Unlikely Bedfellows, U.S. and Iran Are Cozying Up

As Tehran proves its worth in the fight against ISIS, Israel's nuclear concerns are taking a back seat in Washington.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Lausanne in 2015.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Lausanne in 2015.Credit: A.P.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Were it not for the uproar over the elections, and especially their outcome, the news of the removal of Hezbollah and Iran from the list of terror threats to the United States would have no doubt stirred up a huge commotion.

Not only is the United States galloping ahead at full force to make the target date for signing an agreement on principles, now it is also giving Iran and Hezbollah a kind of kashrut certificate in its annual national security assessment signed by National Intelligence Agency chief James Clapper. This is not the only intelligence assessment, and in the Pentagon’s intelligence report Iran and Hezbollah do appear as threats yet one cannot but raise an eyebrow in the face of the NIA assessment, especially after Clapper’s pubic statements about Iran’s advanced capability to develop a nuclear bomb.

The explanation for the change in direction lies in the report itself, which praises Iran for its part in the war again Sunni terror organizations, i.e. the Islamic State, and for aiding countries like Iraq that are fighting it. Concerning Iran, Washington’s approach distinguishes between the war on terror and the atom, thus eliminating one of the pillars on which Israel bases its persuasion campaign against the Iranian atom.

Nor is the United States very concerned about the fact that Iran is equipping Iraq with advanced Fajr-5 missiles (of the sort fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip) and Fatah-110 missiles to help the Iraqis fight against the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — in the city of Tikrit.

“We are following Iran’s supply of arms to Iraq,” was the laconic response from the State Department. “Following” is short for “we know about it and agree,” and Washington knows that Iran is supplying not only missiles but also training, armaments, funding, command and communications systems to the Iraqi army and to Shi’ite militias that are operating under Iranian direction and command.

Even without a signed agreement, Iran is an integral and active part of the international coalition woven together by United States President Barack Obama. It is attacking Islamic State targets from the air, with the knowledge of the coalition forces and apparently there is also indirect coordination via Iraq between the Western forces and Iran’s in order to avoid combat encounters in the skies of Iraq.

A taboo broken

The indirect military cooperation between Iran and the United States in the war against the Islamic State is not the only taboo that was broken during this past year in the course of the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program in parallel to the Islamic State’s conquests in Iraq and Syria. The existence of direct dialogues between representatives of the United States and of Iran, such as those between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, or between American Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – a nuclear physicist – and Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian representative to the Atomic Energy Organization, in Lausanne are already taken for granted, as though there had not been a complete severance of ties between the two countries for more than 35 years.

During the past year and half or so year the expression “the great Satan” has not been heard in Iran while a CNN/ORC public opinion poll found that approximately 68 percent of Americans – Democrats and Republicans in about the same proportions – support direct American-Iranian negotiations on the nuclear issue.

The legitimacy enjoyed by the negotiations is part of an important process known in public diplomacy as “winning hearts and minds,” in which each side conducts negotiations not only with its opponents but also with its own public at home in advance of selling important agreements or wars. Salehi’s statements that “there is already agreement on 90 percent of the technical problems” and that only one important issue remains to be resolved have an encouraging effect on the representatives of the powers and despite the gaps between the sides no one is talking about throwing in the towel and going home.

And thus, not only are the negotiations winning legitimacy but also Iran’s status is very different from what it was about two years ago. It no longer needs to prove the seriousness of its intention to reach an agreement. It is considered as a side that is equal to its interlocutors and above all it is even beginning to be perceived as a respectable country that sees eye to eye with the West concerning the threat posed by the Islamic State.

A turnaround on Assad?

In this crowded week during which the sixth round of talks between Iran and the powers took place, Iran won another perk from the United States. In an interview with CBS that was broadcast on Sunday, Kerry said that ultimately there will be a need to conduct negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad on a diplomatic solution in Syria. Though the State Department hastened to clarify that Kerry meant that it would be necessary to negotiate with representatives of the regime and that Assad himself would not be a direct partner in these talks, and in any case there is no change in America’s policy, Kerry’s remarks have already been interpreted as a bone thrown to Iran to encourage it to make decisions about the nuclear issue.

Officially, Washington is still sticking to the position that getting rid of Assad is essential for achieving a solution to the crisis in Syria but a week earlier former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, one of Assad’s fiercest opponents, suggested that the United States should stop demanding the Syrian leader’s ouster as a precondition for diplomatic talks.

Does Ford’s article in Foreign Policy reflect the administration’s position or a least the new wind blowing in the National Security Council?

An American diplomat has explained to Haaretz that the administration is not yet convinced that negotiations with Assad would help the war against the Islamic State but “the idea is not ridiculous.”

One party deeply shocked by Kerry’s statements is Turkey. Its prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded very bluntly to the secretary of state’s remarks, saying that “negotiating with Assad is like shaking hands with Hitler or Saddam Hussein.” Turkey, which is not a member of the coalition against the Islamic State, is insisting that any military activity against the Islamic State in Syria must include the demand to oust Assad. However, Turkey’s policy of refusing to allow American forces to act from its territory against the Islamic State is not impressing the United States, which is coordinating its policy with King Salman of Saudi Arabia who has not yet expressed an official position on Assad’s future.

In the complex diplomatic situation in which the United States finds itself — having to balance between the Saudi position and the Iranian one; between making the war on the Islamic State a priority, even at the price of concessions in Syria, that is, to Iran, versus striving to complete the nuclear agreement — Israel’s position is fading.

The outcome of the election in Israel has anchored the conflict between Jerusalem and Washington. This has been manifested in the chilly and critical reaction to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory and the administration is liable to feel less committed to the Israeli position.

The American clarification to the effect that President Obama will no longer be involved in the diplomatic process unless that becomes necessary not only testifies to the frustration and lack of hope of performing magic in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, but also expresses a possibility of the creation of distance between the two countries on the Iranian issue as well. Quite possibly the United States will end the coordination and the detailed briefing of Israel about the substance of the talks, as it has done recently. Washington is also liable to ignore the principles of the agreement on the red lines that the two countries formulated unofficially in advance of the outline of the agreement with Iran.

At the same time, the rift between Jerusalem and Washington is strengthening Iran’s view that the military option is no longer on the table, on the assumption that Israel will not act alone. The cannon balls Netanyahu will lob at the negotiations with Iran are liable from now on to bounce right off the sealed walls in Washington and prompt no more than ridicule in Iran.

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