When US President Barack Obama visited Havana earlier this year to mark renewed relations with Cuba, one couldn’t help but wonder if he wished he was in Tehran instead. While Obama clearly puts last year’s Iran nuclear deal at the center of his foreign policy legacy, Iran has so far proved unwilling to cooperate openly beyond the nuclear sphere, let alone invite the US president to its capital. Now, as Obama finishes his final year in office, two veteran US diplomats, Ambassadors James Dobbins and Zalmay Khalilzad, have published a Washington Post op-ed laying out their proposals for sustaining the lines of communication Obama has cultivated with the Islamic Republic.

Dobbins and Khalilzad both led discussions with Iran over the post-Taliban government of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany in 2001. They hark back to the Bonn Agreement as an early precedent for successful US-Iran communication. Now, as Syria enters its fifth year of civil war, as ISIS threatens the region and the West, and as Iran sits on one side of a worsening Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, both diplomats argue that the US faces “a classic geopolitical dilemma”: how to cooperate with an adversary for the sake of its broader regional interests.

The dilemma, says Dobbins, who is now a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, bears some resemblance to the one the US faced in dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “There is one clear lesson,” Dobbins says, “and that is the importance of communication and better information about the intentions, the policies, the internal divisions, and the long-term trends in a state with which one is conducting a competition, and having occasional collisions, and with which one might have, and would like to avoid, a conflict.”

Recalling the Bonn conference, at which the US dealt not only with the administration of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, but also with members of Iran’s defense establishment, Dobbins points to lasting results. Even now, he says, US and Iranian policies in Afghanistan “remain largely convergent.”

 

Then and Now

Iran and the region have changed a great deal since 2001. In those days, Iran had a reformist president who sought not only pragmatic ties with the West, but a “dialogue of civilizations.” Despite internal repression and a brutal crackdown on student protesters by Iranian security forces in 1999, Iranian civil society was at its most active, and Iran’s political system showed potential for reform. In Afghanistan, the US military had made short work of Taliban forces, at least in the short term, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei feared US military prowess. Saudi Arabia, the United States’ main ally in the Persian Gulf, had little reason to fear Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions, since its leaders counted on the US to contain them.

Now, Iran is concerned mainly with boosting its economic prosperity and its national “brand” even as its human rights situation worsens at home. Its foreign service is increasingly subordinate to its military and security structures. It displays its military power in Iraq and Syria, while Saudi Arabia and other US allies look on resentfully, deploring diminished US military presence, and in some cases backing Sunni sectarian forces hostile to Shia-majority Iran. America’s extended diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program, meanwhile, has caused resentment among America’s Arab allies, who fear the US is going soft on its old enemy and hedging its regional bets in the process. Whereas Iran and the US once found a common interest in replacing the Taliban, the two countries are now on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict.

 

Competition and Cooperation

So, can the US reassure its regional allies even as it continues to seek cooperation with Iran? Dobbins advocates a policy of both competition and cooperation. On the competition front, he says, the US should maintain its long-standing regional posture, which includes arming its allies and deploying its military in the Persian Gulf. “The policies we describe have been in place more or less since 1979,” he says. “The United States has shown a degree of endurance and commitment in trying to sustain an equilibrium in the Middle East that keeps the peace.” While Iran may complain about the US presence in the region, he says, there is no reason to believe that diminishing that presence would cause Iran to drop its anti-American stance.

As regards cooperation, he says, US and Iranian objectives in Afghanistan will likely continue to converge, and US and Iranian objectives now unfold largely along “parallel lines” in Iraq, even in the absence of overt cooperation. There, he says, both countries share an interest in defeating ISIS, even if they perceive the threat differently.

For the US, ISIS is a security threat that can inspire terrorist attacks in allied countries or even in the US itself. For Iran, ISIS is a Sunni theocracy that rivals Iran’s own model of an Islamic state, even as it threatens Shia forces loyal to Iran in Iraq and Syria. As ISIS has seized territory in those countries it has fuelled bitter sectarian tensions that hurt Iran’s influence in the region.

But the sectarian problem is not limited to ISIS and Iran. It reflects a larger regional standoff between Iran and Sunni-majority Arab Gulf States, which are all traditional US allies. Saudi Arabia, along with some of its smaller neighbors, support Syrian opposition groups, many of which have their own Sunni sectarian character. “There is a geopolitical element to the sectarian conflicts and tensions in the region,” Dobbins says. “These sectarian groups have lived more or less peacefully with each other for a number of centuries, and the current level of hostility is in large measure a product of geopolitical maneuvering among the major states of the region.” While the US often faces “invidious choices” about how to wield its own influence in the region, he says, it should discourage sectarianism. “One ought seek to restrain not only Iran, but also America's partners in the region, and discourage their use of sectarian appeals.”

The US, Dobbins has written, should also keep in mind the aspirations of the Iranian people for greater freedom and contact with the wider world. While Iran has long portrayed US interest in human rights as a cynical tactic for gaining political leverage, and often points America’s unwillingness to criticize its allies, Dobbins says that is a mere talking point. “I don't think the Iranians doubt our credibility. I don't think they doubt that we would like to see the changes we are urging.” Dobbins doubts that criticizing America’s Middle East partners on human rights would make Iran treat its citizens better, but, he says, the US should do it anyway. “I think we ought to be more forthright in criticizing our partners not because it is good for Iran, but because it is ultimately good for our partners.”

 

Look Ahead, Far Ahead

The ultimate aim of continued diplomacy with Iran, Dobbins has written, should be to re-establish normal diplomatic relations with Iran, even if the prospect seems a long way off. “We make clear that we don't think this is a viable short term option,” he says. “On the other hand, you could have said the same thing about Fidel Castro, and yet, we have established formal diplomatic relations with Cuba. I wouldn't give up hope for an evolution over time, and an evolution in terms of the leadership on the Iranian side.” But for the time being, it seems that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sees enmity with America as part of the core identity of the Islamic Republic.

Could the Islamic Republic of Iran survive as an Islamic republic if it renewed ties with the US? “Sure, why not?” Dobbins says. “I agree that an element of the regime's legitimacy has been driven by the hostility of the US, but I don't think the regime would collapse simply because that particular element of its appeal is diminished or eliminated. Iran has a unique combination of democratic and Islamic government which has an appeal quite separate and independent of its vision of its relationship with the United States.”

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