U.S.–Iranian Relations after the Nuclear Deal: From Détente to Rapprochement?


Now that a nuclear deal has been negotiated and is likely to be implemented, what’s next for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s foreign policy? His “World Against Violence and Extremism” (WAVE) initiative may give us some clues. On one level, this initiative seeks to recast Iran as a victim of and global partner against terrorism. On another level, it holds open the possibility of U.S.–Iran cooperation on specific regional issues like the fight against the Islamic State and ending the Syrian civil war. The nuclear deal paves the way for such cooperation, enabling what might be a budding détente between Washington and Tehran to begin moving toward rapprochement. Now, there may be a window of opportunity to pursue this goal. But American concern over Iranian nuclear weapons proliferation has historically been only one source of U.S.–Iran tensions. As President Barack Obama recently reiterated, the United States has broad and deep objections to Iranian regional policies from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean. Today, this tension manifests in different visions of the Middle East’s future and, combined with domestic political realities in Iran and the region, may complicate the road to rapprochement.

A window of opportunity

Both the United States and Iran have left open the possibility of dialogue on regional issues after the nuclear deal. In his first post-nuclear deal press conference, Obama asserted that he did not foresee a formal agreement with Iran on issues like fighting the Islamic State. However, he acknowledged that Iran is a major player in Iraq and Syria and that resolving the crises there could require Iranian buy-in. His administration has left the door open to continued de-conflicting with Iran and its allies on the ground in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State. It is also possible that the United States and Iran could now engage in dialogue intended to contribute to a resolution of the Syrian civil war. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also recently hinted that there may be room for dialogue on regional issues, saying that nuclear negotiations “will become an experience; if the other side stops its usual deviance, this will become an experience for us that alright, negotiation with them on another issue would be possible.”

According to Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif promised him that if the nuclear deal is successfully implemented, he (Zarif) will be “empowered to work with and talk to” the United States on regional issues. Zarif outlined the types of regional issues that the two sides can discuss and work on in a June 2015 essay elaborating on Rouhani’s WAVE initiative. In it, Zarif highlights the violent extremism of Sunni takfiri or excommunicative groups such as that of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra as potentially the biggest challenge facing the world. Crucially, his definition of violent extremism excludes Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. He advocates a global coalition to address the social, political, and economic roots of violent extremism. Zarif also calls for the coalition to confront violent extremism directly through sanctions that deprive it of cash, arms, and personnel as well as military efforts to defeat it on the battlefield.

A history of frustrated diplomacy

This push to improve ties through cooperation comes amidst a history of frustrated diplomacy. Iranian regional policies have been obstacles to cooperation and a deeper thaw in relations for successive U.S. administrations, which have been relatively consistent in their objections to Iran’s behavior. At the same time, U.S. presidents have tested the waters in terms of improving relations. These efforts foundered, either as a result of U.S. or Iranian actions. In his 1989 inaugural address, President George H.W. Bush hinted that Iranian assistance in freeing American hostages in Lebanon would not go unnoticed: “Good will begets good will. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.” But even after the hostages were released, continuing U.S. concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities abroad prevented a thaw. Interest in engagement under President Bill Clinton also foundered in part due to Iranian support for militant groups in the Middle East. Events like the Khobar Tower bombings, which are thought to have been carried out by Saudi Hezbollah and sponsored by Iran, prevented substantive improvement in relations even with the back-channel mediation of Sultan Qaboos of Oman.

There was another opportunity for a thaw after the United States and Iran cooperated in the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. The following year, however, President George W. Bush branded Iran as a member of the “axis of evil,” justifying this in part based on Iranian actions such as the purported transfer of arms to Palestinian militants in the Karine A affair. When Iran supposedly put its regional policies up for negotiation as part of a “road map” to normalize ties with the United States the next year, the Bush administration is said to have rejected it outright. With Iranian moderates discredited, Iranian hawks took the helm of foreign policy and escalated tensions with the United States by, among other things, targeting U.S. personnel and interests in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A rocky road to rapprochement

Despite the nuclear deal, the United States continues to see many Iranian policies in the Middle East as undermining its interests, thereby rendering cooperation, let alone rapprochement, problematic. This dynamic may be understood by unpacking what is likely the single greatest example of cooperation between the two sides since 1979. Collaboration to overthrow the Taliban in 2001 happened amidst a strategic confluence of interests and goals to stabilize Afghanistan as seen later at the Bonn Conference. While both sides today have an interest in ultimately defeating Sunni jihadist groups, we do not see an Afghanistan-like convergence anywhere else. As Ayatollah Khamenei has asserted: “America’s policies in the region differ 180 degrees from the policies of the Islamic Republic.” Tehran’s Middle East policy is under the thumb of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Jerusalem Force commander Maj. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani who seeks to maintain Iranian influence in Iraq, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and proxies throughout the region. Washington has little appetite to negotiate with Soleimani and the IRGC, who are viewed as root causes of rather than remedies to a number of regional conflicts.

Further complicating any attempt at expanding or even maintaining the current U.S.–Iran détente are political realities in the region and Iran. Rouhani’s WAVE initiative proposes a global solution to the crises of the Middle East, ignoring crucial regional dynamics. A global solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis was possible because this issue is governed by a nonproliferation regime overseen by global powers. This model is less applicable to the Middle East, where regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel are the relevant powers. While these actors may be content to see nuclear weapons removed from the regional geopolitical equation, they are committed to confronting what they see as a resurgent Islamic Republic enriched by sanctions relief. Moreover, they can incentivize or disincentivize U.S. cooperation with Iran on some issues by changing or maintaining polices the United States finds troubling. Continued Saudi and Turkish benign neglect or outright support for radical Sunni groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham is an obstacle to greater U.S. support for its Sunni allies in Syria and creates maneuver room for Iran. In contrast, policy changes like Turkey’s decision to join the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State could have the opposite effect.

Finally, right now we see little indication of change in the Islamic Republic’s Middle East policy to enable a deeper U.S.-Iran thaw. As I’ve argued elsewhere, nuclear negotiations were made possible by a shift in Iranian elite consensus in favor of negotiations. The boost by the nuclear deal to Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy combined with the mounting costs of Iran’s current Middle East approach may lead to a new consensus that allows the Iranian president to take over the regional file. In the meantime, the IRGC is not about to surrender its most important foreign policy file so easily.

Into an Uncertain Future

The nuclear deal may remove a major source of tension in U.S.–Iran relations. Furthermore, the rapport and diplomatic channel established during nuclear negotiations may create opportunities for limited cooperation. Both presidents Obama and Rouhani have made nuclear negotiations a top foreign policy priority to set the relationship between their countries on a new path. But this window of opportunity may only last as long as they remain in power. And even within this narrow window, U.S.–Iranian discord on regional issues pre-dating the nuclear crisis will continue to persist. American, Middle Eastern, and Iranian political realities may actually dictate an escalation of tension and conflict on some fronts. For now, we may reasonably expect a continuation of U.S.–Iran détente, rather than rapprochement.


Farzan Sabet (@IranWonk) is a PhD candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and a Nuclear Security Pre-doctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is also Managing Editor at IranPolitik.com (@IranPolitik), which focuses on Iranian politics.