An Historic Opportunity For A US-Iran Rapprochement

Although US President Barack Obama failed to meet his new Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly gathering in New York this week, hopes are running high that Washington and Tehran can improve relations over the coming months and years. Obama is keen to cement his political legacy, and a rapprochement with Iran would be a remarkable achievement, considering that the US and Iran have been bitter enemies since latter's revolution in 1979, and in particular the hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran from 1979 to 1981. For its part, Iran has a long list of grievances with the US stretching back decades.

Given Iran's crucial position in the Middle East and its connections to a host of destabilising forces in the region, any US-Iran rapprochement could be a regional and perhaps global 'game-changer'. Indeed, of the handful of countries in the world that are fiercely anti-American or against the global status quo, Iran is arguably the most powerful. Therefore, if the US could transform Iran's behaviour and guide Tehran towards the 'international community', then this would be a significant boost for America's global influence.

Back in January 2013, when Obama was beginning his second term, we published an article in Business Monitor Online titled Iran Rapprochement Could Bolster Obama's Legacy. We are publishing extracts from the article below, in light of its topicality.

"Proponents of a major US-led rapprochement with Iran point to Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972, which set the scene for a normalisation of diplomatic relations in 1979 and China's integration into the global economy in the 1980s. Nixon was motivated by his need to end the Vietnam war, in which China backed North Vietnam against the US-backed South, and in which tens of thousands of American troops had been killed. Nixon also sought to exploit the rift between the Soviet Union and China over the leadership of the Communist world. By improving relations with Beijing, the US was seeking to use China as a counterweight to the USSR. Ultimately, Nixon's move was a great success.

In many ways, Nixon's outreach to China was much bolder than any putative outreach by Obama to Iran would be, because more 'bad blood' separated Washington and Beijing than separates Washington and Tehran. In the late 1960s, China actively supported a direct enemy of the US (North Vietnam), and had fought directly against the US in the Korean War, which had ended only 19 years earlier and cost the lives of 34,000 American troops. By comparison, although Tehran has supported anti-American fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been no direct conflict between the US and Iran. In addition, the cultural gap between democratic America and Maoist China was arguably greater than that between the US and Iran today, because although Iran is a theocratic Islamist state, globalisation has made the country less cut off from the world than China in the 1970s.

The main problem with using the Nixon-in-China example as a guide for a US rapprochement with Iran is that Iran, despite its geopolitical importance, is not as significant as China, which is a much larger country with a fifth of the world's population. The US had a far greater imperative in the 1970s to repair relations with China than Washington has today for reconciliation with Tehran. China was an essential counterweight to the USSR, whereas Iran does not serve such a purpose today. For the US, Iran is still a manageable threat.

Another potential problem for Obama, if he were to pursue the Nixon-in-China approach, is the perception that he is soft on Islamists and America's enemies in general. By contrast, Nixon had solid anti-Communist credentials developed during decades in politics, meaning that he could resist criticism from hardliners in the US. An Obama outreach to Iran would surely attract vigorous criticism in America, and from Israel, too. Obama would almost certainly be accused of 'appeasing' Iran and rewarding Tehran's 'bad behaviour'. Potential political opposition from Congress could thus limit the scope for improved relations.   

US-Iran Rapprochement: High Risks, High Rewards, For Both Sides

An Obama-instigated rapprochement with Iran would be a high-risk gamble, for the risk of failure would be considerable. For example, if Obama went to Tehran to meet Iran's leaders and they subsequently reneged on any agreements that were signed amid great fanfare, or if the rapprochement broke down within a few years, his reputation would be tarnished. Obama would also face a dilemma over what to do if Iran's now 'friendly' leaders faced a new popular uprising and cracked down violently.

There would also be political risks for Iranian leaders, given that many top officials have spent decades espousing radical anti-American views. In many ways, anti-Americanism is one of the core beliefs of the Islamic revolution, and the top clerics' hardline credentials would be undermined in the eyes of their supporters. Iran would also be at risk of losing geopolitical influence in the Middle East, since much of its 'influence' is derived from supporting radical groups, which the regime may be forced to abandon under the terms of a rapprochement. Tehran will certainly be cognisant that Russia lost substantial influence in the early 1990s once it mended relations with the West. Russia made many concessions such as withdrawing its troops from eastern Europe, while receiving little in return.

Nonetheless, the rewards of a rapprochement would be considerable for both sides. The lifting of sanctions would boost Iran's economy, paving the way for substantial foreign investment that has been on hold due to Tehran's pariah status. The oil and gas industry would be the obvious beneficiary, but so too would infrastructure projects such as ports and railways, as Iran was finally integrated into the emerging Eurasian 'silk road'. Iran, with a population of 75mn, would also become a vast new consumer market, perhaps with the potential to catch up with Turkey over the long term. Israel's security would improve, and the US could also cooperate more closely with Iran on stabilising Afghanistan (Tehran has been against the Taliban for longer than the US). Iran could also become a bulwark against an increasingly dysfunctional Pakistan. Finally, a friendly Iran could also join international efforts to maintain security in the north-western Indian Ocean, which has seen considerable piracy.

Several countries could be 'losers' of an US-Iran rapprochement. Saudi Arabia might feel less threatened by Tehran, but its geopolitical influence would probably decline somewhat. Turkey could see benefits of being integrated into a new east-west economic corridor with Iran, but the two countries are geopolitical rivals and the rising Iranian economy could become a competitor of Turkey in the long term. Russia would probably be suspicious of closer US-Iran relations, with Moscow fearing that Tehran would seek to expand its influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia with the backing of the US.  

Things Can Move Quickly

Although the notion of Obama visiting Tehran seems very far-fetched at this time, things can move quickly. The Cold War ended very suddenly in the late 1980s, and the US-Myanmar breakthrough in 2011 also emerged rapidly. Also noteworthy is that despite Bill Clinton having contemplated airstrikes against North Korea's nuclear facilities in 1994, he almost arranged to visit Pyongyang in late 2000. Therefore, a US-Iran rapprochement over the next four years is not unthinkable."