In the course of Iran-US talks, regional issues have acted as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they provided the grounds for engaging in the talks. On the other, they have increased the existing sense of mutual distrust. The fact is that concerned regional issues can only act as triggers for initiating strategic talks between Iran and the US.
Some prevailing views in the West tend to believe that focusing on regional issues in the course of negotiations — given the common geopolitical interests in the region between Tehran and Washington — would help negotiations proceed. Contrary to these views, one should argue that Iran-US relations in the region, during the last 34 years, have actually been the cause of division.
Of course there is a valid argument that the region is the place where the interests of the two states, in terms of establishing stability, preventing extremism and battling terrorism, converge. Yet, simultaneously, the Middle East is also an arena that increases the two powers’ mutual sense of geopolitical and ideological distrust. For this reason, Iran and the US have their own specific strategies to deter one another.
In other words, because of the degree of power, influence and the role that both countries can play, neither can defeat the other in a direct challenge. Therefore, both tend to contain each other’s role and their ideological and geopolitical interests through regional issues, as they both reduce the costs of any direct adversarial and military engagement. In this context, the two countries favor to increase their regional roles based on their own interests and values.
On the other side, the political characteristics and the nature of power and politics in the region are such that policies of Iran and the US are shaped in diverse directions. If one reviews the backgrounds of the two countries’ relations, one can come to the understanding that when the region is not struggling with specific political or security developments, Tehran and Washington get closer. In contrast, when the region has an important problem, the two states drift further afar.
For instance, the advent of the Arab Spring and the subsequent change of regimes in some Arab countries have brought about further political and strategic discrepancies in relations between the two sides, especially as they each have two different policies in dealing with these regional developments. Iran wants to contain the threats from the US and simultaneously increase its regional role. The US wants to manage these developments according to its interests and mostly contain Iran influence in the region. This means that the threat of an increased presence in the region has been one of the greatest challenges for the two countries, forcing them to shape their policies based on “containment.”
Before that, the events of 9/11 and subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq’s crises made Iran-US relations develop based on “reciprocal containment” in the ideological and geopolitical domains.
In Afghanistan, Iran helped the US topple the Taliban regime in 2001, but in addition to being branded as part of the “Axis of Evil” by then US President George W. Bush, Washington became a threat, encircling and minimizing Iran.
One of Iran’s purposes for the “three rounds of talks” with the US on Iraq’s crisis during 2006-2007 was to find a solution for solving its strategic problems with the US in a comprehensive package which includes Iran’s nuclear matter. In contrast, the US’ main goal for the talks was to use Iran’s role to fight off extremism and to prevent terrorists crossing the borders, which are considered short-term goals. The talks were not fruitful because the two sides had different expectations from the negotiations.
In other words, regional problems act merely as a booster for initiating talks and do not have enough potential for strategic talks between Iran and the US, or resuming relations, because again both countries regard regional issues as a means to contain each other.
As a result, only when all strategic issues, such as accepting Iran’s regional role and ending a relationship that is based on reciprocal threats, is appropriately dealt with, regional matters can then converge between the two sides. History shows that only when broader Middle Eastern issues are part of a comprehensive deal for solving strategic discrepancies between Iran and the US, like Iran’s nuclear standoff, can they be regarded as a converging point in Iran-US relations.
Unlike some Western perspectives, baby-step initiatives such as focusing on regional issues do not have the necessary potential to lead the two sides to a grand deal. Topics such as Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine can only act as triggers for initiating strategic talks between Iran and the US, nothing more. The sole issue that can lead Iran to accommodate its strategic discrepancies with the US is its nuclear issue, in which there is a political consensus among Tehran’s political-security elites of diverse settings to go and talk with Washington.
By US Close Up
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