'If your ally is working with your enemy, it doesn’t make them friends'

Washington and Tehran are likely to continue to have conflicting interests in Syria and Lebanon.

March 14, 2015 11:15
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman

US President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the start of a bilateral meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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There is significant concern across the Middle East that if Washington and Tehran reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, it would mark the beginning of a US pivot to Persia and away from its traditional regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Such concerns are unrealistic and overblown, however. Washington and Tehran are likely to continue to have conflicting interests in Syria, where Iran supports the government of President Bashar Assad, and in Lebanon, where it backs Hezbollah.

In Iraq, Washington and Tehran have a common enemy in Islamic State militants. But while the United States supports an inclusive government of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, the Iranian approach doubles down on the conflict’s sectarian nature and supports Shi’ite militias.

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Domestic politics in both Iran and the United States will also limit their cooperation. Many members of Congress are deeply concerned about establishing closer ties with Iran, as Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) open letter to Iran’s leaders revealed. The Iranian regime, meanwhile, continues using anti-Americanism as a central tenet of its political strategy.

Even as the revelations of two secret letters between President Barack Obama and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stoke fears among Washington’s Gulf partners, the real indicator of future US commitments to the region was the delegation that Obama led to the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The group included numerous cabinet officials, members of Congress from both parties and a cast of foreign-policy heavyweights from previous administrations.

Yet the anxiety and confusion from some of Washington’s key regional partners is not just unfounded paranoia. It is the result of a muddled US foreign policy that has rightfully focused first on the nuclear question but has wrongly ignored Iran’s dangerous activities in other Middle East arenas.

If there is a nuclear agreement with Iran, Washington should clarify its regional policy and pursue a three-pronged policy that: 1) seeks additional areas of cooperation with Iran to improve bilateral relations; 2) pushes back forcefully in areas where Iran’s destabilizing influence has harmed US interests in the region, and 3) lays out a long-term and well-resourced commitment to Washington’s key regional partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel.  

First, the United States must use any areas of common interest with Iran to help bolster confidence and expand communication. After 35 years of enmity, the nuclear talks have finally opened a direct channel between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.  

This high-level channel could become a key component of US strategy throughout the Middle East and expanded to end the no-contact policy that bars US officials from speaking freely with their Iranian counterparts. The United States and Iran should build on other areas of common interest, among them Afghanistan, where the two nations have historically worked together, and maritime security in key Gulf shipping lanes.

Even as the United States cooperates with Iran in some areas, Washington must make clear to Tehran that though it might gain significant sanctions relief through a nuclear deal, it would not be fully welcome in the community of nations or receive relief from terrorism-related sanctions until Tehran backs off support for subversive activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

The United States must also consider increasing interdictions of Iranian weapons shipments to these countries and pursuing more covert actions against Iranian-supported terrorism. In addition, it should name, shame and financially penalize Iranian operatives who carry out dangerously destabilizing policies in the Middle East.   

The United States will have to signal to key regional partners that it is committed to their security and will continue to work with them on their top priorities. This means coordinating with Saudi Arabia, Israel and other important allies to develop and execute a comprehensive strategy for pushing back on destabilizing Iranian influence in the region. It also means increasing intelligence cooperation.

In the aftermath of a successful nuclear deal, US relations with Iran should shift from that of an adversary to that of a competitor. They must feature a dialogue on areas of common interest. But Washington must also push back where it disagrees and compete.

Through word and deed, Washington must continue demonstrating to longtime key partners that the United States remains committed to their security.

Ilan Goldenberg directs the Middle East Security Program and Elizabeth Rosenberg directs the Energy, Economics and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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