Analysis |

Shared Interests in Iraq Could Build Trust Between U.S., Iran

Countries make inroads, but not on nukes - yet.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with Western leaders, during talks in Geneva, November 24, 2013.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Will there be an agreement - or not? No, we are not talking about a cease-fire accord with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. That is not what interests Iran at the moment, but rather the nuclear agreement it is working on with the United States and five other foreign powers. The negotiations between the sides were granted a four-month extension about a month ago, but for now, it is hard to see any real progress since the previous target date for an agreement – July 20 – passed.

In recent days, the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been disseminating pessimistic statements about the possibility of establishing relations with the United States.

Talking to the Americans is "useless" except in certain circumstances, Khamenei told a gathering of Iranian diplomats last week, although, he added, “Of course we do not prohibit continuation of the nuclear negotiations."

Khamenei did not seem to rule out entirely cooperation on other matters, although official Iranian government spokesmen are constantly saying that Tehran's talks with the P5+1 are focusing only on nuclear-related issues.

In the meantime, reports have surfaced to the effect that direct talks on those issues between the Iranians and Americans were conducted even during the tenure of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (in addition to discussions conducted in March 2012).

For example, former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has said that a short time before Ahmadinejad was elected for a second term in 2009, Iranian government officials proposed that Khamenei enter into talks with the Americans. Khamenei agreed, on condition that the discussions would not be held at the level of foreign ministers and not in Tehran.

The talks did indeed take place – in Muscat, the capital of Oman. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, participated on the U.S. side.

Salehi also revealed that the Americans agreed that Iran has the right to enrich uranium, and even gave this approval in writing. Khamenei agreed to the negotiations four years ago to show the Iranian public that Iran has made every effort to reach a diplomatic solution on the nuclear issue, Salehi said.

However, after Ahmadinejad - who always supported direct talks with the United States - was elected president, a rift developed between him and Khamenei, and discussions with the Americans were cut off. They were jump-started about three months before the 2013 presidential election in Iran, and since then, management of the talks has been in the hands of President Hassan Rohani and his staff, headed by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The negotiating team has received full support form Khamenei, who has warned Rohani’s rivals not to criticize the negotiations or the team charged with leading them.

However, Khamenei has not given up his position that the Americans cannot be believed since they do not keep their commitments, and also that they continue to hate Iran. As long as the present circumstances – namely, U.S. "enmity" and hostile remarks by the Congress and administration against Iran – continue, interaction with them is futile, he noted.

In his recent comments, Khamenei cited "new" sanctions the U.S. administration has placed on Iran – except that no such sanctions have been imposed since the interim agreement on the nuclear program was signed in November 2013. The opposite is true: The Obama administration has firmly opposed any attempts by Congress and the Jewish lobby to push for new sanctions against Tehran.

It is possible that Khamenei was talking about a proposed bill in Congress which would prevent the U.S. from allocating funding to the International Atomic Energy Agency to cover supervision of the implementation of an agreement with Iran, if that accord does not receive Congressional approval.

For his part, Rohani continues to support the signing of an agreement, even if his foreign minister expressed doubts last week that it would be possible to do so by November 24. Indeed, there are many major issues still in dispute on the agenda, among them the heavy-water facility in Arak and the enrichment plant in Fordow.

European diplomatic sources say it is possible to reach a solution to these issues before the end of the newly extended period of negotiations.

Rohani, in an unprecedented move, recently called hard-line opponents of the nuclear accord with the foreign powers “political cowards” and said they could “go to hell.” His remarks did not go over well, as could be expected, and some 200 members of the Iranian parliament signed a request to summon Rohani for a parliamentary inquiry to explain his statements.

In the meantime, informal understandings between Iran and the United States are being reached on matters not connected to the nuclear issues. For example, Iran supports American attacks on the bases of the Islamic State in Iraq – as long as the United States does not expand their scope to Syria.

Moreover, the two countries see eye to eye on the need to defeat Sunni extremists, and also support the appointment of a new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Ibadi. The removal of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was also shared by the two countries, and it seems that they are now being joined by Saudi Arabia, which is apparently willing to turn over a new leaf in its relations with Iraq, despite its ties with Tehran.

This is not an alliance in the usual diplomatic sense, but rather a coalescence of interests that could produce cooperation and aid in building trust between Washington and Tehran.

In addition, Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip has placed Iran on the side of Egypt, as well as that of Saudi Arabia. The Iranian leadership urged the Palestinian factions to accept the Egyptian initiative, even though the regime in Cairo does not allow entry of Iranian representatives or aid from Iran to the Strip.

Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Al-Quds Brigades, the organization responsible for military activities outside Iran's borders, may have said he will ask the government in Tehran to approve a military aid budget to Palestine, but in the meantime Iran is keeping mum concerning the cease-fire agreement in Gaza. This is despite the fact that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad – which is still linked to Iran – are holding negotiations with Israel.