Iran-US Regional Relations Subsequent to Nuclear Agreement

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Masoud Rezaei
Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

The success of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna was a historical event. This development has brought about a peaceful atmosphere in decisions made by Iran and the West and has reduced the possibility of further conflict between the two sides. In fact, negotiations that were carried out during the past two years have proved the value of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, and through Iran's return to the international community, they also bolster certain principles, which we hope would be taken seriously in the world. At the present time, unrest in the Middle East has reached its boiling point after a few decades due to the emergence of various terrorist groups; Iraq and Syria are on the verge of disintegration and full collapse; Yemen is facing a humanitarian crisis due to the military aggression by Saudi Arabia; Egypt has once again turned into a military government; and the possibility of the independence of Kurds is greater than any time before. Under these conditions, proving the possibility of cooperation between a regional country and the international community and putting an end to a 13-year-old crisis in accordance with such international treaties as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, will send valuable messages to the entire world.

At present, the issue of Iran's relations with the United States and improvement in grave conditions that exist in the Middle East are being scrutinized by many journalistic and political circles in the world. Therefore, many analysts are optimistic enough to assume that this important development has taken Iran-US relations from a general stage of confrontation toward a new stage of interaction. Therefore, hope is being expressed that following the improvement of Iran's relations with the United States, the Middle East will also change as a result of these developments. During the past two years and following the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's administration, it seems that under ideal conditions, the main goal pursued by the president and foreign minister of the United States is complete détente with Iran and Barack Obama is willing to mend fences with Tehran before his presidential tenure comes to an end in 2016.

Some people believe that at the present time and following the conclusion of the nuclear agreement, Tehran and Washington can reach another agreement on a security framework for the Middle East, which would be similar to Helsinki Accords (that were signed between the United States and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1970s), and pave the way for bilateral cooperation. Some analysts also consider the European concert of powers, which came about following the fall of Napoleon, as a more suitable model for the reestablishment of Iran's relations with the United States. In the case of Europe, when faced with the revolutionary power of France, big conservative European powers reached a consensus on how to fight off the revolutionary nationalism. Those politicians, who believe in European concert is a good model for détente between Iran and the United States, compare the violent conditions of Europe in the 19th century with the emergence of terrorist groups in the present-day Middle East. The question is will the United States and Iran be able to achieve a consensus to put aside their differences and adopt an overarching approach against Sunni radicals? It does not seem that the existing considerations related to balance of regional power would allow this to happen. The European concert of powers brought big European powers together because they considered the threat emanating from revolutionary nationalism against their security to be bigger than the threat posed by every one of those countries to the others. However, when the big powers reached the conclusion that this idea was wrong, the aforesaid concert fell apart rapidly. Therefore, those analysts who have pinned their hope on strategic cooperation between Iran and the United States following the Vienna agreement should think twice and review their theory.

Another older theory about the resumption of relations between Iran and the United States is that radical elements in both countries are the main obstacle on the way of the improvement of bilateral relations between the two countries. They refer to the course of the resumption of ties between the United States and China in the 1970s as an example for reconciliation between two hostile countries. During the Cold War period, former US President Richard Nixon managed to improve the United States’ relations with the communist China because both countries were faced with a common threat, that is, the former Soviet Union. However, that situation does not exist in the Middle East. On the contrary, this is a region where conflicting and incompatible goals and variables have led to rivalry between Iran and the United States. Therefore, even the emergence of the ISIS cannot change this reality. For example, the final defeat of the Nazi Germany and its ally, Japan, actually led to the collapse of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and considerations related to the balance of powers, once again came into focus. In fact, a change in the quality of relations only takes place when such a change is encouraged by the balance of powers. Therefore, to the contrary of the traditional idea, the biggest obstacle to any form of reconciliation between the two countries (Iran and the United States) is the balance of power in the Middle East, not the existence of radical forces.

Now, if the United States is actually thinking about real détente, this is a major change in behavior and will indicate that Obama has given up the policy of Iran containment as a fundamental principle of the United States policy in the Middle East. Iran also welcomes such a change with goodwill. However, one of the requisites for détente is for Obama to demote all those allies, which consider the emergence of a powerful Iran as a basic threat to their national security. The simple reality is that any effort made to increase cooperation between the United States and Iran in the Middle East will inevitably lead to a change in the regional power balance. Therefore, regardless of domestic opposition in the United States from Republican and neocons, Israel and Saudi Arabia will also remain committed to challenging Obama’s policy and will continue to struggle against Iran and its supporters. For this reason, too much insistence on Nixon’s model in the case of China will not change anything in relations between Iran and the United States.

On the other hand, as Leader of Iran Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said clearly in his recent sermons, which marked the Eid al-Fitr, “… Goals and approaches followed by Iran and the United States in the (Middle East) region are 180 degrees different and policies of the two countries are the opposite point of each other.” Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that there is a strategic thinking in Iran based on which Tehran is by no means willing to be openly known as a Washington ally in the region. In fact, Iran's opposition to the United States in the region has not only determined the identity of Iran's foreign policy, but has greatly helped promote Iran's regional goals and has boosted its popularity across the Muslim world. This is a positive point, which Iran is not willing to easily lose.

In addition, the United States always needs a foreign threat. From the viewpoint of Washington, for Europe and Eurasia, this threat should be Russia. However, in East Asia, the threat is China, and in the Middle East, the United States needs the imaginary threat of Iran. The important point, however, is Iran's ability to say “no” to the political doctrine that American politicians have been trying to formulate. According to that doctrine, nobody should say “no” to the United States. On the other hand, the United States needs a permanent foreign threat to use as an excuse to sell its military equipment, maintain the global hegemony, and keep its domination over strategic resources of the world. As a result, as long as Iran is introduced as a threat and is also able to say “no” to the United States, developments such as the nuclear agreement will not be very effective and efficient in influencing relations between the two countries and the situation in the Middle East. Basically, the foreign policy of the United States and some European countries, which are considered to be among the most liberal countries, is founded on the basis of this important principle: “Anything that is good for us, is certainly just as well.” Those people, who do not believe in this principle, should leave the arena of foreign policy before they are brought down.

Finally, accepting the reality that Iran and the United States have common interests in the long term and theoretically speaking, unofficial cooperation between the two countries is not unlikely and necessary logic for such cooperation exists as of now. However, conditions in the region and elsewhere can easily lead to a situation in which all hopes for détente could be lost.

Key Words: Iran, US, Regional Relations, Nuclear Agreement, Middle East, Cooperation, Obstacles, Improvement, Détente, Rezaei

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