Why Not? The Case for an American-Iranian Alliance

Trilateral Meeting - Javad Zarif-John Kerry-Catherine Ashton
Why Not? The Case for an American-Iranian Alliance - Renad Mansour and Ben Hartley


In an age of global uncertainty, allies and enemies must be scrutinized, and we must question why we choose to be in conflict. Iran, as it pursues a nuclear weapon as a security guarantee, is perhaps the most important case to re-examine. This paper argues that the United States should not only prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it should try to make Iran an American ally. What this would look like in practice is difficult to say. This paper merely initiates discussion of a scenario long considered impossible, and shows that there is significant mutual interest in pursuing it. While shared trust cannot occur in the current situation, offers of cooperation from both sides offer the only recourse to a future without a prolonged nuclear standoff akin to that with North Korea. The scope of this paper is confined to laying the groundwork for establishing potential areas of cooperation and identifying the mutual benefits that would arise as a result.

Tehran in a Bind

“The only difference between me and these people is my place of birth, and this is not a big difference.”1

— Howard Baskerville

(Howard Baskerville fought for constitutional democracy in Iran during the 1930s, dying at the age of 24 while leading revolutionary forces against the Qajar royalists. Baskerville’s legacy among Iranians serves as a reminder that what separates the United States and Iran is less than what brings them together.)


Tehran has pressing economic, domestic, and geopolitical reasons to engage in dialogue with the United States. Looking first at Iran’s economy, there is no doubt that the sanctions regime has had a crippling effect. As a result of sanctions, the rial has depreciated by over 75 percent.2The government’s subsidy program, although moderately effective for segments of the population such as the extreme poor, has squeezed the middle class. Prices for bread, rice, vegetables, and milk doubled in 2012, leaving Iranians without money for food and shelter.3Unemployment is believed to be up to three times the government’s official figure of 12 percent.4Continued losses in oil revenues exacerbate this dire economic situation. Although Iran has managed to trade with China, the Central Asian republics, and India, the burden of sanctions on its population is undeniable. To end the suffering, Iran will eventually need to return to its former position in the global economy.

The second indicator of Iranian anxieties is the domestic political situation. The “Green Revolution” that followed the 2009 elections came too early to harness the momentum of the Arab Spring. However, there is no doubt that with the 2013 Iranian general election coming up, the elite worries about the precedent set by Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Iranians feel cut off by a retreating state unable to solve their economic woes. The regime has isolated members from the Green Movement, and in many prominent cases, has placed them under house arrest in fear of a doomsday scenario of civil unrest or revolution. Some experts have even reported that the reformists no longer have a platform for organization and are unlikely to be a real threat in 2013.5 Nevertheless, the population continues to harbor memories, if disorganized ones, of the successful populist agitation in North Africa. This threatens the elite.6 In the coming elections, the Ahmadinejad camp is likely to field a candidate who will challenge the regime’s hold on power. At the very least, Tehran will be anxious about demonstrations. American acquiescence, rather than outright support for a protest against the status quo, can therefore act as a carrot at the bargaining table.

The past decade was promising for Iran, leading to Jordanian King Abdullah’s infamous warning of a ‘Shi’i Crescent’. The American-sponsored regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq allowed Iran to extend its influence and export the ideals of its revolution (vilayet-e-faqih). But the tide is changing. Sunni-led protests as part of the Arab Spring have been upsetting the status quo in recent years. Nowhere is this more troubling for Iran than in Syria. The Assad regime has long been a strong ally that has carried Iranian influence across the desert to the Levant. Losing Syria could prove decisive for Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah. In desperation, Iran is trying to make inroads with alternative forces inside Syria to prepare for the possible emergence of a threatening Sunni-led, anti-Shi’i government.

The growing influence of Turkey as a direct challenger to Iranian regional hegemony, with U.S. and NATO backing it, exacerbates the threat of changing regional power dynamics. Ankara’s role, not only in Syria but also in Iraqi Kurdistan and other disputed Iraqi territories, is threatening the stability of the Iran-backed Maliki government in Iraq.7 Talks of establishing an oil pipeline between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, which would bypass Iraq, have antagonized Baghdad. Adding fuel to the fire, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called Maliki a ‘dictator’ in April 2012 and continues to harbor Iraqi fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.8

Finally, uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan, which has continued to house a strong Taliban foothold, is also worrying Iran. Although relations and bilateral trade between Kabul and Tehran have improved, the latter remains anxious about the former’s ability to maintain stability along their shared border.

As a result of this regional equation, the Iranian elite is growing uneasy. On the surface, resolving the multi-faceted geopolitical and economic crisis is not in the best interest of these leaders, many of whom would lose their hold in a democratic, peaceful society integrated into the world economy. The financial, political, and security interests of Iran’s elite depend on the idea of a constant crisis.9 Nonetheless, the elite’s anxiety may open doors to explicit or implicit collaboration with Washington, which itself is facing similar geostrategic dilemmas, and cannot rely on the sanctions regime as a long-term solution. Tehran’s tightrope walk, while seemingly beneficial to its ruling class, means that any error or miscalculation can have immense consequences. The fragility of the current course can prove too difficult to bear. At the very least, American cooperation and sympathy, in the form of select carrots, will have the veiled effect of giving voice to the moderate leadership currently confined to the margins.


Maintaining Hard-Fought American Gains

Although the Arab Spring helped prevent the emergence of a Shi’i Crescent, U.S. gains in the region are far from solidified, and the loyalties of new regimes are still undefined.The constitutional crisis in Iraq now threatens to result in another civil war. Meanwhile, stability in Afghanistan is far from guaranteed after American withdrawal, despite the weakening of the Taliban’s leadership since 2001. Indeed, the neglectful governance of U.S. ‘ally’ Pakistan ensures a continued security threat from the Federally Administered Tribal Regions (FATA) on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Across the region, American influence has waned as regional powers like Turkey have pushed for leadership roles, bringing former American stalwarts, such as Egypt, under their influence. As a result of growing uncertainty with respect to U.S. allies, the nature of American commitments to the region has changed.

The United States can afford neither a nuclear arms race in the region, nor the requisite commitment to security against asymmetric terrorism. In a return to the Nixon-era doctrine of ‘Vietnamization,’ the United States has ‘led from behind’ in the Arab Spring. This policy seems fitting for a time of austerity and limited liability, when political objectives are not necessarily supported by the military means needed to achieve them.10 Fresh from the costs of two prolonged wars, the United States has no capacity to maintain control unilaterally—something that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would require. Since the end of World War II, the United States has sustained a nuclear umbrella that came at enormous financial cost but can now be maintained with explicit guarantees, such as the American commitment to the security of Israel. An Iranian weapon would require a significant investment of financial and political capital to provide the necessary security commitment for preventing a regional arms race and the dissolution of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

President Nixon preferred to support allies that were able to maintain American interests in their regions. Indeed, to implement Nixon’s ‘Twin Pillars’ strategy, the United States sold sophisticated weapons systems to Saudi Arabia and Iran, thereby building up these countries as regional guarantors of U.S. interests.11 Outside the context of the current nuclear standoff, Iran would fit the same bill perfectly today.12 Tehran would be ideally situated to use its relations with Iraqi and Afghan elite to prevent a civil war in Iraq and block Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. On its eastern border, Iran has already displayed its distaste for Taliban rule by aiding the Northern Alliance in 2001. Tehran could be instrumental in maintaining the current status quo that the United States holds so dear.

Since the American withdrawal from Iraq, sectarian violence has plagued a country now deeply divided on the legitimacy of Nouri al-Maliki. Preparing for the post-U.S. environment, the Iraqi Prime Minister sought a strategic partnership with Iran. This proved pivotal in wrestling power from secularist Ayad Alawi, whose al-Iraqiya bloc had won the popular vote and a majority of parliamentary seats. Between March and October 2010, Iran held key talks over the elections results, thereby keeping Saudi Arabia out of the process and pushing Muqtada al- Sadr and the Kurdish bloc to accept al- Maliki.13 If Washington was on friendly terms with Tehran, Iranian influence in Iraq could hypothetically be leveraged into positive outcomes for the United States in Baghdad. At the very least, the relationship could prevent continued threats to U.S. interests in Iraq.

Moreover, the United States is not as reliant on its allies as it once was. A domestic natural-gas revolution will bring about U.S. energy self-sufficiency by 2030, diminishing the value of a Saudi regime gradually challenged by popular resistance.14 The U.S. government has long been uneasy about the House of Saud’s repression of popular dissent. The Iranian regime, by contrast, has in the past bent to liberal demands in order to retain power. In fact, Iran is one of the few Middle Eastern, let alone theocratic, states that has a wide political spectrum, ranging from moderates such as Mohammad Khatami to conservatives such as Ahmadinejad. In the last few years, however, the former group has been marginalized. To summarize a core premise of this paper, Iran’s moderate segments face more pressure when relations with the United States are hostile.

A strategic alliance with Iran is little more than a theory. Earning Iran’s trust would take daring steps, but the gains would be significant. The United States would win a regional proxy to shield itself from criticism over Washington’s non- involvement in the Arab Spring. Most importantly, mutual trust would end the threat of a costly conflict with Iran itself.


Myth 1: “The United States cannot ally with Iran as long as the Israel lobby exists.”

On the contrary, an alliance with Iran would undercut the Israel lobby and lead to a regional peace dividend. A major catalytic event perpetuating the lobby’s existence is the tension between Iran and Israel. Remove it, and groups such as AIPAC lose their modus vivendi. The lobby was successful in bringing down a Senate bill that would have reduced U.S. arms shipments to Egypt, despite Israel’s antagonism toward Mohammed Morsi’s government. It did this in order to retain influence in unstable Islamist countries. Likewise, a U.S. security guarantee for Iran, matched by an Iranian non- aggression pledge toward Israel, would render the aggression of Iranian client Hezbollah toward Israel superfluous. Prior to the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah relied on its hostility toward Israel for legitimacy. Today, however, Hezbollah delivers a wide variety of social services to the people of Lebanon, which gives the organization legitimacy, and in turn acts in place of anti-Israeli populism. Hezbollah, not threatened with the absence of a modus vivendi, would theoretically be able to maintain this role without posing a threat to Israel, thus rendering the concerns of the Israel lobby moot.

A major sticking point in U.S.-Iran rapprochement, however, is the CIA’s classification of Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist          organizations. The United States accuses Iran of supporting international terrorism by dint of supporting these two groups. John Brennan, currently Director of the CIA, told a conference in May 2010 that “there are certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us... And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”15 This belief offers an alternative recourse and acts as a carrot. If Hezbollah could be transformed from a Shi’i militant group to a Lebanese nationalist party, it could create political space within the United States to pursue changes to its enigmatic and politicized terrorist list.

Myth 2: “The Iranian elite are not willing to resolve the current crisis because they benefit from non-cooperation with the United States.”

Much of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy stems from constructing a ‘Great Satan’ to rally nationalist pride. That is not to say, however, that the price of cooperation with the United States is prohibitively high. At times, Washington and Tehran have collaborated when their interests converge. Iran was, for example, a key partner in enabling a swift end to Taliban rule, which fell within weeks in 2001.16 At the Bonn Conference that followed that December, the Iranian delegation cooperated with the United States and convinced the Northern Alliance to relinquish claims to power in favor of U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai.17 Post-2003 Iraq provided another ground for tacit cooperation, via the Iranian-backed and Khomeini-inspired Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which served as America’s chief ally in post-conflict state building. The pragmatic Iranian elite have proven that on some occasions, albeit rare, opportunistic, or anxious, they can and will work with the ‘Great Satan’.

Although any form of collaboration has thus far been confined to Iranian proxies, direct cooperation on some scale will be the next step to a precedent of indirect relations.

Myth 3: “Iran needs a weapon to hold as an ultimate guarantor of regional dominance.”

Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly deemed nuclear weapons un-Islamic.18 The motivation for nuclear development, therefore, is security and regional dominance, both of which the United States is in a unique position to provide. Iran does not necessarily require a nuclear weapon to achieve this aim. The regional dominance of an Iran allied with the United States would allow Iran to achieve new U.S. aims while acting as a bulwark against any challengers. The critical issue is creating an equivalent to the guarantee that a nuclear weapon represents. As we have discussed, however, a gradual strengthening of relations based on a mutual understanding of strategic regional needs and anxieties may turn Tehran away from an over-reliance on the ‘un-Islamic’ nuclear guarantor.

Myth 4: “There is no one for the U.S. to talk to in Iran.”

On the contrary, many Iranian leaders have been willing to engage in conversation in the past. For example, former President Khatami famously appeared on CNN promoting a ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ between the two foes. Shortly afterward, U.S. President George W. Bush labeled Iran part of a three-country ‘Axis of Evil’, obstructing any attempt at bilateral talks. The public shame that resulted only benefited Khameini and conservative elites. Since then, the moderate camp in Iran has seen no gains from pursuing talks with the United States, creating the illusion that the only actors to talk with are the conservative clerics. As Congress continues to unanimously act against Iran in every recent sanctions vote, fewer Iranian citizens can legitimately entertain the idea of any sort of dialogue. Mutual lack of understanding, fueled by divergent narratives and facts, is at the core of this myth. Counterintuitive policies based on antagonizing the relationship reduce the capital and the ability of those Iranian leaders willing to talk. Although pushed to the margins of society, they are nonetheless ready to return to the forefront, should their legitimacy reemerge.

Myth 5: “Sanctions can act as a long-term alternative.”

The only comparable instance of deterring proliferation via robust internationally imposed sanctions occurred during the 1990s with Ba’athist Iraq. In that case, other states eventually grew disillusioned with sanctions and found opportunity in cheap oil. Germany, France, and Russia, to name the most famous cases, began dealing with Baghdad. Russia in particular secured approximately 40 billion dollars’ worth of prospective deals with Saddam Hussein.19Likewise, Iran has found opportunistic partners weary of long-term trading bans.

Several states, like China and India, have begun ignoring the stringent sanction prohibitions and secured deals with Iran. Consequently, the effectiveness of sanctions will increasingly deteriorate. As the example of Iraq in the 1990s demonstrated, sanctions cannot serve as a long-term alternative or sustain a policy of containment.

Approaches to the “Axis of Evil”

Two models have dominated attempts to resolve proliferation concerns deemed a threat to international peace and security. In the first, sanctioning regimes and the prospect of their removal serve as a means of bringing a potential proliferator to the bargaining table. Otherwise known as the use of ‘positive incentives’, this strategy aims to take away critical resources and offer to return them as an inducement for            non-proliferation.20 The second model applies the use of force (whether unilateral or within a collective security framework) where other options, such as sanctioning regimes, have failed. In all cases since 1980 when force was used to prevent proliferation, it was successful in either the first attempt or in a later strike.21

Both options have inherent limitations that make them undesirable in the case of Iran. Weary from two wars, U.S. constituents are unlikely to support a military campaign that would destroy Iran’s weapons program permanently. Proponents of the ‘light footprint’ approach in the early 2000s saw that this option only yielded undesirable security commitments to the protracted civil and sectarian conflicts it aided. Moreover, a military campaign that only utilized air strikes, similar to Israel’s destruction of Syrian reactors at al-Kibar in 2007, would in all probability be ineffective since Iran’s geographically vast nuclear network makes total destruction unlikely.22Such a campaign would simply push the time frame of weapons development back in Iran by two to five years.23 Cyber attacks, such as the Stuxnet virus, have also proven ineffective in the long term, with the IAEA verifying in May 2012 that the targeted facilities had regained full operational capacity.24 Most worrisome, an attack by the United States or Israel would galvanize the Iranian regime and its people toward the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Again, extreme antagonism only adds fuel to the fire of Iranian radicals.

North Korea displays the limits of the alternative: sanctions and treaties in political systems subject to change. Negotiated in 1994, the Agreed Framework provided North Korea with a multilateral guarantee of nuclear energy, as well as a commitment from the United States “against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.”25 But the execution of delivering the benefits to North Korea was flawed. Construction on new reactors was slow and in 1998- 1999, after North Korea attempted a long-range ballistic missile test, U.S. policymakers turned on the Agreed Framework. Doubt in the agreement provided impetus for North Korea to pursue nuclear technology undetected

on the black market, in particular from the network headed by Pakistani native A.Q. Khan.26After the 2000 presidential election in the United States, the administration of George W. Bush began an immediate review of its North Korea policy, ultimately abandoning the Agreed Framework. While U.S. policymakers saw the missile test and black-market purchase as aggression and reason to doubt the regime, from a North Korean perspective, the two were maneuvers to hedge against an increasingly unreliable security framework. Under pressure from the United States, North Korea chose a path of weaponization over the implicit U.S. guarantee of security, which was later revoked.

North Korea’s case has many parallels to that of Iran. Facing hardship that required the regime to place an enormous burden on its population, North Korea chose a path that required co-opting its citizens into accepting short-term pain in exchange for a long-term security guarantee. While the sanctions on Iran may be crippling, Tehran is gradually finding new trading partners that allow elites to finance projects of critical national importance, such as nuclear energy. Agreements such as the ‘Peace Pipeline’ to Pakistan, a project worth $7 billion USD that aims to deliver 21.5 million cubic tons of natural gas to an American ‘ally’, show that Iran is able to work around sanctions and find buyers for its exports.27 In this respect, Iran’s natural resources give elites an advantage that North Korea does not have. As long as Iran, like North Korea, perceives the United States as a threat, it will persist on the path of proliferation, which it sees as a guarantee of long-term security in exchange for short-term difficulties.

Conclusion: Toward a Third Model

The United States cannot afford a nuclear Iran. Meanwhile, Iran, in seeking to alleviate the security threat posed by the United States, faces two options: to capitulate to U.S. demands, or to push forward and seek the ultimate security guarantee of a nuclear weapon. We suggest a third possibility, whereby cooperation is possible and mutual interest exists. Iran, a historic civilization with an educated and vibrant population, can be a crucial ally for the United States in the region, especially vis-a-vis fears of instability in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The reality of internationally imposed and crippling sanctions is that they do not last forever. If the United States waits too long, options become reduced to either attacking Iran or witnessing more states grow disillusioned and wanting cheap oil. Another option, however, is the premise of this paper: that the time has come to rethink the U.S.-Iran relationship.

Renad Mansour is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge and an Assistant Research Director at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST) in Beirut, Lebanon. His current research interests include Middle Eastern Political Sociology, Foreign Policy Analysis, and Federalism in Iraq. He has recently published pieces highlighting the state of Iraqi governance for IIST and the Kurdish movement in Syria for the Al Jazeera Center for Studies and Atlantic Voices.

Ben Hartley is an M.A. Candidate in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an Asia Pacific Analyst with the Atlantic Council of Canada. His current research interests include Energy, Resource and Trade Policy and Nuclear Non- Proliferation. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Studies from Queen’s University and subsequently worked in public sector communications and non- profit management.

Notes & References

  1. Farnaz Calafi, Ali Dadpay and Pouyan Mashayekh, “Iran’s Yankee Hero,” New York Times, April 18, 2009.
  2. Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Julian Borger, “Iran’s Currency Hits All-time Low as Western Sanctions Take Their Toll,” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, October 1, 2012.
  3. Steve Crabtree, “Iranians Expect to Feel Sanctions,” Gallup World, February 7, 2012.
  4. “A Red Line and a Reeling Rial,” The Economist, October 6, 2012.
  5. Dorothy Parvaz, “Where are Iran’s reformists?” Al-Jazeera English, 01 August 2013.
  6. See Shahram Chubin, “Iran and the Arab Spring: Ascendancy Frustrated,” GRC Gulf Papers (2012): 1-52.
  7. Sean Kane, “The Coming Turkish Iranian Competition in Iraq,” USIP Special Report276 (2011): 1-16 at 10.
  8. Kenneth Pollack, “Reading Machiavelli in Iraq,” The National Interest, October 24, 2012.
  9. Nader Mousavizadeh, “Iran Crisis is More Stable than it Seems,” Financial Times, March 10, 2013.
  10. Chesterman, Simon. “Leading from Behind: The Responsibility to Protect, the Obama Doctrine and Humanitarian Intervention after Libya,” Ethics & International Affairs 25.3 (2011): 279-85.
  11. Eric Hooglund “The Persian Gulf,” Intervention into the 1990s: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Third World (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1992), 325.
  12. John L. Harper, The Cold War (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 173.
  13. Michael Eisenstadt, Michael Knights, and Ahmed Ali, “Iran’s Influence in Iraq: Countering Tehran’s Whole- of-Government Approach,” The Washington Institute. Policy Focus 111, April 2011: 2-4.
  14. “World Energy Outlook,” International Energy Agency, November 2012, Executive Summary.
  15. Entous Adam. “U.S. Wants to Build Up Hezbollah Moderates: Advisor,” Reuters, May 18, 2010.
  16. During much of the 1980s, Iran’s policy toward Afghanistan was in opposition to the Communists, as the decade saw a correlation of objectives between Iran and the United States, which were both concerned in holding back Soviet power. See Ray Takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (New York: Times Books, 2006), 79.
  17. Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 212.
  18. Leonard Weiss. “Israel’s Future and Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Middle East Policy 16.3 (2009): 79-88.
  19. David Ruff, “Were Sanctions Right?” New York Times, July 27, 2003.
  20. David Cortright, The Price of Peace: Incentives and International Conflict Prevention, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield), 257.
  21. Martin Malin, trans., “The Effectiveness and Legitimacy of the Use of Force to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation,” Arms Control in the 21st Century: Between Coercion and Cooperation, Christopher, 12.
  22. Abdullah Toukan, “Study of Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 14, 2009, 100-101.
  23. Stephen J. Hadley, “Eight Ways to Deal With Iran,” Foreign Policy, September 16, 2012, 7.
  24. Matthew Kreonig, “Time to Attack Iran,” Foreign Affairs 91.1 (2012): 76- 86.
  25. Agreed Framework. United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Six Party Talks. Section 4.3.1
  26. Jon Byong Ho, “Letter from North Korean Official to A.Q. Khan,” The Washington Post, http://www. washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/ documents/north-korea-letter.html.
  27. Marcus George, “Pakistan Starts Work on Iranian Gas Line Opposed by U.S.” Reuters, March 11, 2013.
Renad Mansour is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge and an Assistant Research Director at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST) in Beirut, Lebanon. His current research interests include Middle Eastern Political Sociology, Foreign Policy Analysis, and Federalism in Iraq. He has recently published pieces highlighting the state of Iraqi governance for IIST and the Kurdish movement in Syria for the Al Jazeera Center for Studies and Atlantic Voices. Ben Hartley is an M.A. Candidate in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an Asia Pacific Analyst with the Atlantic Council of Canada. His current research interests include Energy, Resource and Trade Policy and Nuclear Non-Proliferation. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Studies from Queen’s University and subsequently worked in public sector communications and non-profit management.