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad against pressure from Sunni extremists such as ISIL. Iranian policymakers probably are smart enough to realize, however, that blind and unconditional support for the increasingly authoritarian habits of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would be a prescription for endless unrest. So here, too, Iran and the United States mostly see eye to eye. Completion of a nuclear agreement would open the door to a dialogue on this subject more extensive than the tentative and limited one that has taken place so far.
As with the areas west and east of Iran, so too with the area to the south: Iran is one of the most important players in the Persian Gulf region. Especially important is dialogue between Iran and the United States, because incidents at sea and other possible misunderstandings between those two countries would pose the greatest risk of escalation into a crisis. More broadly, Iran, the United States and the Arab states share an interest in preventing interruption of the oil trade by either terrorism or interstate clashes. Coordination among them could make the Gulf markedly less volatile. Iran is also, like it or not, a significant player in the Syrian civil war. Although Iran is thought of primarily as an ally of President Bashar al-Assad, this relationship has been a marriage of convenience, born of common opposition to the now-deposed Baathist regime in Iraq. Iran has no interest in unending civil war, which is already a serious drain on its resources and those of its Lebanese Hezbollah ally. The Iranians probably would be open to new political arrangements in Syria, and they could help bring them about if given a seat at the diplomatic table, which so far they’ve been denied.
Iran’s interests in the country on its eastern border, Afghanistan, also align with those of the United States. Like Washington, Shiite Iran wants a stable Afghanistan in which the majority Sunni Pashtuns do not lord over other ethnic and sectarian groups. Tehran would like to see the Afghan narcotics trade brought under control, in view of the serious addiction problem among Iranians. We’ve already seen evidence that the United States and Iran can cooperate to pursue common interests in Afghanistan. After the American intervention there in late 2001, Iranian diplomats—especially Zarif, the current foreign minister—were critical to the establishment of a post-Taliban government. This could have led to collaboration on other problems in the region; Iran’s president at the time, the moderate Mohammad Khatami, undoubtedly hoped it would. Unfortunately, George W. Bush declared Iran to be part of an “Axis of Evil” and ended the cooperation.
The current U.S. administration thinks differently, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shares Khatami’s moderate sensibility. Rouhani wants Iran to be a normal player in international politics, free to compete for influence on the same terms, and with the same methods, as any other state. This quest for normalcy—a normalcy that would include not being subject to severe economic sanctions—has been the overriding theme of the policies of Rouhani and Zarif ever since they came into office last year. It is why they have staked so much of their political capital on getting a nuclear agreement completed and shedding the pariah status that the nuclear issue has imposed on Iran.
The habitual branding of Iran as a “revolutionary state” is a serious misreading of the policies and objectives of Iranian policy-makers today. Although some political actors (such as the government of Bahrain, under pressure from a politically subjugated Shia majority) have an interest in arguing that Iran is currently trying to subvert governments, evidence for such activity is lacking. Other pejoratives applied to Iran—a “rogue state” or a state driven by religious zeal—are also off target. It’s important to understand why, because these are the kinds of labels that give opponents of a nuclear deal grounds for arguing against rapprochement with the West.
These hardliners often recite a list of Iranian transgressions that are notable for two things.
First, Iran’s most dramatic and lethal offenses tend to have happened quite a while ago—mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. Second, Iran’s transgressions, including more recent ones, are most plausibly explained not as religious zeal run amok, or otherwise irrational misbehavior, but as Iran pursuing its national interest, especially in response to pressures or outright attacks by other states. The Khobar Towers bombing of 1996, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen, was a direct response to a nearby U.S. military deployment that Iran deemed threatening. Ongoing support for Hezbollah has mostly to do with winning influence with Lebanese Shia. Supporting Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza means being seen as supporting Palestinian self-determination—part of Iran’s bid for popular support in surrounding Arab states, which it sees as a geopolitical asset. Even the most appalling terrorist attacks that Iran is suspected of supporting seem to have had a specific tactical aim. The 2012 bombing of a Bulgarian tour bus, which killed five Israelis, and other attempts on Israeli targets came after a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists that are widely thought to have been orchestrated by Israel.
Obviously, murdering people on a tour bus is bad (as is assassinating scientists). But the point is that for Iran these kinds of attacks have been calculated tools of asymmetrical warfare, not expressions of religious fervor or aimless renegade spirit. An Iran free to use the full complement of instruments, including unhindered diplomacy and commerce, that are available to any normal state competing for influence would be an Iran with less reason to resort to violence and terrorism. Indeed, the completion of a nuclear agreement would give Iran’s leaders a larger stake in a peaceful and stable status quo, and more to lose through bad behavior. They would be acutely conscious of foes eagerly looking for excuses to throw Iran back into isolation. Any sense that Iran had abused the goodwill of the international community in negotiating a sanctions-relieving agreement would elicit a harsh response from that community—most importantly and most assuredly (given congressional politics) from the United States.
So the stars would seem to be aligned: There is a real chance for Iran to pursue a new, more constructive path at precisely the time when it has an administration inclined to pursue such a path. However, there’s a complication: Rouhani and Zarif don’t have complete freedom.
Tehran suffers from real politics, and important forces in the Iranian regime don’t see things the way Rouhani and Zarif do. Hardline elements in the Revolutionary Guards, for example, have less confidence in the West’s willingness to let Iran become a normal state and less desire to behave like one. Some see their political position depending on continued international hostility, especially from the United States, toward Iran. Some in the Revolutionary Guards may be benefiting from sanctions by exploiting their control over segments of the Iranian economy. These hardliners can’t pull rank on Rouhani, but in Iran’s pluralistic power structure they do have influence.
Sitting atop Iranian politics—and ultimately adjudicating between Rouhani and the hardliners—is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei has invested much rhetorical energy in demonizing the United States. Indeed, some would say that the perceived legitimacy of his power depends partly on his ongoing depiction of America as the Great Satan—a fact that would seem to militate against his favoring rapprochement. He is not without supporting evidence for this dire view of America. Recently, for example, the United States, along with Israel, was widely believed to have staged a cyberattack that in Tehran no doubt seemed tantamount to an act of war; it actually disabled centrifuges, much as a kinetic attack would have. Khamenei probably believes that the principal objective of U.S. policy toward Iran is still regime change. And he no doubt shares the skepticism of Iranian hardliners that the United States would ever permit the Islamic Republic of Iran to have the privileges accorded a normal state.
Still, he has been willing to see what diplomacy might yield; Rouhani and Zarif would never have gone as far as they have in the nuclear negotiations without getting a nod from the supreme leader. Khamenei seems to have positioned himself to run with whatever outcome the negotiations produce. He has expressed enough pessimism that if the talks fail he will be able to say, “I told you so.” But if they succeed and the sanctions on Iran end, he will be able to claim part of the credit.
As with politics in all countries, who gains or loses influence in Iran depends greatly on whose policies succeed or fail. Given the prominence of the nuclear negotiations and how much Rouhani has committed to them, whether the negotiations succeed or fail will be by far the most important determinant of how much influence he has on Iranian policies over the next few years. If he achieves the breakthrough of obtaining significant sanctions relief—with all the economic improvement that would entail—while retaining a peaceful nuclear program, his political stock would rise considerably, as would his ability to face down hardliners. In the end, Khamenei would probably not be an impediment to the broader change in Iran’s relations with the region and the world that could follow a nuclear agreement.
Most of the impediments to rapprochement lie outside Iran. One of the milder ones is represented by Saudi Arabia, whose views of Iran are colored heavily by historical enmity between Sunnis and Shiites and between Arabs and Persians. The Saudis’ vocal reservations about improved Western relations with Iran also reflect their perpetual nervousness about the state of their own relations with Washington and fear that U.S. rapprochement with Iran might dilute America’s dependence on Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have a history of their own rapprochements with Iran, however, based on shared interests in avoiding war in the Persian Gulf and keeping the oil trade secure. If U.S. relations with Iran improve, the Saudis will almost certainly go with the flow. They have recently hinted as much by inviting Zarif to visit. The other Gulf Arab states are ahead of the Saudis in warming their own relations with Tehran.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to rapprochement is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made vehement hostility toward Iran a centerpiece of his policies. The hostility, and his associated efforts to prevent a warming of relations between the West and Tehran, serve several purposes: constraining a competitor for regional influence, denying the United States a possible alternative to rigid alignment with Israel and distracting international attention from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
Many influential Israelis recognize that a nuclear agreement with Iran would serve Israel’s interests by precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. Still, if there is a deal, Netanyahu’s government might well try to impede its implementation. Israel might use its still formidable influence with the U.S. Congress, for example, to prevent the removal of nuclear-related sanctions and even to impose new sanctions supposedly unrelated to the nuclear issue. And if he’s unsuccessful in thus derailing a deal, Netanyahu would likely try to forestall any broader rapprochement. Here, he could get a kind of assist from what would likely be continued tension between Israel and Iran.
Still, Tehran’s material support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah could be tempered somewhat by awareness of how such support would complicate Iran’s reintegration into the international community. And improved Iranian relations with Arab countries might move Iran toward full alignment with the Arab League position of offering full recognition of, and peace with, Israel if the Palestinian issue is resolved. (Zarif has already hinted as much.) In any event, the United States’ recurring attempts to bring peace between Israel and its various Palestinian antagonists will presumably be easier if the United States is on speaking terms with one of their main sponsors.
Some consequences of more normal, post-nuclear-deal relations with Iran would be felt beyond the Middle East. Full resumption of Iranian oil exports would, for example, serve the Western interest of lowering the cost of oil and also of weakening the influence that Vladimir Putin’s Russia gets from its oil revenues. And the end of major sanctions would end the economic dislocations that sanctions bring to countries that impose them, including lost jobs in American and European export industries.
Even with the rehabilitation that would come from a successful nuclear agreement, Iran will not suddenly become a Western ally. Being free to compete peacefully for influence as a normal state means being exactly that: a competitor. But this is a small price to pay for gaining some help—critical help—from an important country that sits smack in the middle of America’s biggest foreign-policy problems.
Paul Pillar is nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. From 2000 to 2005, as the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, he was in charge of the analysis of those regions for the CIA and all other American intelligence agencies. This article was published in collaboration with POLITICO Magazine.