Nuke Deal Could Boost US-Iran Relations

January 15, 2015

A nuclear deal could generate new opportunities for cooperation between the United States and Iran, according to a new policy brief by the Center for a New American Security. “Thirty-five years of animosity between the United States and Iran will not simply melt away,” the report says. But “a deal that truly resolves the nuclear issue can be a foundation for progress.” The following are excerpts from the full policy brief.

The prospect of a nuclear deal between the West and Iran has generated a robust debate about whether such an agreement might generate opportunities for U.S.-Iranian cooperation on a broader set of issues.  Any deal will address only the Iranian nuclear proliferation threat; even if successful, it will leave on the table many other unresolved sources of tension that have hobbled U.S-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution. The Obama administration has stressed that any deal regarding the “nuclear file” remains separate and distinct from the overall question of U.S. policy toward Iran. The lead U.S. nuclear negotiator, Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, stated this clearly: “engagement on one issue does not require and will not lead to silence on others.” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been equally insistent upon compartmentalizing and isolating the nuclear question from the broader U.S.-Iran relationship. But these negative statements do not determine what may happen in the days and years after an agreement.

To be sure, any thawing of the relationship would face tremendous challenges. The two countries have not had formal relations since 1979. In the decades since, successive U.S. administrations have designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism, and imposed sanctions based on a range of Iran’s activities apart from its nuclear proliferation. Both sides harbor long lists of grievances. Iran resents American support for the Shah and for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The United States remembers the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and Iranian support for militants in Iraq. Resentments on both sides mean that powerful resistance in both political systems would oppose cooperation. Moreover, Israeli and Gulf partners, whose cooperation is vital for the achievement of other U.S. interests in the region, are likely to oppose any increase in U.S.-Iran cooperation.

Despite the challenges, however, there are a number of areas where Iranian interests align with those of the United States and its partners. Both have interests in maritime security and in the free flow of energy out of the Middle East. Both would prefer a stable Afghanistan with Taliban influence limited to the greatest extent possible. Both oppose the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and may be willing to work together against it.
Thirty-five years of animosity between the United States and Iran will not simply melt away even if Iran and the West can strike a nuclear deal. Resolution of the nuclear issue alone cannot untangle the violent web of politics in the Middle East. Significant resistance to increased cooperation with the United States will continue to be a central element of Iranian politics. Regional allies will remain wary of Iran either way. However, a deal that truly resolves the nuclear issue can be a foundation for progress.
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