Condemned to cooperate

Laurentina Cizza, a former Middle East Institute intern, writes:

Thursday’s event at the Stimson Center on “Iran and the World After the Nuclear Deal: Possible Scenarios” produced two main conclusions:  the US and Iran will inevitably reach a deal, and the war against ISIS represents an area of competition, and possible cooperation, between Tehran and Washington. Presenters were

  • Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Professor and Chair, Political Science, Syracuse University;
  • Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Geneive Abdo, Fellow, Middle East Program, the Stimson Center, moderated.

A poverty of options on the nuclear issue

According to Boroujerdi of Syracuse University, both the US and Iran face a “poverty of options” when it comes to the nuclear deal. They have little choice but to continue talking. A nuclear deal is inevitable.

Despite coming to power on a wave of popular support, Iranian President Rouhani has struggled to push meaningful reforms past conservative elements of the establishment that have obstructed or criticized his policies. His honeymoon is effectively over. As a result, he has focused the momentum from his electoral victory on ending the nuclear deadlock and reviving the Iranian economy. A foreign policy victory in the form of a nuclear deal would strengthen Rouhani domestically, giving him greater political capital to negotiate with rival conservative elements on other hotly contested issues.

Western observers should view the nuclear negotiations within the context of vicious factional domestic Iranian politics. Rouhani cannot overhaul Iranian foreign policy by signing an unpopular nuclear deal. But failure to sign a nuclear deal would: a) waste the best opportunity for progress on the nuclear issue in at least a decade, and b) paralyze the Rouhani administration along a conservative-reformist divide. Boroujerdi argued that given the political costs of failure Iran and the US will eventually reach a resolution—even if not necessarily by the November 24 deadline.

The Obama administration’s dearth of foreign policy success heightens the need to reach a resolution to the Iran nuclear issue. Despite the administration’s claims that “all options are on the table,” Boroujerdi argues that the administration would never risk giving the Middle East another failed state by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The race against ISIS

Irrespective of the outcome of the current nuclear talks, ISIS provides a palatable second option for agreement between the US and Iran. The two powers are likely to pursue their mutual goals on separate tracks while competing for regional recognition of their efforts.

Boroujerdi argued that since the ISIS capture of Mosul in July, Iran has demonstrated remarkable flexibility and pragmatism. The Iranians blessed Iraq Prime Minister Maliki’s removal, refrained from criticizing the US-led air campaign against ISIS, and began supplying weapons to the Lebanese army—not just Hezbollah. Boroujerdi suggests this new pragmatism extends to Syria as well: the Iranians would be willing to throw Assad under the bus so long as their greater strategic interests could survive without him. In Iraq, Maliki’s departure did not weaken Iran’s unfaltering influence in the country, which is concentrated in Karbala.

In the fight against ISIS, Iran has taken care to jump ahead and take credit for being the first to act. When the militants overran Mosul, Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa provided the Iraqi army with the boost of morale and reserves necessary to face ISIS. The US stood idle on the sidelines. When the US finally announced its intention to arm the Kurds, pictures emerged of Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleymani training Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Kadhim argued that members’ conflicting priorities will doom the US-led coalition to failure. Although the US wants to tackle ISIS first and Assad second, coalition members such as Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia would rather see events occur in the reverse order. Kadhim likened inviting Saudi Arabia to join an anti-terror coalition to inviting Al Capone to a coalition against organized crime. The presence of pro-ISIS members, he argued, is bound to doom the coalition. Boroujerdi echoed this concern:  the US strategy of fighting ISIS and Assad simultaneously is “unrealistic.” The US—he suggested—could learn a thing or two from Iranian pragmatism.

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