US AND IRAN
Last week’s rapid advance towards Baghdad by the movement for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has opened up the prospect of regional political cooperation between seemingly eternal enemies, Iran and the United States. In politics, domestic or international, classical texts across civilisations caution against the idea that any two entities can be enemies for ever. In the Mahabharata, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that a king has no enemies or friends and it is circumstances that produce rivalry and alliances. More recently, in the 19th century, it was a prime minister of Great Britain, Lord Palmerston, who famously said nations have neither permanent enemies nor permanent friends; they only have permanent interests.
Saving the state in Iraq is now a shared interest between Washington and Tehran, despite the unremitting hostility between them since 1979, when a revolution ousted the monarchy backed by America and founded the Islamic Republic of Iran.
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When the Iraqi army divisions in Mosul simply fled in the face of an attack by a much smaller force of the ISIS, there was new pressure on Washington and Tehran to work together. As Baghdad called for external military assistance to prevent the Sunni militant group from capturing the capital, Washington and Tehran suggested their readiness to coordinate their efforts. The nuclear talks this week in Vienna between the major powers and Iran, scheduled earlier, provided an opportunity for senior officials from Washington and Tehran to discuss the situation in Iraq on the sidelines.
Given the prolonged mutual hostility, neither Washington nor Tehran want to raise the expectations from the incipient dialogue on Iraq. Both sides are conscious of the multiple missed opportunities in the past for regional security cooperation.
After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and the US intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, there was a brief window of opportunity for regional cooperation between the US and Iran. Tehran was pleased to see the ouster of the Sunni extremist Taliban that meted out harsh treatment to the Shia and Persian-speaking minorities in Afghanistan.
The prospects for US-Iran collaboration in Afghanistan vanished as the Bush administration declared in 2002 that Iran was part of a global “axis of evil”. For many ideologues in Iran, the US, as “the great Satan”, was a bigger threat than the Taliban.
Iran was also delighted to see the US invasion of Iraq destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein, with whom the Islamic Republic had fought a very costly war through the 1980s. Yet, Washington was reluctant to work with Iran, focused as it was on stabilising Iraq on its own.
US policy towards Iran was also very narrowly focused on the nuclear question. The foreign policy establishment in Washington was reluctant to accept Iran as a rising power and embed the nuclear issue in the broader quest for a regional balance in the Middle East. Washington was also acutely conscious of the fact that its most important allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are deeply opposed to any normalisation of relations between America and Iran. On the domestic front, too, there was intense ideological opposition in both countries towards any rapprochement with the other thanks to decades of mutual demonisation.
If caution marks the incipient US-Iran dialogue on Iraq, the rapidly changing military dynamic on the ground does not offer the luxury of a leisurely negotiation. For, neither the US nor Iran can accept an ISIS victory in Iraq.
For the US, the fall of Baghdad would help the consolidation of an extremely dangerous terrorist organisation that even al-Qaeda thought was too brutal. The fall of Baghdad would also mean the tragic waste of American blood and treasure that went into the making of a new Iraq. For Iran, an ISIS triumph will put an end to the Shia-dominated political order in Iraq.
The history of international relations tells us that an objective convergence of interests does not necessarily mean governments will get over their subjective prejudices. Despite the shared threat in Iraq, Washington and Tehran could yet fail to agree on the terms of cooperation. One thing though is quite clear. Whether the US and Iran succeed or fail to collaborate in Iraq, the Middle East is unlikely remain the same for too long.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’