“There are few nations in the world with which the United States has less reason to quarrel or more compatible interests than Iran.” So wrote Henry Kissinger in 2001. The sentence is more than just the assessment of one man. It expresses the deep longing of much of the American foreign policy establishment. For more than three decades the United States as been at odds with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Throughout the entire period, however, a dream of cooperation has captivated even the most hard-bitten American realists.
This dream beguiled Ronald Reagan. He sent his national security adviser, Robert C. Macfarlane, to Tehran, carrying a key-shaped cake, which was meant to symbolize the unlocking of doors between the two countries. The very same vision also convinced Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000 to express regret for American meddling in Iranian politics back in 1953, at the time of the Eisenhower administration. The mea culpa was meant to elicit a reciprocal gesture from Tehran, which never materialized.
As Secretary of State John Kerry labors to organize the Geneva conference on Syria, he will undoubtedly hear advice from those who are captivated by the dream. The Russians, for their part, have explicitly called for Iranian participation in the conference, now scheduled for the second week in June. The French, by contrast, have flatly opposed the idea. "We do not want Iran," a foreign ministry spokesman said in Paris with admirable clarity. Meanwhile, Kerry and the State Department have remained mum. We must hope that their silence does not imply any agreement with the Russians. Any effort to enlist the aid of Tehran – direct or indirect – would backfire.
Violent sectarianism, Islamic extremism, and terrorism are stamped in the DNA of the Islamic Republic. It leads an anti-American coalition throughout the region. Its allies, Assad foremost among them, are the sworn enemies of the allies of the United States. Fruitful cooperation between Washington and Tehran is impossible.
More importantly, it is also harmful to American interests. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, entertains no reciprocal dream of friendship. He wisely recognizes that he is locked in a zero-sum game with the United States. He periodically responds to gestures of friendship from Washington, because he knows that sitting down with the Americans, if only to scorn them, is an effective asymmetric tactic. It allows him to affirm key planks of Iranian propaganda: that the United States is a country in decline, that it is searching for the exits in the Middle East, and that it has no choice but to cut a deal with Iran, the rising power. The Islamic Republic’s message to America’s Arab friends is crystal clear: “Obama is intent on courting us. He will sell you down the river just to get into our good graces.”
The Islamic Republic is the primary external enabler of Assad’s murderous policies. By seeking Tehran’s help, if only indirectly, at the Geneva conference, the United States would simply be embracing the role that Iranian propaganda has assigned it.
The Geneva conference itself is already being read in the Middle East as a sign of American backsliding. When Assad ignored explicit American red lines on chemical weapons, the Obama administration responded by calling on the Syrian opposition to sit down with his representatives. It reacted, that is, with what everyone in the Middle East sees as a gesture of renewed respect for a murderous regime.
Many in the Middle East see America’s erasing of its own red lines as part of a pattern of capitulation to Iran. Assad is Tehran’s best ally, so it is only natural that the Arab friends of the United States read American policies toward Syria against the background of the Iran problem. Over the last decade Tehran has repeatedly ignored explicit warnings regarding its nuclear program. But the West has greeted each transgression with a tacit acceptance of the fait accompli. No one today believes that the United States will actually deny Iran the complete nuclear fuel cycle. With or without Iranian participation, the Geneva conference already appears as yet another example of American retreat in the face of aggressive Iranian policies.