By Bijan Bonakdar and Roozbeh Aliabadi

Iran and the next U.S. president

May 17, 2016

The Middle East presents variety of complicated partnerships for the next United States president.  In recent years, the U.S. has been experiencing a strategic reversal of its position in the Middle East.  In the past, Washington’s posture in the region was more assertive but more recently it has shifted towards greater restraint, particularly during Barack Obama’s second term. However, it appears that neither postures have particularly worked well for the United States.

Today, nationalism, religious fanaticism, and political extremism are on the rise and will complicate the future of stability in the Middle East. Furthermore, the traditional allies of the U.S. have difficult relations with Washington. There are ongoing civil wars and unrest in at least five countries where the U.S. has either directly or indirectly supported regime change (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria). At its current state, the Syrian civil war in particular risks creating even greater regional sectarian conflict. And U.S. traditional partners throughout the region are more vulnerable than they were just a few years ago.  

The strategic tools used historically by previous presidents do not appear to work well in the Middle East.  However, two recent opportunities created by the Obama Administration should provide a glimpse of hope for the next president as well as more room for political maneuverability that a version of collective engagement might succeed in the region:  The ability of the Obama Administration to rally Sunni nations to join the coalition against ISIS.  But more importantly, the nuclear deal with Iran that offers a truly unique but limited opportunity to improve overall relations with Tehran.  

The next U.S. president cannot ignore or undermine the fact that Iran’s role is vital and must be properly addressed and managed, with collaborative approach that could yield a new trilateralism that might encompass the long-term strategic pivot to Asia easier, reinforce trans-Atlantic ties, and provide greater support to manage instability in the Middle East. These complexities require the next Commander in Chief to show more political flexibility and Iran will be a consequential illustration and ultimately test-case of this intent.  

It should be a constant reminder to the next administration that in addition to China, Iran also presents a distinctive opportunity for the United States to capitalize on some common interests with a long-time adversary and to reduce the potential for conflict and help enhance broader regional stability.  The next U.S. president should consider two important developments when assessing the future relationship with Iran. The first is the nature of the July 2015 nuclear deal; the second is Iran’s broader role in the Middle East. Iran’s influence in the region has grown in recent years, in part because of the disruption created by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, therefore any attempt to limit this role will be disadvantageous to the United States and the region.  

Despite their many differences, the next American president should not disregard the fact that Iran and the United States share a strategic interest in the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. They also share an interest in successful implementation of the JCPOA, at least in the short-term.  Also, with the rise of ISIS, Iran and the United States are reluctantly cooperating to defeat a common enemy, even though both nations have been unwilling to formalize these cooperative arrangements.  The next step in defeating ISIS may require U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Syria for a new formula. There is further room for improving U.S.-Iranian relations, which, if achieved, could affect the future of the Middle East. 

The difficult task for the next U.S. president is to rebuild ties with traditional yet increasingly vulnerable allies as it creates a new relationship with Iran, a new approach should be designed for the Middle East despite the constant pressure of partisan politics in Washington. Therefore, a hybrid approach is urgently needed.   The daunting task of designing  a regional strategy for the Middle East is the least well defined compared to the strategy with Europe or Asia. But it is vital for the next president to realize that he or she must seek to contain the consequences of the violent chaos that currently exists in the region without drawing the United States so deeply that it is unable to focus on challenges of greater strategic relevance in Europe but most important Asia. In that respect U.S. enhancement of partnership with Iran is vitally important for that very cause.  

In order to achieve a partnership that is more fluid than those in Europe and Asia the next U.S. president must attempt to construct a more cooperative relationship with Iran despite fundamental differences in the post-JCPOA era. In the course of successful implementation of JCPOA the next U.S. president should also think about launching new regional initiatives, including a broader regional security summit that must and should include Iran. This approach will help design a new balance for the Middle East.

Bijan Bonakdar is director of Strategic Initiatives at the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Roozbeh Aliabadi is advisor to director of Strategic Initiatives at the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.