If the United States wants to maintain influence in the conflicted Middle East and legitimacy in the international arena, it's time to open up to diplomatic relationships with Iran.
With many states in the Middle East still politically torn, economically disadvantaged, and serving as hotbeds of extremism in the wake of the Arab Spring, Iran has come to play the surprising role of a stable power player in an extremely unstable region. Iran’s influence in regional politics is undeniable: it is a power player in the Syrian crisis, maintains a close relationship with Russia, and serves as the ideological opposite to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East peace process. Despite sharing a vested interest in the same crises and regional developments, the United States and Iran have myriad differences. Iran has yet to recognize Israel’s statehood, has provided sponsorship to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and, of most concern, has uranium mines and enrichment capabilities that place Iran near “breakout capability” (having enough highly enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear weapon).
The election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on and was elected on a platform of attempting to warm diplomatic relations with the United States, opened the first avenue since 1980 for Iran and the United States to attempt direct diplomatic negotiations.
Such interaction, centering on resolving the Iranian Nuclear Deal, ending the conflict in Syria, and lessening violent extremism in the Middle East, has placed both states in an unstable situation. Negotiations have forced Iran to work with the country that supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and forced the United States to work with the country that held their diplomats hostage in 1979. The United States has been forced to recognize and treat Iran as a significant, sovereign state with its own legitimate interests, rather than as a violent and extremist rogue nation. At the same time, Iran has been forced to seek out negotiations with the United States to kickstart their sputtering economy. Negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, attended by Iran, the United States, Britain, France, China, Germany, and Russia, have been remarkably successful. The group, which reached an interim agreement in November, meets again on May 13 to draft the text of a permanent resolution.
Despite the progress, the United States has failed to treat Iran as an equal negotiator in all aspects of the international diplomatic arena. For example, on January 20, the United Nations, under pressure from the United States, withdrew Iran’s invitation to the Geneva II peace talks, designed to craft a sustainable solution to the Syrian conflict. The pattern of withheld diplomacy was repeated on April 11, when the United States announced that it would block Iran’s selection of Hamid Aboutalebi as its representative to the United Nations. President Obama then signed a law passed by Congress that blocks any individual found to have engaged in espionage or terrorist activity from entering the United States. Aboutalebi, who reportedly served as a translator during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, would thus be barred from receiving a visa to take up his position at United Nations headquarters in New York under U.S. law. Frustrations over this affront to Aboutalebi, who is seen as a moderate and highly experienced diplomat within Iran, have led Iranian lawmakers to accuse the United States of “bullying.” While the United States has maintained calm decorum within discussions of nuclear disarmament, it has continually undercut Iran’s authority and displaced it from the table within international negotiations. In spite of concerted efforts, public interviews, and measured responses to the insults, the two countries’ negotiations and interactions seem to be stretched thin.
History and differences aside, reestablishing relations with Iran is one of the greatest foreign policy challenges of President Obama’s final term as president. Retaining peace through the nuclear discussions with Iran is crucial to ensuring that Iran does not progress to breakout capability, which has the potential to spark a regional arms race, cause oil prices to rise, or provoke an Israeli attack. With the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan and absent from Iraq – two states which border Iran – it is critical to engage Iran so that the stability of the region is maintained. Finally, as Saudi Arabia and the United States drift apart ideologically, as Russia and the United States engage in diplomatic struggles over the future of Ukraine, as Europe tries to free itself from energy dependence on Russia, and as the international community struggles over the future of Syria, Iran becomes a critical “balancing power.”
The United States stands to lose a foothold in the Syrian conflict, influence in the Middle East, and perceived legitimacy in international politics if it does not actively work with Iran. This is not the moment for reflecting on the past; rather, our foreign policy makers need to be looking to the future. The consequences of not engaging with Iran are severe, and the risk of failure isn’t worth the attention we receive from flexing our muscles on the international stage.
Jacqueline Van de Velde is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Senior Fellow for Defense and Diplomacy and a senior at the University of Georgia.
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