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What If Iran and the U.S. Keep Talking?

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Now that the Iran nuclear deal is all but an accomplished fact, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually agree on something: Both have made it clear that they don’t want any more engagement between the U.S. and Iran. Iranian and Israeli hardliners alike want the nuclear deal to be a one-off that doesn’t change the basic structure of regional opposition between Iran and its Shiite proxies on the one hand, and the U.S. and its alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia on the other.

But moderates in the U.S. and Iran -- and possibly even Israel -- will see things differently. Many of them perceive large areas of overlapping American and Iranian interests, most notably the defeat of Islamic State and a solution to the generational humanitarian and policy debacle that is Syria. If the U.S. and Iran work together on those problems, they could strengthen and deepen the connections made in the course of the nuclear negotiations. Ultimately, a U.S.-Iran rapprochement could change the strategic alignments in the Middle East and Persian Gulf that have existed since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Which way the relationship goes over the next several years will do much to define U.S. President Barack Obama’s legacy in the region -- even though Obama won’t be in office as the relationship is determined.

The case for the nuclear deal as a unique and isolated arrangement -- one that doesn’t change the basic facts of U.S.-Iran confrontation -- is strong. When Khamenei made his public statement last week that Israel wouldn’t exist in 25 years, his aim was to appease hardliners and avoid the perception in the Muslim world that, by doing a deal with the U.S., Iran would now soften its stand on Israel. In the same remarks, the supreme leader seemed to rule out working with the U.S. to solve the Syria problem -- another comment intended to align himself with hard-line Iranian ideologues.

So long as Iran takes an ideologically rejectionist (or destructionist) stand on Israel and refuses to cooperate in solving the Syria crisis, U.S.-Iran ties are unlikely to deepen. But moderates could plausibly argue that Khamenei’s statements aren’t meant to do much more than cover his right flank. After the Iran deal, most observers agree, the Obama administration is unlikely to put active pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians -- not because they don’t want to, but because ties with Israel and its supporters have already been frayed enough by the nuclear deal. Khamenei may well be doing something similar, namely repairing frayed relations with the most ideological Iranian factions who think he’s just betrayed them by sacrificing Iran’s short-term nuclear aspirations to the Great Satan.

If that’s right, then over time, cooperation might emerge. In Iraq, Iran and the U.S. have been cooperating, albeit awkwardly, in fighting Islamic State. Essentially, the U.S. is providing airpower, while the most effective ground forces have been Iranian-backed Shiite militias under the guidance of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. The progress of this cooperation will be a good early indicator of whether Iran and the U.S. agree to disagree over ideology while cooperating over a common interest.

If Islamic State isn’t defeated by the de facto U.S.-Iranian coalition in Ramadi, then the prospects for further cooperation will be dim. If, however, Islamic State is pushed back in Ramadi, both Iranian and U.S. moderates will be heartened. Both will then be able to argue that together, Iran and the U.S. actually make an important difference in re-establishing stability.

The really pressing need for stability exists, of course, in Syria. Some estimates have almost half of Syria’s population being displaced by the civil war there -- which means roughly 12 million people on the move. This isn’t just a crisis for Europe, which could well end up with more than 1 million of them. It’s a major crisis of destabilization for tiny Lebanon, which can ill afford 1 million or more extra people. It threatens the stability of Jordan, where well over 1 million more have already gone. And it’s bad (and expensive) news for Turkey, which doesn’t have the same stability worries but is struggling with the emergence of a growing Kurdish regional entity that threatens to connect Iraqi Kurdistan to Syrian Kurdistan.

The U.S. and Iran share a common interest in restabilizing Syria. The endgame could involve removing President Bashar al-Assad or leaving him in control of a rump-Syria that's a cantonment for the country’s Alawites. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a deal being brokered and enforced without Iran’s involvement.

Solving Syria would do a lot of good for the world. It would also consolidate U.S.-Iranian cooperation as a regional force capable of exerting its will to establish new borders. Although ideology today makes it difficult to imagine, there’s no strategic reason Iran and the U.S. shouldn’t be allied. Before 1979, the Shah was a staunch American ally, a barrier against the Cold War Soviet Union. Today, Iran and the U.S. could conceivably balance Russian and Chinese regional interests in the central Asia, and reduce U.S. dependence on Saudi oil.

If that happens -- and it’s much more unlikely than not -- then Obama’s regional legacy will include reversing 35 years of U.S.-Iran hostility and remaking the strategic map of the Middle East. If Khamenei and Netanyahu have their way, the legacy of the nuclear deal will be far more modest: pushing the problem of Iran’s rise down the road for a future president to address when the time comes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net