Since the election of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani last year, there has been a significant thaw in relations with the country’s old adversary, the US. This diplomatic shift saw the first direct phone call between a US president and an Iranian premier in three decades, and a temporary agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme – a major breakthrough after years of stalemate.
Both countries are continuing to pursue their opposing interests on the nuclear programme, and no-one would suggest that the two countries are about to become intimate allies. However, it appears that global events may be forcing a closer partnership on certain issues – namely, the chaos in Iraq and Syria.
The presence of Al-Qaeda linked groups in these two countries is a cause for concern across the globe. In Syria, the increased number of extremist militant organisations has complicated western support for the opposition. While European and US governments have called for president Bashar al-Assad to step down, there is increasing anxiety about what might take his place. Meanwhile, across the border in Iraq, sectarian violence is on the up, and extremist militant groups are continuing to secure their foothold. Across the Middle East, groups of young Sunni fighters affiliated to Al-Qaeda are exploiting sectarian fault lines to establish a presence.
This is a concern for the west primarily because of the worry that these groups – currently focused on their own region – could very easily turn their attention to targets in the west. It is a concern for Iran, a Shi’ite nation, because Syria and Iraq – the two other nations in the Middle East that are governed by Shi’ites – are important allies.
This week, Iran offered to join the US in sending military aid to the (Shi’ite) government in Iraq, which is currently embroiled in violent clashes with Sunni militants in Anbar Province. The wider Sunni population, a minority in Iraq, claims it is being unfairly discriminated against by anti-terror laws, while the government says that it has to root out the militancy that is threatening to send the country back into all out sectarian conflict. The US has supported the Baghdad regime ever since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Iran has also been a consistent ally of the new, Shi’ite regime, so perhaps shared support for the floundering Iraqi government should not come as a surprise.
But Iran’s offer to send military aid alongside the US is not the only potential area of cooperation. On Sunday, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that he could see a role for Iran in the forthcoming peace conference on Syria, scheduled to take place in Geneva early this year. In the past, this has been a major sticking point. Iran is an important ally of Assad’s, and many analysts have suggested that peace talks are meaningless without its involvement. In October, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN peace envoy to Syria, urged international powers to invite Iran to Geneva, saying that this would be “natural and necessary as well as fruitful”. Of course, the talks are supposed to plan for a post-Assad Syria, taking his resignation as a given. This is not a position that Iran agrees with. Potentially, bringing Iran onside may reflect increasing uncertainty in the west about whether the removal of Assad is really the best way forward, given the increased presence of extremist Islamic groups in the ranks of the rebels.
Clearly, the US and Iran have a shared enemy, which might result in pragmatic cooperation. But of course, there are obstacles to working together. First and foremost is the ongoing dispute over the nuclear issue. The New York Times cites senior officials in the Obama administration acknowledging that Iran has the potential to be an influential player in the region (in Afghanistan, as well as Syria and Iraq), but saying that the focus will remain on the nuclear negotiations. Any other cooperation will depend on the status of these discussions.
A second barrier to greater cooperation is from US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are deeply suspicious of Iran. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has already warned that Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who is seeking to fool the world into a sense of false security so he can secretly build a nuclear weapon. But, of course, Israel is also profoundly concerned about Syria – a country on its doorstep – falling into the hands of terrorists. Saudi Arabia is, if anything, even more unequivocal in its anxiety about greater US cooperation with Iran. The two regional powerhouses of Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a kind of Middle Eastern cold war, battling for influence along Sunni-Shia lines. Saudi Arabia (which backs the rebels in Syria and wants to see Assad deposed) has made no secret of its concern. Last month, the Saudi ambassador to the UK wrote in the New York Times: “We believe that many of the west’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East.”
The US and Iran are not allies yet. But, as Bob Dreyfuss has written in the Nation this week, the shared desire to defeat Al-Qaeda could mean that “tactically, if not strategically, the United States and Iran could eventually end up on the same side in both Iraq and Syria.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.