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Obama Should Play Nixon and Go to Iran

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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President Barack Obama has vowed to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State, or ISIS. That will be difficult without boots on the ground, and if those boots are American, it means a major war in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, even if we invade and destroy ISIS, we will withdraw in a few years, and something like ISIS will probably just come back.

What we need is an ally to put boots on the ground against ISIS, who can also act to stabilize the region after ISIS is dispersed. Turkey is out -- even its feint toward limited intervention in Syria generated massive internal dissent. Saudi Arabia doesn't have the capability. There's only one potential strategic partner left: Iran.

Iran is already fighting ISIS on the ground. This summer, when it looked like ISIS was about to take Baghdad, Iran sent its best military commander, Qasem Soleimani, to bolster the Iraqi defenses. He apparently succeeded, because there has been little subsequent talk of ISIS taking Baghdad. It is also possible that recent Iraqi Army successes are due to the helping hand of Iranian troops and training. Iran is also, of course, helping Basher Assad to fight ISIS in Syria.

U.S. aerial firepower and Iranian troops could defeat ISIS, but more crucially, Iran is also in a position to stabilize the region. Assad is a monster, but if the U.S. and Iran were allied, he might be pressured into sharing power with the anti-ISIS rebels after ISIS goes down; as it is, our unrelenting commitment to get rid of Assad is assuring that Syria will remain in a state of anarchy, a vacuum that only an ISIS-type entity will ever fill. If anyone can pressure both Assad and the Iraqi Shiites into sharing power with local Sunnis, it's an American-Iranian duo.

But there is another big, important reason for us to join with Iran: oil. The Iranian oil industry is currently restricted by U.S.-led sanctions that deprive it of Western technology and investment. With those sanctions removed, Iranian oil would begin to flow; if Iran helps stabilize Iraq, the effect will be multiplied.

A flood of Iranian oil would give the U.S. the ability to level much heavier sanctions against Russia, and would ensure global oil supplies in the event that a broader conflict in Eastern Europe disrupts Russian oil supplies. In other words, becoming friendlier with Iran would strengthen our hand against the suddenly aggressive Russians.

Beyond the short-term threats of ISIS and Russia, Iran and the U.S. are, if not natural allies, then at least not natural enemies. Despite still being a theocracy at the top, Iran is more democratic and modernized than any country in the region except Israel. Iran's public is less anti-American than most of our Arab allies, and Iran sends many students to study at American universities.

Some may argue that a U.S.-Iranian partnership would put Israel in danger. But it seems obvious that the U.S.'s ability to restrain Iran from attacking Israel would increase, not decrease, if the two countries were partners. The prospects of a permanent peace between Israel and Hezbollah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon, would be strengthened if the combatants' main patrons were on friendly terms. In Iran, the new government has disavowed the anti-Semitism of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In an encouraging sign, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently spoke approvingly about anti-ISIS cooperation between the U.S. and Iran.

There are four main obstacles to a U.S.-Iran partnership. The first is the unsavory nature of Iran's allies, Hezbollah and Assad, but as I mentioned, these problems would be easier to solve with Iran as an ally than as an enemy. The second is Iran's nuclear program. But the deal struck last year between Obama and Iran's new government shows that there is room for compromise. And the prospect of Iran producing nuclear energy would be far less frightening if Iran were aligned with the West. The third problem is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. But already ISIS is making Iran and Saudi Arabia realize their common interests. The U.S. also has a good record of persuading ancient enemies to tolerate each other -- witness Greece and Turkey in NATO, or Japan and South Korea.

The final and most intractable obstacle to a U.S.-Iran realignment is simply the legacy of enmity. Americans have become so used to thinking of Iran as "the enemy" that many simply cannot countenance a strategic realignment. The same is true in Iran, where the Revolutionary Guard and the mullahs have a deep strategic distrust of a country that overthrew their leader in the 1950s and supported Saddam Hussein against them in the Iran-Iraq War. In the U.S., memories of the hostage crisis remain strong. We've reached the point where the enmity between our countries no longer serves a useful purpose, and simply shambles along, sustained by its own momentum.

But there is an encouraging precedent: the China-U.S. rapprochement of the 1970s. The U.S. had been a dogged opponent of Communist China, even fighting a war against it in Korea. But the two countries managed to form an unofficial alliance after the Sino-Soviet split, and that partnership was key to winning the Cold War.

Another strategic realignment is needed. Just as Nixon went to China, Obama should go to Iran.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net