A big dispute is roiling DC: Is Iran the answer to America’s problems in the Middle East? Can we turn to Iran for help with ISIS and will the joint interest in defeating the radical group lead to a broader US-Iran rapprochement and help get the nuclear deal?Sadly, the answer to these questions is no. As Eric Edelman, Dennis Ross and Ray Takeyh persuasively argued in the Washington Post, collaboration with Iran will undermine U.S. alliances and reduce, not enhance, our effectiveness against ISIS. Worse, if we turn to Iran on ISIS, it will expect a reward in the form of a better deal on the nuke issue.Here’s a Reuters article pointing out this very dynamic at play:
“Iran is a very influential country in the region and can help in the fight against the ISIL (IS) terrorists … but it is a two-way street. You give something, you take something,” said a senior Iranian official on condition of anonymity.
“ISIL is a threat to world security, not our (nuclear) program, which is a peaceful program,” the official added.
The core American miscalculation is that Iran feels the rise of ISIS as the same kind of major threat that we do, and that the presence of this new threat will increase the attraction of a good relationship with the U.S. Beyond that, there seems to be a sense among White House policymakers that Iran’s mullahs and hardcore revolutionaries are so beaten down by sanctions and feel so much pressure to liberalize from Iranian civil society that, if US hostility is removed, a major turn toward moderation is going to change the way Iran looks at foreign policy.The problem with this is that the progressive erosion of America’s position in the Middle East, combined with the evidence from Ukraine and elsewhere that the U.S. under this administration is a power in retreat, has almost certainly boosted the morale of the hard liners in Iran and made them feel that the world is going their way. They probably don’t see the rise of ISIS as an existential threat; they see it as one more sign of the political disintegration of the Sunni Arab world, now split into three bitterly hostile camps—the Saudi/Egypt/UAE axis, the Muslim Brotherhood/Qatar/Gaza axis with Turkish backing, and the pool of crazies like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. With the U.S. in retreat and the Sunni splits deepening, Iran’s hard core revolutionaries have every reason to feel emboldened and no reasons to make serious concessions to the U.S.We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks as the nuclear negotiations move toward the next stage, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that a historic opportunity has been lost. A deal with Iran might well have been within reach, one in which Iran accepted sensible limits on both its regional ambitions and its nuclear program—if the Obama administration had been willing to take a stronger position in the region. By maintaining its military presence (in a non-combat role) in Iraq and engaging to prevent Maliki from alienating the Sunnis on the one hand, and by doing in Syria what it did in Libya (with more attention to the aftermath), the administration could have had a serious conversation with Iran in which the Supreme Leader would have strong motives to accept, however reluctantly, the kind of historical compromise that could get U.S.-Iran relations to a better place.Unfortunately, the Obama Administration made different choices. It wanted to get out of Iraq, it wanted to minimize its engagement with Syria, and it thought that a reduced American regional profile would be the way to induce the Iranians to rethink their approach to the U.S. Currently the White House and the rest of us must live with the consequences: President Obama has dusted off President Bush’s war authorization to engage once again in military actions in Iraq, we are closer to a wider war in Syria under less favorable conditions than would have been the case had we acted earlier, and Iranian hardliners think they are on a roll. Meanwhile, our relationships with our historic regional allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt) are all at new lows, without a new relationship with Iran to balance the losses. This is not what successful foreign policy looks like.The White House seems committed to its strategy—or at least cannot find an acceptable alternative to it. This is excellent news for Tehran; Washington’s current approach to the region produces nothing but failure and crisis. The best advice anyone could give to Iran today is steady as you go: keep President Obama exactly where he is, taking bigger risks and paying higher costs for a nuclear deal that remains tantalizingly just out of reach.The game can’t go on forever, but why not enjoy it while it lasts?