Middle East

Diplomatic forecast: more contacts, but breakthroughs unlikely

Members of Iraqi Badr Brigades Shiite militia step on a representation of an Israeli flag during a commemoration of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, July. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)

WASHINGTON: The United States and Iran are likely to continue cautious diplomatic contacts following Tuesday’s historic nuclear accord, but a broader blossoming of relations like the one U.S. President Barack Obama engineered with Cuba is years off at best, current and former U.S. officials said. At crossed swords over issues from Israel to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s legitimacy, the two countries nonetheless share some concerns, including a threat from ISIS.

Even before an unprecedented two years of direct dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program, Washington and Tehran had diplomatic contacts when it suited both their interests. In late 2001, U.S. and Iranian envoys worked closely to form Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government.

But the barriers to repeating such successes now are high, the current and former officials said, with some predicting U.S.-Iran ties could get more tense in the aftermath of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

There appear to be deep divisions within both U.S. and Iranian ruling circles about cooperation with the other side. Washington and Tehran have starkly competing visions of the Middle East’s future. And 36 years after Iran’s Islamic revolution, distrust dominates.

Obama, who must now sell the complex nuclear agreement to a skeptical Congress, said Wednesday there would be more diplomatic contact with Iran, but was restrained in his expectations.

“My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative,” he told a news conference. “But we’re not counting on it.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has final say over security matters, reaffirmed a hard line toward Washington Saturday, as the nuclear talks entered their final days in Vienna.

“Get ready to continue your fight against the global arrogance,” he said, according to remarks posted on his website.

Veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross, who served as a top Obama adviser, said Khamenei is likely to financially compensate groups like the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The IRGC’s leaders are thought to be suspicious of the nuclear deal and its Quds force is charged by Washington with fomenting violence in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

“In the near term, I don’t think you’re going to see any improvement, and things are likely to get more complicated in the region,” said Ross, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

There are policy splits in Washington, too.

The Obama administration is divided over deeper cooperation with Iran, current and former officials said. Secretary of State John Kerry is said to see possibilities for dialogue, while many in the U.S. military have fresh memories of soldiers killed and maimed in Iraq by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Still, said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “We’re really in an unprecedented moment in the history of contemporary U.S.-Iranian relations. The metaphor I think about is, imagine a couple that’s been divorced for 36 years. You know, and meets up again in Europe and spends a few weeks in a hotel room on their own,” he said, referring to the final, 18-day round of talks at a Vienna hotel.

One potential area of cooperation is the fight against ISIS.

Washington and Iran are in uneasy cooperation in Iraq, backing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, but opposed in Syria, where Iran and its proxies help prop up Assad.

Obama acknowledged Wednesday that Iran would play a role in any political settlement in Syria. “Iran’s one of those players, and I think it’s important for them to be part of that conversation,” he said.

The United States says it wants to see a political transition in Syria that leads to Assad’s departure from power and an inclusive new government.

Yet geopolitical landmines abound. Even before the nuclear deal was complete, Obama promised Gulf Arab states he would take more aggressive steps to counter Iranian expansionism in the Arab world. That could prompt a backlash in Tehran.

A closer U.S. embrace of majority Shiite Iran would do little to assuage Sunni resentments that have helped fuel militant groups like ISIS, said Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And Iran has shown no sign of abandoning support for Assad, its closest Arab ally.

“The Iranian nuclear deal will not help in the Iraqi arena, or in Syria,” said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi security analyst.

“Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to make concessions over Assad” and demands his departure,” Hashemi said. “Iran says no, Assad has to stay. That is the problem in Syria.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 17, 2015, on page 9.

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