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Looking Beyond a Nuclear Agreement with Iran

A new report by the Center for New American Security, a think tank close to the Obama White House, emphasizes any change in the United States’ relationship with Iran will be gradual.

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After more than three decades of estrangement, the US and Iran aren’t likely to quickly normalize their relationship even if—which is still a big if—they reach a nuclear deal in the coming weeks or months. The animosity and mutual distrust run too deep, according to new policy brief released by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) Friday.

The authors, Ilan Goldenberg, Jacob Stokes, and Nicholas A. Heras, say it’s far more likely we’ll see a gradual transformation of the relationship.

The conclusions and recommendations in the brief could signal what Obama’s policy towards Iran is likely to be if a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program is reached in the coming weeks or months. CNAS has historically been close to the Obama White House, and several key CNAS personnel served in senior administration positions relevant to Middle East policy. Its co-founder and current CEO, Michele Flournoy served as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy during most of Obama’s first term and was considered a top contender to succeed outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel until she took herself out of consideration. Colin Kahl, who served as Flournoy’s top Middle East adviser at the Pentagon, was named Vice President Biden’s national security adviser last fall after a two-year stint at CNAS between the two administration posts. And Goldenberg himself recently joined CNAS after serving as Iran Team Chief under Kahl at the Pentagon from 2009 to until 2012 when he was named chief of staff to the State Department’s Special Envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

For months now, the question of whether a nuclear deal could lead to rapid normalization of ties has been the subject of considerable debate, particularly in the region where Iran’s Arab rivals and Israel have shown increasing apprehension about a possible rapprochement that could diminish their own importance and influence in Washington. This, despite the Obama administration’s repeated assurances that the “nuclear file remains separate and distinct from the overall question of US policy toward Iran,” Goldenberg et al say in “Slow Thaw: Testing Possibilities for Cooperation in Iran.”

Reaching a deal could no doubt lead to further engagement on other issues, but the US has to avoid moving too quickly. “Resentments on both sides mean that powerful resistance in both political systems would oppose cooperation,” the brief explains.

Start-Small Approach

The administration should “pursue a patient, limited, and incremental approach for building cooperation with Iran after an agreement is reached,” according to the authors. They focus on starting small, building on the communication channels created over the last 18 months, and, in any event, concentrating on solving the nuclear issue first.

Once a settlement has been reached, the US could move on to issues that are likely to be “less politically charged.” The authors point to maritime security and Afghanistan as matters that could be addressed without causing any major waves in either country. In both cases, there has been some history of cooperation.

But there are multiple hurdles to overcome. Iran’s support for groups on Washington’s terrorism list, Iranian domestic politics and concern from US partners in the region, all work against a quick normalization process.

An agreement on the nuclear program, for instance, would provide no guarantee that Tehran would stop supporting Hezbollah or Hamas. These militant groups currently provide Iran with the ability to “exert influence” across the region. “It is not clear if a nuclear agreement would change Iran’s support for these groups,” the report explains.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—and their special forces branch the Quds Force—typically coordinate support for the militant groups. Any cooperation between the United States and Iran on this front would have to overcome their designation as terrorist organizations “for violations unrelated to the nuclear program.” That is not likely to happen immediately.

Any agreement will also face a backlash in Iran, according to the report. Many within the political elite have voiced their concerns over President Hassan Rouhani’s pursuit of an end to the nuclear impasse. To date, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has provided cover for Rouhani and his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. Provided the US and Iran reach an agreement, Khamenei will have a tough balancing act to maintain. Rouhani and Zarif would likely request greater bandwidth to extend cooperation, while opponents are likely to push back against any expansion.

“The end result is most likely to be a disjointed and inconsistent foreign policy with the Rouhani camp in control of some arenas, while hardliners continue to drive policy in others,” the authors explain.

Primarily troubled by Iran’s regional ambitions, Washington’s regional partners have expressed concern about the ongoing nuclear negotiations. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia feel threatened by Iran’s support for militant organizations within their collective sphere of influence. If a nuclear deal is signed, they fear it could further embolden Iran and also signal a deeper withdrawal of US forces in the region, which could leave them isolated and exposed.

Deeper Challenges: Iraq, Syria, the Islamic State

In the short run, confronting the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria means that the US and Iran have a common enemy. To date, however, both have refused official cooperation. In Iraq, that may change after a nuclear deal, but it would likely be no more than “basic operational coordination along the lines that helped oust the Taliban,” the report says.

But long-term cooperation “depends on Iran’s vision” for Iraq, the report explains. Iran would not necessarily accept the more inclusive Iraqi government sought by the US. Also, Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani leads Iran’s operations in Iraq where his support for Shia militias produced many American casualties. The United States will not likely develop “a strong cooperative relationship” with him, according to the report.

Syria raises a different set of issues. The report notes that what started out as more of a “proxy war between Iran and Assad on one side, and on the other the Sunni Gulf partners of the US,” has now become something less clear due to the emergence of IS. As in Iraq, both the US and Iran want to see IS defeated. But after that, both have difficult decisions to make. Iran won’t withdraw “without significant security guarantees from the US,” the brief says. Washington, meanwhile, is stuck between “ensuring stability and an inclusive government” or “dealing a major blow to Iranian power by toppling its main Arab ally.”

CNAS Recommendations

The United States has a tough balancing act ahead. The Obama administration has to keep the nuclear issue out in front. After a deal, the two governments need to institutionalize both the agreement and the communication channels established over the last 18 months.

Once they’ve tackled the small easy steps, including Afghanistan and maritime security, Washington could move on to areas where Iranian moderates could wrest control from hardliners; for example, on the country’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This will require policymakers to “observe Iranian domestic politics carefully,” the report explains.

While focusing on IS in Iraq and Syria, the US should emphasize “tactical coordination of operations to avoid inadvertent conflict and ensure that American and Iranian efforts are mutually reinforcing.” Hardliners would likely block anything more than that.

The US will have assuage the concerns of regional allies. Israel and the Gulf states have already voiced their opposition to the current negotiations, so anything more will require the US to be “actively transparent.” Washington could reassure their allies by providing additional military support. For Israel, this means further “transfers of cutting-edge military systems…and deepening military and intelligence cooperation against Iranian proxies,” the report says.

Gulf states will likely require increased efforts to build their defensive capabilities. This includes enhancing the Gulf Cooperation Council’s ability to counterbalance a potentially resurgent Iran. But it also means that the US shouldn’t plan on drawing down in the region anytime soon.

“A deal that truly resolves the nuclear issue can be a foundation for progress,” the report concludes. In the immediate aftermath of an agreement, the United States should pursue a patient, limited and incremental approach.” But the animosity between Iran and the US won’t go away overnight, nor will a “resolution of the nuclear issue…untangle the violent web of politics in the Middle East,” the report says. Still, a deal on the nuclear issue would provide Washington and Tehran with an opportunity to address the other outstanding issues in the region. To deal with all the other hurdles in the bilateral relationship, both parties will need a good deal of strategic patience.

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