THE BLOG
08/25/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Entente Cordiale: The US and Iran in the Middle East

A year after the election of reformist Hassan Rouahni, Tehran and Washington have entered a de facto entente. While the ongoing nuclear negotiations are yet to produce a permanent deal, both sides have stepped up their assistance to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Just like how Washington and Tehran cooperated against the Taliban and Saddam regimes in early 2000s, the two powers are once again united against an extremist Sunni force, the Islamic State, which has declared war on all religious minorities in the Middle East -- and vowed to take its fight against the Western world.

The Obama doctrine

Fresh into office, the Obama administration promised a new chapter in America's relations with the rest of the world. After eight years of devastating wars and unilateral interventions under the Bush administration, Obama represented a much-welcomed breath of fresh air.

To the world's astonishment, Obama extended his hand to America's chief rivals, namely Russia and China. Washington enthusiastically pushed for a "reset" in its bilateral relations with Moscow, hoping to transform a decade-long cold peace into a strategic partnership. This was followed by high-stakes negotiations over missile-defense systems in Europe and proposed caps on the two powers' nuclear arsenals. As for China, the Obama administration tirelessly institutionalized bilateral strategic and defense dialogues with Beijing's top leaders. Describing China as the U.S.' most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century, the Obama administration purportedly laid down the foundations of a so-called "G-2" -- a condominium of the world's leading powers, jointly overseeing global governance in the new century.

Five years into office, the Obama administration faces a global geopolitical conundrum. Amid the Ukrainian crisis, which has threatened the stability of the European continent, Washington and Moscow have been locked into a second Cold War, with sanctions and recriminations poisoning bilateral ties. With the U.S. and the European Union (EU) coordinating a new round of sanctions, targeting Russia's key economic sectors, the Obama administration has also accused Moscow of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was designed to curb the nuclear ambitions of the Cold War's leading protagonists.

In the Middle East, Obama's approval ratings have dropped dramatically, rivaling the Bush administration's dismal numbers, as Arab and non-Arab nations lament Washington's record on, among other things, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the deeply unpopular drone wars across the Greater Middle East. In East Asia, China has bitterly opposed the Obama administration's Pivot to Asia (P2A) policy, dismissing it as a thinly-veiled containment strategy against a re-emerging Asian power.

On one critical foreign policy issue, however, Obama has shown surprising success. As a student of realpolitik -- that is to say, the non-ideological pursuit of national interest on purely pragmatic grounds -- Obama took the diplomatic leap of faith to engage the Iranian leadership like no other American administration in recent memory. By progressively downplaying the threat of war, and relying on diplomatic measures to address the Iranian nuclear issue, the Obama administration has managed to institutionalize bilateral negotiations with Tehran, paving the way for a new chapter in Iran-U.S. relations.

If anything, Obama can count on growing support among the American people in his quest for a diplomatic compromise with Iran. According to the latest World Public Opinion survey, conducted by the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and the Program for Public Consultation, 61 percent of the American public supports a nuclear deal with Iran, where Tehran would benefit from sanctions relief in exchange for limiting its enrichment capacity and accepting a more robust inspection regime.

The same number of people also support some kind of tactical collaboration between the U.S. and Iran against Sunni extremist groups in Iraq, namely the Islamic State, which has undermined the territorial integrity of Post-Saddam Iraq and created a new haven for international terror. A larger majority support more confidence-building measures between Washington and Tehran, hoping to see more normalized bilateral relations after three decades of outright animosity. And according to a recent Gallop Poll, Americans see China -- no longer Iran -- as the United States' greatest enemy.

The economic stakes are also extremely high. According to a recent report by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), stringent sanctions against Iran have cost the U.S. economy up to $135 billion in foregone export revenues and hundreds of thousands of jobs in terms of employment opportunities. As for the Rouhani administration, his best hope at overcoming Iran's economic conundrum, and turning the country into a viable emerging market, is to end Western sanctions against Tehran.

The Second Nixon

In retrospect, Obama's foreign policy approach eerily resembles the Nixon administration in the early-1970s. While Obama has had to overcome the devastating strategic and humanitarian legacy of the Bush administration, Nixon, in turn, came into power after years of domestic political polarization and strategic overstretch due to the Vietnam War, which heavily undermined the fiscal and ideological pillars of Washington.

Recognizing the deep unpopularity of external military interventions and the unsustainable (economic) burden of maintaining American geopolitical primacy, Nixon saw the combination of retrenchment and realpolitik as the only viable strategy. Pre-emptive interventions and relentless unilateralism, based on purely ideological grounds, was out of question.

On the one hand, Nixon pushed regional allies, from Western Europe to the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran and post-War Japan, to shoulder greater responsibility for their own security amid Soviet expansionism. This went hand in hand with Nixon's fateful decision to end Washington's role in bankrolling the global fixed exchange regime, which became almost impossible in an era of stagflation. On the other hand, Nixon's explored an unholy alliance with Communist China, under Chairman Mao, to isolate the Soviet Union.

Amid stubborn economic downturn, the Obama administration has sought to follow in the footsteps of the Nixon doctrine by astutely re-visiting American military commitments in Eurasia, encouraging regional allies to bear greater responsibility for their own security, pursuing a leaner and meaner American military, and, perhaps above all, exploring a strategic accommodation with rival states such as Russia, China, and Iran.

While more hardline regimes in Beijing and Moscow have resisted Washington's overtures -- questioning the sincerity of the Obama administration, and pursuing historic territorial claims in their own backyards -- a pragmatic government in Iran, under President Hassan Rouhani, however, has entertained robust negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. After almost three decades of frozen diplomatic relations, bilateral talks between top Iranian and American officials has become a normal aspect of the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Tehran and world powers. This has opened up new opportunities for more comprehensive exchanges between Tehran and Washington over the future of the Middle East.

Geopoltical realignments

Both Obama and Rouhani are aware of the limits of their diplomatic overtures. The aim of both sides is to reduce unnecessary tensions, explore potential avenues for limited cooperation, and deal with common challenges such as religious extremism in the Middle East.

The Obama administration recognizes the fact that Iran is an influential country, which has considerable sway from Afghanistan to Iraq and Lebanon. But given the depth of the sectarian and economic challenges across the Middle East, no single power can overcome the wave of frustration, conflict, and crises, which has gripped the region for much of the modern age. Both Iran and the U.S. share some common interests in stabilizing the region, while outright enmity between the two powers will only deepen uncertainty and conflict in the region.

The proliferation of extremist groups across the porous borders of Iraq and Syria, which has culminated in the establishment of the Islamic State under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, represents one of the biggest challenges to Iran's national security in years. Both Washington and Tehran share an interest in ensuring the territorial integrity of post-Saddam Iraq and preventing the emergence of a hub of terror at the heart of the Middle East.

The prerequisite to a neither-friends-nor-foes relationship between Iran and the U.S., however, is the conclusion of the ongoing nuclear talks, which have extended beyond their original deadline (July 20). Both sides are yet to agree on the longevity of any proposed nuclear deal and the extent of Iran's domestic enrichment capacity. But there seems to be enough room for a viable compromise on recognizing Iran's enrichment rights, the need for greater nuclear transparency, the redesign of some of Iran's nuclear facilities, and the rolling back of Western sanctions,

The world must welcome fruitful and sustained negotiations between Tehran and Washington to assuage concerns over Iran's nuclear program, prevent an unnecessary and utterly destructive conflict in the Middle East, and test the power of diplomacy in resolving international crises. But before anything, both Obama and Rouhani administrations, however, will have to ramp up their efforts to lobby for a permanent nuclear accord, before powerful skeptics at home, in the coming months. The stakes couldn't be higher.