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Rethinking Iran

The United States and Iran are now poised to finalize a historic nuclear accord. The impetus behind the agreement has always been one of necessity. The United States seeks to halt Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon, while Iran desperately seeks relief from international sanctions and the chance to reintegrate into the world economy. But necessity often breeds opportunity. The United States must use the opening of a potential nuclear agreement to abandon anachronistic assumptions about Iran, commence a franker assessment into Iran’s behavior in the region, and understand how engagement with Iran can mitigate mutually shared threats.

The gravest threat facing the U.S. today in the Middle East is one shared by Iran: the proliferation of Sunni jihadi groups. Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, recently remarked that this extremism was unprecedented and posed “the highest threat level we have ever faced in this country.”  Sunni jihadi groups, both within Iran’s own borders and in neighboring countries, are an ongoing threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and stability. Globally it’s Sunni jihadism that is responsible for televised decapitations, large scale attacks at tourist attractions, and commando style strikes on media outlets. Just like the United States, Iran is dedicated to quashing the global threat of Sunni jihadism.

A long history of confrontation, truculent rhetoric, and domestic political constraints have clouded the recognition over this shared threat. All too often well-trodden catchphrases and mis-readings of Iran’s behavior in the Middle East serve in place of informed analysis.

Skeptics of closer engagement with Iran cite its support of various “proxy” groups across the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen, as evidence cautioning against US-Iran cooperation.  In advancing the claim that the threat posed by Iran far exceeds its nuclear ambitions, these critics rely on tautological statements like Iran is fostering “havoc in neighboring countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.”

The extent of concern over Iran’s use of proxies in the Middle East runs deep. But it’s a relationship only cited in the most perfunctory manner: a mandatory box to be checked keeping afloat an ingrained narrative short on explanation. In his comments responding to the nuclear deal between Iran and P5 + 1, President Obama checked that box by noting Iran’s “use of proxiesto destabilize the region.” Other early analyses of the nuclear deal did so by referencing Iran’s “foreign adventures in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.”

Such assessments misconstrue Iranian behaviour in the Middle East. Iranian support for proxies varies according to context and includes a spectrum of involvement, ranging from funding and arms support to advising and training, primarily through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.  So too does Iran’s reasoning and calculus for offering support. For example, the support given to Iraqi militias, like Asai’b Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Shii affiliates operating in Syria, differs greatly from its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen. The former is an active policy to support political allies, while the latter is largely a reactive policy arising from Saudi Arabia’s recent aerial bombardment.

This is hardly havoc, nor a sense of foreign adventurism meant to sow instability; rather it’s part of a carefully constructed and conscious policy to further or even protect Iranian state interests in the region, which seeks to institute stable neighboring entities on its own terms with benefits to be reaped by Iran through future state centered relationships.

Analyses contingent upon equating Iran’s behavior with “havoc” would do well to examine the relationships between Gulf countries and armed Sunni groups.  Individual angel investors from the Gulf, oftentimes facing indifference from their countries, help fund ISIS. The Saudi Kingdom, too, finances Sunni rebels in Syria.  Both do so with little recognition of the long-term impacts of their actions. These funders have little to no control over the Sunni groups they sponsor, as a great number of them champion jihadist credos meant to subvert political systems, governing ideologies, and, at times, the territory itself of the very Gulf states that sponsor them. This makes “pull-back” of these groups extremely unlikely.  The only enduring connection to such groups will be living with the consequences they create.

This contrasts sharply with Iran’s relationship with affiliate groups, which are more deeply embedded in stratified hierarchies characterized by both secular bureaucratic coordination and a Shii socio-political order, demanding greater allegiance and obedience.  This allows for greater cooperation against mutually perceived threats by the US and Iran as well as the possibility for reigning in such groups as part of negotiated political solutions in places like Syria and Yemen.

A recent open letter signed by former presidential advisors, experts, and politicians questioning the Obama Administration’s drive toward securing a “good” nuclear agreement represents the latest example of misreading Iran’s relationship with proxies. The authors’ policy recommendation for dealing with Iran’s regional activity is to “separate” and “split” Iran from its various subsidiaries. But such a prescription fails to recognize how doing so would increase the number of groups unhinged from state control, allowing their behavior to be more tilted toward their own parochial interests and raising the likelihood of greater instability in the region. Promoting a policy that severs Iran’s relationship from the groups it supports without understanding the impacts of such an action is a mistake. This does not mean the United States should leave Iranian actions across the Middle East unchecked. Rather it’s a call to more meaningfully assess the longer-term implications of policy choices regarding Iran within the larger threat-matrix facing the US in the Middle East.

Analyses have considered prospective areas of engagement between the U.S. and Iran “the days after a deal.” These certainly help in outlining a path toward cooperation, particularly by focusing on low-hanging fruit like maritime security and anti-piracy initiatives. But they are also afflicted by the same blind spot as the letter signatories cited above: they fail to assess US-Iran engagement in the context of the most pressing shared threat actually facing each country.

The U.S. would not be the first to rethink how regional dynamics in the Middle East hold the potential to reshape relationships with erstwhile opponents. The revelation last month of secret talks between Dore Gold, likely the next director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Anwar Eshki, a prominent, retired major general in the armed forces of Saudi Arabia potentially represents a new era of policy coordination between two of the region’s most influential powers. Although the two nations have previously pursued Track II diplomacy and found common ground for coordination before, the impetus behind the most recent alliance is their displeasure with Iran’s nuclear program. Both countries believe that a U.S. negotiated accord would not meaningfully curtail Iran’s nuclear capabilities, leaving them acutely vulnerable. With the announcement of a nuclear deal their coordination is only likely to increase.

Israel and Saudi Arabia benefit from a closer relationship in other ways as well. Israel legitimates Saudi Arabia as a responsible state actor, especially in the wake of ongoing allegations that the Kingdom has supported terrorist groups. Most recently, unverified court testimony from Zacharias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker,” alleges Saudi involvement in supporting and funding Al-Qaeda.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that Saudi public relations is at a tipping point, with Wikileaks’ recent release of a cache of Saudi diplomatic cables and documents casting yet another spotlight on the country’s highly secretive policy deliberations.

For Israel a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia helps mitigate the increased isolation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government by the United States and the larger perception that his government is unwilling to more forward on the issue of Palestinian statehood.  The prospect of enduring diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia would certainly aid Israel’s long-standing policy of seeking normal relations with as many Arab countries as possible before reaching a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Israel and Saudi Arabia, two countries with no diplomatic ties, have thus quietly and meaningfully recalibrated their relationship because of growing mutual interests in the Middle East and the perceived domestic benefits to both nations.  The U.S. should follow their example and use the momentum behind a final nuclear accord to recalibrate its thinking about Iran.

Kevin Schwartz is a Visiting Scholar at Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. Arjun Singh Sethi is a writer and lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. 

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