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Why US needs Iran to handle ISIS and Syria

Ramin Jahanbegloo | Updated on: 11 September 2016, 15:34 IST

America's relationship with Iran is one of the most complex and yet unpredictable engagements in the history of contemporary diplomacy. Though there are no formal diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America since the hostage crisis of 1979, the two countries are the common denominators in so much geopolitics in the Middle East these days.

America and Iran are the ever-presents, a powerful pairing whose interests coincide more often than not. Iran is the most important regional power that seeks to play a crucial geopolitical role in West Asia and the Middle East. As for the United States, it has been trying to stop Iranian hegemony and create a balance of power in the region, while also engaging Iran diplomatically.

The challenge

At the same time, the United States takes the liberty to deploy its military to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf, while underlining its rights under the new nuclear agreement to deter Iran from restarting its covert nuclear program and making a weapon. However, analysts from across the political spectrum agree that despite its multiple engagements in order to compete against Iran in Iraq and Syria, the US has not been successful in crafting a strong and affirmative foreign policy toward Iran.

There are two reasons for this: on the one hand, hostile US policy towards Iran has failed to contain Iran's reliance on proxies like Hezbollah and its support for Shi'a minority populations across the Middle East. On the other hand, in the past thirty-seven years, different American administrations have not been successful in helping the domestic revival of reformism inside Iran.

Therefore, an isolated Iran has continued to pursue an adversarial policy with its neighbors and to practice authoritarian measures at home. Also, the American failure to import and impose its vision of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan created a sense in the large parts of the Muslim and Arab worlds that the United States had lost both the interest and the will to invest in the Middle East. Furthermore, the Obama administration lost its profile as a broker in Middle East diplomacy.

However, the prospect of Syria falling into Iran's direct or indirect sphere of influence was abhorrent to Washington. It's no secret that Assad regime's survival in part of Syria was made possible by the Iranian military and economic support, but what remains a matter of debate is the possible level of cooperation of Russia with Iran and the Shia axis on the defining issue of Middle East politics. Iran's decision to become the arbiter of the Syrian crisis next to Russia was prompted by the absence of the United States. Iran's commitment to Assad and his clan is determined by its will to maintain its primacy in the Syrian arena in order to prevent the Saudi and Sunni hegemony. Needless to say, the vigour of Iran's position will have a major impact on the prospect of this conflict, but also on the future of its relations with the United States of America.

Surprisingly, Iran's military role in Syria is not an immediate strategic threat to the US and its allies in the region. Less than a decade ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran would have been unable to seek a hegemonic role in the Middle East and the Muslim world. One of the unexpected by-products of the invasion of Iraq followed by the Syrian crisis was the light it shed on the stability and coherence of the Iranian state. These developments should, in principle, help improve Iran's relations with the United States. Certainly, dealing with Iran is not easy, but herein lies a challenge and an opportunity for Washington not to join an all Saudi campaign against Iran's regional ambitions.

Saudi ambitions

The Saudis resent Obama's "soft diplomacy" toward Iran, but they know well that the Vienna nuclear agreement was a major milestone for the geostrategic future of the Middle East. Let us not forget that the Iranian regime appears today in the eyes of the Americans and Europeans as a powerful state in the Persian Gulf and as a strong force in the Middle East for combating the Islamic State and for restoring stability to the broader Muslim world. Pragmatically speaking, if the chaos in the Middle East is to be calmed, the United States will have to work with Iran.

Iran is seen as a strong force for combating the Islamic State and restoring stability

Washington and Tehran are in opposite camps in the Syrian conflict, but they support the same governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, the reasons for engaging strategically with Iran are becoming increasingly urgent to American policymakers. Moreover, Iranian authorities have shown themselves to be interest-driven strategists.

But one question remains unanswered: would the future American presidency accept to put away the military threat in regard to Iran despite the Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia rivalries and accept to fully involve Iran in an all-out offensive against the Islamic State?

This question will certainly haunt the Americans and countries around the Middle East in the future. But it is difficult to see how peace can return to the Middle East without America coming to some understandings with Iran.

True, many believe that any failure in the future cooperation between the United States and Iran in solving the regional issues will be considered by the Israeli and Saudi governments as a great relief, but they forget to add that it will also signal more uncertainty and chaos for the Middle East.

The writer is an Iranian political philosopher and academic. He is usually based in Canada. Currently, he is Professor and Vice Dean and Executive Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies, Jindal Global Law School.

First published: 11 September 2016, 15:34 IST