22.10.2015 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The stretch-limit of the US-Iran Rapprochement

4534534222On Friday, September 12, the U.S. Congress failed, as was expected, to derail the Iran deal as Republicans could not get a veto-proof majority in either chamber of the bicameral legislature. President Barack Obama has already pledged to veto any congressional resolution that rejects the deal the United States and five other world powers signed with Iran in Vienna in July. `Today`s vote is the latest indication that the more members have studied the historic deal, the more they have come out in support of it,` said the president after Friday`s vote.

However, the story is not so simple as it looks. Although Republicans failed to get a veto-proof majority, opposition to the deal is intense within the US political circles and, as is expected, it is likely to intensify if Republicans happen to come in power in the next year’s election. The extent of the Republican Party’s opposition to the deal is evident from the details of the proceedings of the last session of the U.S. Congress.

They were able to lead the House to first reject a resolution to approve the Iran nuclear deal by 162 to 269 votes. Later, it passed another resolution to suspend until Jan. 21, 2017, the authority of the president to `waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from, or otherwise limit the application of sanctions` on Iran. The House also passed a resolution on Thursday, criticising President Obama for not providing Congress with all documents of the Iran deal which, it said, was a violation of the congressional review law passed earlier this year.

Although these latest developments may not have an immediate and direct bearing on the US-Iran relations; however, these developments certainly reflect just how precarious and sensitive the thread of their bi-lateral relations is. The Republicans were just two votes short of getting a veto-free majority; and, if they happen to win the next elections, the U.S-Iran relations might not be able to maintain the current “good-will” momentum.

The problem, however, is not merely and only in the U.S. Within Iran, too, opposition to full scale rapprochement with the U.S. remains high. As a matter of fact, since the finalization of the deal, Iran’s Supreme leader has, time and again, been vowing that the deal would not alter their relations with the “arrogant” USA. Opposition in Iran is certainly due to the deep-seated distrust of the US and its various policies regarding the Middle East.

It is a well-known fact that long-held distrust between the U.S. and Iran has historically made it difficult for the two countries to collaborate even when they have shared interests. The U.S. rejects Iranian military involvement across the Middle East in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and is wary of the “secretive regime” – officially designated a state sponsor of terrorism – that continues to be propagated about funding the so-called “dictatorial” government in Syria.

The crucial issue that can really help them improve their relations is fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, as mentioned, above distrust continues to block the way for extending co-operation beyond Iran’s nuclear programme. So far, the US has been unable to bring Iran round the idea of joining the coalition against ISIS. However, the fact that the U.S. has a dual interest in the Middle East that Iran cannot hope to reconcile with continues to widen the gap between them as far as the conflict in the Middle East is concerned. That is to say, while Iran may be able to join the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, there is no way Iran can help the U.S. in fighting Assad in Syria. And, as long as the U.S. continues to follow double standards, US-Iran co-operation would remain a highly improbable reality to take place.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, recently told Iranian TV, “We have no plans for joint work with the US against Daesh (ISIS), but we will continue our help and consultations at the request of the Iraqi and Syrians governments,” he said. In his interview, he also affirmed that Iran will continue its support of countries in the Middle East who are endangered by extremist groups like ISIS. He stressed, however, that they would not be working alongside the US forces, who they believe are engaged in a “double-standard policy” against terrorists in the region.

Iranian officials have publicly stated that the recent Iranian nuclear deal will not change its regional policies, including support for allies in the region. Iran publicly supports several Shi’ite military groups in the region, such as the Houthis in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In December 2014, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Gen. Massoud Jazayeri denied reports that Iranian fighter bombers had struck ISIS targets in Iraq in coordination with the US. On the contrary, he said “Iran blames the US as the root cause of unrest and problems [in the region], as well as the actions of ISIS in Iraq.” “The US has no place or future in Iraq or Syria”, he added further. This view continues to prevail in Iran’s highest policy circles and is very unlikely to change given that Iran is yet not considering to turn its rapprochement with the U.S. into an alliance.

Even before the deal was announced, the chief of an elite unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard went on to accuse the U.S. of having “no will” to stop ISIS after the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi. He also stated, “Today, there is nobody in confrontation with (ISIS) except the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as nations who are next to Iran or supported by Iran.”

In fact, his views certainly seem to have some substance, especially when we look at the duality of the US led campaign against ISIS. According to the official figures recently released by the US Central Command, “the U.S. and its coalition partners have struck 10,684 targets including 3,262 ISIS buildings, 119 commandeered tanks, 1,202 vehicles and 2,577 fighting positions.” Apparently, these figures look bright; however, when we match these figures with ground realities, ISIS seems to have more ground than it had exactly a year ago when the US led campaign began in August 2014. On the other hand, this highly selective targeting seems to be solely aimed at destroying Iraq and Syria’s physical infrastructure. In this behalf, the US led campaign is not much different from Turkey’s campaign against ISIS, which the former is using as a blanket to cover its campaign against Kurds. Indirectly, both continue to support ISIS by not targeting it.

On the other hand, what seems to be quite a possibility is ISIS gaining even more strength in the wake of this deal. The fact that many Arab “Sunni” states–Iran’s chief rivals–are not happy with the deal might be led to think of further extending support to ISIS in the form of finances and weapons to further jeopardize Iranian interests in the region by selectively targeting Shia community in the region. If this were to occur, it will further deteriorate Iran-US relations because the U.S. continues to provide the “Sunni” Arab states with modern weapons that they continue to channelize to ISIS and use against Iranian allies in Yemen and Syria.

That the U.S. is still playing a double game becomes evident yet again by casting a close look at her policies towards the Middle East. If, on the one hand, the U.S. Government is ready to go the extent of using veto-power to finalize the nuke-deal with Iran, on the other hand, it is that very US Government that continues to pledge its “full support” to Iran’s major rival states in the Mid-East. How, under such dubious circumstances, can Iran be expected to formally join the U.S. in its fight against ISIS? For countries to forge durable relations, they have to have common interest. In the case of Iran-US relations, there seems to be hardly any when it comes to the on-going conflict in the Middle East. Their bi-lateral relations, therefore, do not seem to have enough flexibility to stretch beyond the nuke-deal. Even if the nuke-deal is approved by the US Congress, which is most likely to, ISIS and Assad would continue to remain outstanding issues between both countries.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook


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