War on the Rocks has an interesting piece by Farzan Sabet throwing cold water on the possibility of future cooperation between the United States and Iran beyond the nuclear deal. Both states presumably have a shared interest in the defeat of a common enemy: the Islamic State. However, Sabet warns that Tehran will resist cooperation for two related reasons. The first is Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, a strategy prosecuted by Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani and his support for proxy states and militias. The second is a network of rivalries between Iran and Sunni regional powers threatened by Iran’s bid for hegemony. This argument implicitly assumes that competition is rooted in the Iranian regime’s revisionist foreign policy posture – it seeks to dominate the region and rewrite the rules of regional order consistent with its own ideology.
However, there are developments out of Tehran that suggest Iran is adopting more restraint in its foreign policy. The conclusion of the nuclear negotiations has seen Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif open the door to cooperation on other issues with the United States, which presumably include ISIS and broader regional instability. Most recently, The Economist has reported that Suleimani’s activities are now under review by an external committee following criticisms regarding his proxy-oriented strategy. The same piece notes that Zarif has effectively stepped into Suleimani’s role, and is now seeking to “find an endgame in Syria that limits, rather than increases, Iran’s armed involvement in the civil war there.” Combined with the ascendence of the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who initiated diplomatic outreach with the West that led to the nuclear deal, it seems that politics within the Iranian regime thus appear to be driving foreign policy change.
This bodes well for the prospects of a continuing rapproachement between the US and Iran, but it does not necessarily mean that cooperation is forthcoming. An undiscussed factor is domestic politics within the United States. While Rouhani and Zarif are especially secure in their position, no such uncertainty exists in the United States. This country itself is about to undergo a leadership transition with the 2016 election, and there are vastly different opinions on the nuclear deal and presumably future cooperation.
We can safely assume that a Republican candidate will tear up the nuclear deal and resume hostility towards Iran (although Donald Trump has given mixed signals on this). On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear how Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner, would approach Iran. While she is supporting the Iran deal, this appears to be more about avoiding the appearance of going against President Obama. She has been an Iran hawk in the past, and was Senator from a state who’s politicians fall all over themselves speaking against Iran as resolute defenders of Israel. Bernie Sanders would be most likely to support continued cooperation with Iran. Although he is rising in the polls, he remains an underdog.
If we consider the domestic politics of both Iran and the United States, the window of opportunity for further cooperation is wider than we think, especially on the Iranian side. But, the combination of uncertainty injected by the 2016 election and the highly partisan nature of the issue shows that the real obstacle is American domestic politics.