by Ellie Geranmayeh
The violence in Iraq has provoked serious considerations by the West as to whether cooperation with Iran is worth testing to secure regional stability. In the last decade, both sides have avoided expanding their dialogue beyond the nuclear issue in fear of giving the other side leverage or poisoning the talks. The current search for ways to de-escalate the violence in Iraq comes at a critical juncture in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. While the terms for a final deal will not be impacted, Iran’s strategy in assisting Baghdad can add to or undermine the general confidence-building process in the talks. If Iran decides to be constructive, it gains points in the “trust bank” alongside the continued implementation of the interim “Joint Plan of Action” reached in Geneva last year. However, if Iranian actions inflame the Iraqi crisis or directly undermine Western interests, the ongoing process of détente could be seriously damaged.
In addition to the potentially constructive role Tehran could play in stabilizing conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, the West has also been influenced by the “Rouhani factor.” The foreign policy of Iran’s new president has triggered unprecedented improvements in Western relations with the Islamic Republic. For Europeans, the signing of the interim nuclear deal last November opened the doors for increased contact through ten foreign ministerial visits to Tehran. Last week’s announcement of the UK embassy re-opening was a clear signal that Iran and the UK need and intend to enhance their direct channels of dialogue. The frankness of the White House and some influential Republicans towards potential collaboration with Iran in securing Baghdad was also a welcome surprise. The culminations of these measures have been instrumental to trust-building with Iran after a cooling off period under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Even with this new positive tone, Iranian-Western strategic cooperation on Iraq remains farfetched. Tehran has fresh memories of how its intelligence sharing with the West in 2001 in Afghanistan was rewarded by the Bush administration with an “axis of evil” badge. Powerful factions within Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps also believe that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL or SIS) has reached its height of power and faces inevitable decline. This reduces the need to make concessions on Iraq that do not serve Iran’s core interests. Meanwhile, Western powers view the Iranian Quds Force as having systematically undermined their interests in the region and see Iranian interests in Iraq as running contrary to the Western drive for national cohesion.
What should be expected and encouraged at the moment is the emergence of a transactional relationship between the West and Iran on regional security. The ISIS quandary may provide the right platform for both sides to engage on such concerns sooner than originally thought possible, and perhaps before a comprehensive nuclear deal is reached. The West’s current strategy in the region is anything but a success, and testing the alternative route of dialogue with Iran may yield more concrete results. If security in Iraq and Afghanistan both unravel in the coming year, the Obama administration would face a true regional nightmare.
For Iran, taking a constructive role in stabilizing Iraq is an opportunity to demonstrate that when its interests overlap with the West, a zone of positive, mutual interaction is indeed possible. This cooperation involves the added bonus of laying foundational stones for further positive engagement. The two sides should at least explore areas where their regional policies can be more complementary, or at minimum not destructive to the interests of the other. This would have a positive impact for the nuclear talks by boosting the momentum required for achieving and implementing a final deal.
The recent Middle Eastern uprisings, rooted in domestic political grievances, have morphed into broader and now sectarian struggles in which the West lacks the ability to achieve its objectives and stability on its own. Going forward, Western powers require new and improved methods of implementing their policy agendas in the Middle East where the future power balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be vital to security. Working exclusively with one side of this fault line may not aid long-term Western interests — at times, the goals will be more closely aligned with Iran, and in other instances, will overlap better with Saudi Arabia and/or Israel. A more transactional relationship with Iran offers the West the option to balance opposing regional stakeholders and apply its leverage more effectively.
Western powers do not share Iranian ambitions, but given the Middle East’s dangerous regional trajectory, achieving some form of dialogue aimed at preventing a full regional implosion would be mutually beneficial. As demonstrated by the recent crisis in Iraq, there are instances of overlapping interests that make an alliance of convenience between Iran and the West an obvious choice. It is worth attempting — and in the end necessary — for the West to engage all sides when formulating sustainable solutions to the security threats, extremism and humanitarian crises overrunning this region.
The West has practiced a similar strategy in the past. For example, it accepted and at times encouraged cooperation between opposing March 8 and March 14 Alliance movements in Lebanon knowing full well that the alternative of civil war would further threaten its interests. This is not to suggest that the West or Iran will halt support towards traditional allies. Nor will Iran dramatically relinquish partnerships that safeguard Iranian interests. However, events in the coming months could create the political space necessary on both sides to selectively de-escalate shared hostility in pursuing some common regional goals. The recent crisis in Iraq could just be “exhibit A.”