Secretary of State John Kerry negotiates a deal with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif.

Secretary of State John Kerry negotiates a deal with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif. State Department photo

The Other Reason the Iranians Are Edging Toward a Nuclear Deal

The spread of ISIS has changed the equation, making Tehran's hawks more amenable to a deal with the west.

If the U.S. and Iran conclude a nuclear deal next week, the Islamic Republic stands to gain billions of dollars in eventual sanctions relief. But money isn’t the most important reason the Iranian leadership may be set to shake hands with its historic enemy after 18 months of negotiations.

“One of the most important reasons Iran is signing this deal, in my opinion ... is not actually sanctions,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s ISIS. There is actually support for this deal within the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, because their day job is right now fighting ISIS, and they need the United States, particularly in Iraq, on the right side of that fight.”

Nasr made his remarks at the Aspen Ideas Festival, during a panel on the Iran nuclear deal in which the word “paradox” came up several times in reference to the relationship between the United States and Iran.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace invoked Henry Kissinger to describe that motif in the U.S.-Iran relationship since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In his 2002 book Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, Kissinger wrote that “there are few nations in the world with which the United States has less reason to quarrel or more compatible interests than Iran.” Sadjadpour rattled off a list of common enemies spanning decades: the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, and now ISIS. But the moments of what he called “tactical cooperation” have not managed to erode the “strategic enmity.” Iran, Sadjadpour said, needs to decide if it’s a nation or a movement opposed to the U.S. and Israel.

Iran’s fear of ISIS is itself a paradox insofar as Iran helped create the conditions for the group’s rise through its support of both the regimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. “Iran is both the arsonist and the fire brigade in the Middle East,” Sadjadpour said. And as far as U.S. support for the Iran-backed militias confronting ISIS in Iraq is concerned, Sadjadpour said that “it’s an open question whether partnering with Shia radicals to kill Sunni radicals creates more Sunni radicals than it eliminates.”

Given the costs of this kind of tactical cooperation with Iran, and the endurance of strategic enmity regardless, does it make sense for the U.S. to keep trying to engage the country? More than Kissinger, it’s a 1980s-era Saturday Night Livecast member who may have best explained the U.S. relationship with Iran—in explaining his own diet. “I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals,” Sadjadpour quoted A. Whitney Brown as saying. “I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.”

“Our engagement with Iran, dialoguing with Iran, shouldn’t be considered a gift to the regime itself because we like them,” he continued. “In fact these hard-line elements in Iran really don’t want to be engaged; they thrive in isolation.”  

Meanwhile, though, it’s not clear how much the Iranian regime is thriving in the chaos of the Middle East. In January, after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels staged a coup in Yemen, The Economist wrote that: “Iran can claim, with only a pinch of hubris, to run three Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. This week it may have added a fourth.”

But what kind of hegemon is Iran with capitals like these? Sadjadpour pointed out that Iran exercises influence over four extremely weak states, three of which are in the throes of civil war. Sunni powers in the region may look at spreading Iranian influence in the Middle East with alarm. But Iranian leaders, Nasr said, see “sort of a concerted Sunni effort to push them out” of their spheres of influences—“the Turks to the north, the Saudis to the south, and ISIS in the middle. … They’re all basically trying to take away, you know, Damascus from Tehran, Beirut from Tehran, Baghdad from Tehran.” Not to mention the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, which Saudi Arabia has been trying to wrest back from the Houthis through a months-long bombing campaign in Yemen.

The upshot is that Iran may not be as threatening to the United States as its nuclear program and regional influence make it appear. Sadjadpour maintained that the Iranian regime can be deterred precisely because it wants to stay in power, and that in any case nuclear weapons wouldn’t protect it from the real threat the U.S. poses: America’s cultural influence on a highly educated populace that wants to engage with the world.

The disconnect between the Iranian regime and its people is yet another paradox, and it may be the most important one for U.S.-Iran relations over the long term. “Hard-line elements” in Iran’s leadership, Sadjadpour said, “have sought to emulate North Korea, while the society they rule seeks to emulate South Korea. [Iranians] want to be integrated, they want to be economically prosperous. And I think if this deal happens, and it helps to reintegrate Iran politically, and in the global economy, that will empower those more moderate forces in Iran … and potentially weaken some of these hard-line forces that have really thrived in isolation, the same way Kim Jong Un and Fidel Castro have thrived in isolation.”

“The Iranian state is homicidal, not suicidal,” he said. “I think certainly let’s contain Iran, let’s check Iran’s influence in the region ... but let’s not aggrandize Iran to a global superpower, which it certainly isn’t.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.