Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.
The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.
Before anyone hops on the bandwagon forming to welcome Iranian intervention in the widening conflict in Iraq, it’s important to remember that these same hopes were once widely expressed about Tehran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Though Iran has more at stake in any battle to preserve the government of fellow Shiites in Baghdad, anyone who believes Tehran’s goal is regional stability hasn’t been paying attention to Iranian foreign policy over the last 20 years.
Iran’s goals in the Middle East have been remarkably consistent for decades. It worked hard to forge an alliance with Syria to outflank Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with which it fought a bloody war in the 1980s. Saddam’s fall and ultimate replacement by a majority-Shiite government gave Iran the opportunity to make Iraq an ally. Tehran did its best to hamper U.S. efforts to create stability–although it ultimately acquiesced in the creation of a majority-Shiite government. When President Obama left Iraq with no structure in place to maintain U.S. interests, that too worked to Iran’s advantage. Saddam—for all his massive, homicidal villainy—did serve as a check on Iran.
But the main battle that has interested Tehran in more recent years has been the one it has waged in Syria to preserve the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. When President Obama called for Assad to leave office but failed to do anything to bring about that result, the Iranians stepped into the vacuum, sending massive amounts of military aid and deploying their auxiliaries in the form of Hezbollah shock troops to shore up a tottering Damascus government. While the West dithered, Iran’s troops turned the tide.There is little doubt that Assad’s hold on power—despite murdering more than 100,000 Syrians—is secure.
Iran’s victory in Syria combined with Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon have created a pro-Tehran axis that threatens the security of moderate Arab governments in the region, as well as that of Israel, as much as al-Qaeda’s resurgence. Rather than a solution to America’s problems, every effort to move closer to Iran is tantamount to placing a Western imprimatur on the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Just as the deal signed by Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva gives Iran’s nuclear program a Western seal of approval, additional cooperation with Tehran elsewhere creates a perilous situation in which the West, in its folly, is agreeing to the existence of an Iranian sphere of influence that fundamentally alters the balance of power in the region.
Every advantage the U.S. thinks it gains from détente with Iran in the present will be paid in the future as the Islamist regime consolidates its power, especially if the diplomatic shell game Tehran is playing with Kerry leads to the complete collapse of Western economic sanctions. That is the key for the Iranians, because once that happens there will be no reassembling the reluctant coalition that the U.S. spent the last decade cobbling together.
A wise U.S. foreign policy would be one that recognizes that common ground with Iran is a Western illusion. The gap that separates the U.S. from a radical Islamist, anti-Semitic and terror-sponsoring government in Tehran, one with an openly-stated goal of annihilating the State of Israel cannot be bridged by a misguided understanding of realpolitik or the perception of shared interests in either Syria or Iraq. Dreams of détente with Iran will only lead to a nightmare Middle East in which genuine U.S. allies are left alone to deal with a genocidal Islamist nuclear regional power. The enemy of our enemy in Iraq is still our enemy.