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Western powers need to tread carefully with Iran

When a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers was agreed this month, some predicted that it would lead to a wider thaw in relations with western countries. This seemed to be borne out this week, when the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, visited Tehran. It was the most high-level visit to the country by a French official for 12 years; Fabius also delivered an invitation for the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, to visit France in November. If the invitation is taken up, it'll be the first visit by an Iranian president to France since 1999.

During negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme, Fabius has been one of the most outspoken critics of the process. During his visit to Tehran, he changed his tone, telling a news conference: "This trip is a new beginning". He stressed that France wants to cooperate economically with Iran, as sanctions are gradually lifted.

Fabius also spoke about co-operation in the war on terror. "France and Iran enjoy joint interests in the combat against terrorism and extremism," he said, according to Iran's official news agency. Both Tehran and Paris are fighting to prevent Islamic State militants from taking over Iraq. France is part of the international coalition, led by the US, that is carrying out airstrikes. Iran is supporting Iraq's Shi'ite dominated government against the incursions by Sunni militants. Western powers and Iran have been reluctant allies in this fight since last year; they have not coordinated directly, but have maintained a tacit pact of non-aggression. Some analysts have suggested that Fabius's comments could nod towards greater cooperation between western nations and Iran in the fight against Islamic State.

Writing in the Guardian, Federica Mogherini, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, was optimistic about the potential benefits of greater coordination on this matter: "There is nothing more worrisome to Isis than cooperation between "the west" and the Muslim world, for it defies the narrative of a clash of civilisations the group is trying to revive. An alliance of civilisations can be our most powerful weapon in the fight against terror."

Yet the prospect of rapprochement between Iran and the west is something that will be viewed with alarm by many leaders in the Arab world. Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in a regional cold war, and both have been responsible for stoking sectarian tension across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has been propping up Sunni leaders and supporting Sunni rebels. Iran has been doing the same for Shi'ites. Iran's intervention in Iraq, where most accept it has been responsible for preventing Islamic State from seizing Baghdad, was the clearest and most open example of the country projecting its hard power. For years, it has operated in the shadows, supporting Lebanon's Hezbollah and in more recent years, propping up the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This sectarian struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is most clearly being played out in Yemen, where Saudi planes are hammering the Houthi rebels, a Shi'ite militia group that receives backing from Iran.

Given this context, closer cooperation with Iran on aspects of foreign policy is an area where France and other western powers will need to tread carefully. While they may share an interest in some places – such as Iraq and the battle against Islamic State – they may directly contradict each other elsewhere. The US in particular will be reluctant to alienate its long-standing ally Saudi Arabia. Leaders there are highly concerned about the economic threat from an Iran free of sanctions, as well as the spectre of what they see as Iranian expansionism.

Acknowledging the sectarianism currently threatening to engulf the Middle East, Mogherini argued: "Cooperation between Iran, its neighbours and the whole international community could open unprecedented possibilities of peace for the region, starting from Syria, Yemen and Iraq." Clearly, she is an optimist. The alternative vision is of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers panicking at western cooperation with Iran and continuing to fund civil wars and insurgencies in order to prevent Iranian dominance of the region.

Yet progress requires taking risks. Such profound differences remain between Iran and western powers that it seems unlikely they will become close allies any time soon: years of mutual distrust still trump the immediate benefits of working together. But, as Fabius's comments show, leaders on both sides are at least willing to attempt to turn the page and enter a new chapter. The consequences remain to be seen.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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