Commentary Magazine


Iran and the U.S. Don’t Share Goals

When it comes to Iran, hopes in Washington appear to be outrunning the reality on the ground. Based on the fact that Iran has agreed to a slowdown in its nuclear program–nothing more, and even that hasn’t actually been implemented yet–many policymakers and analysts are envisioning a new alignment in which the U.S. and Iran work together for the greater good of the Middle East.

As Jonathan Tobin wrote earlier today, this New York Times article from Tehran, written by Thomas Erdbrink, is indicative of the current zeitgeist. It claims that Washington and Tehran “are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.”

There is no doubt that Iran has cause to be unhappy about Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who are fighting its proxies–even going so far as to bomb the Iranian embassy in Beirut. But that is a far cry from claiming that the U.S. and Iran share identical goals in the region.

The U.S. grand objective is pretty clear: stability above all, even if many Americans disagree about whether long-term stability is better achieved by backing dictatorships or nascent democracies. Under the rubric of stability, the U.S. would specifically like to see the defeat of al-Qaeda, the end of the Iranian nuclear program, the negotiation of an accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and the end of the Syrian civil war, among other objectives.

Now what is the Iranian goal? Is it stability above all? Hardly. If that were the case, why would the Iranians be backing insurgent groups such as Hezbollah (which is receiving long-range Iranian rockets) and the opposition in Bahrain (which was the would-be recipient of a boatload of arms from Iran that was intercepted by Bahraini authorities)?

Iran is a revolutionary, not a status quo power, and its goal above all is regional hegemony. Only by accepting Iranian hegemony could the U.S. truly get on the same page as the Islamic Republic. But the cost of such acceptance would be so high (Do we truly want the Quds Force dominant in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Kabul, Bahrain, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and other capitals? Do we want to permanently alienate allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel?) that it would be unacceptable.

The U.S. and Iran can still cooperate occasionally against common foes–for example the Taliban in 2001. But absent American acceptance of Iranian hegemony such cooperation is likely to prove fleeting and inconsequential–witness more recent Iranian smuggling of arms to the Taliban. The suggestion that some kind of grand bargain is in the offing between Washington and Tehran strikes me as fanciful–unless President Obama is prepared to maker greater concessions to the Iranians that anyone can presently imagine.