Iran and the United States: The Case for a Cooperative Relationship

By Douglas M. Johnston and Ahmad Iravani

As the slings and arrows continue to darken the sky over Iran’s perceived march toward nuclear weapons, lost in the darkness is any mention of the opportunity costs associated with this adversarial contest of wills. Indeed, the case for developing a cooperative relationship with Iran is strong and should be taken into account in the U.S. as well as the Iranian policymakers’ calculus. Both the United States and Iran share strategic interests that would best be served through a posture of active collaboration. Today, however, both countries are inclined to work at cross-purposes, thwarting one another’s aims, even if it means thwarting their own in the process. Were we to develop a new, more hospitable relationship – cooperating in some areas, while compromising in others – both sides could reap important gains. The principal benefits of a cooperative relationship are as follows:


Before America and Iran can move toward a cooperative relationship, they will have to overcome their significant historical and ideological grievances. Both countries are quick to point out the injustices they have suffered at the other’s hands, but slow to acknowledge the injustices they themselves have perpetrated. Few Americans, for example, are aware of their country’s role in the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, but almost all remember the hostage crisis of 1979. Similarly, few Iranians feel any remorse for their treatment of the hostages, but many recount the dictatorial excesses of the Shah’s regime.

Coupled with the pain of past injustice is the spectre of contemporary crisis. Today, every interaction between America and Iran takes place under the shadow of the nuclear question and Middle Eastern terrorism. Even if compromises could be reached on these two issues, fundamental political differences would remain. Washington has expressed its strong commitment to regime change in Iran, and has drawn a clear distinction between the interests of the Iranian government and those of the Iranian people. A cooperative stance would require that the US government limit itself to promoting reform under the current regime, not by toppling it.

In enumerating the possible advantages of US-Iranian cooperation, the intent is not to minimize the historical and ideological obstacles, but merely to stress the advantages of overcoming them. The recent interest that leaders on both sides briefly showed in holding discussions about the future of Iraq gave fleeting reason to hope there may be a growing recognition that important goals will only be achieved through a process of active engagement.


The United States and Iran have a shared interest in seeing a stable government assume power in Iraq that can defeat the Sunni insurgency and prevent civil war. Iran has long championed the plight of Iraqi Shiites and is now in a position to support them by empowering the government they will inevitably lead. Iran also fears an Iraqi civil war that could spill over into a regional conflict, pitting Iran against a bloc of its Sunni neighbors. While both of these concerns give Iran a vital stake in Iraq’s stability, Iranian leaders have never fully embraced this goal because of their ongoing concerns about US intentions. Indeed, Iran has actively cultivated ties with some Iraqi insurgent groups to facilitate their possible use as proxies against American forces in the event of conflict with the United States. Were Iran reassured to the contrary, it could use its intelligence network and religious influence to help end the insurgency. It could also use its considerable influence with SCIRI and Al-Da’wah – leading Shiite political parties with deep historical ties to Iran – to pressure them into accepting the difficult compromises that will be required to forge a stable Iraqi government. Such measures on Iran’s part could, in turn, lead to greater US acceptance of Iranian regional aspirations.


Because of its hostile relationship with the Taliban, Iran provided behind-the scenes support for the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Later, it also played a helpful role in forming the Afghan government and in providing tangible support for President Karzai. Iran thus has an important stake in a strong central government in Kabul that can keep the Taliban under control and prevent the rise of armed groups that might threaten the security of eastern Iran. One particular area that cries out for cooperation is that of combating the Afghan drug trade. Limiting opium production would be both a cause and a consequence of creating a stable government in Afghanistan, and it would help all three countries in addressing their domestic drug problems.

Israel and Palestine

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to constitute a major source of tension between Washington and Tehran, particularly in light of Hamas’s recent electoral victory and President Ahmadinejad’s bellicose statements toward Israel. However, these disquieting developments belie the growing recognition among politicians in Washington and Tehran that the surest way to bring justice to the Palestinians and security to Israel is through the creation of an independent, economically viable Palestinian state. President Bush has explicitly endorsed this goal, while Iranian leaders have indicated a willingness to accept any long-term solution that the Palestinian people support.

The current impasse offers neither side reason to be optimistic. As long as it can count on Iran’s support, Hamas will have limited incentive to moderate its hostile stance towards Israel. At the same time, in the face of American and Israeli pressure, it will have little ability to meet the long-term needs of the Palestinian people. If the United States and Iran can see their way clear to work together, it should be possible to meet the needs of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Sunni Extremism

In the recent past, the United States has suffered at the hands of both Shiite and Sunni terrorists. Today, however, the risk that America faces comes primarily from radical Sunni groups like al-Qaeda and regimes like the Taliban that support them. Iran, which at one point almost went to war with the Taliban, could now become a valuable ally in America’s struggle against such groups. Not only could it offer important tactical and intelligence support for US operations, but its status as an ally would go far to demonstrate that America’s war on terror is not in fact a war against Islam. This, in turn, could help diminish anti-American sentiment across the Islamic world.

Central Asia

Iran and the United States have their own reasons for wanting stability in Pakistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus; and both share a common interest in opposing radical Sunni movements in the region. Further, the United States would like to see the Central Asian republics successfully develop their own energy resources, become increasingly democratic, serve as allies in the global war on terrorism and remain free from excessive Russian or Chinese influence – all goals that require a semblance of political stability. Iran’s chief concern is to prevent instability in the region from spilling across its borders. Of particular concern is the threat of resurgent Azeri irredentism creating upheaval among the more than 20 million Azeris in northwest Iran or of similar movements among other ethnic minorities that collectively constitute more than half of Iran’s population.

Iran has shown a strong interest in Central Asian stability and were it not for ongoing US efforts to prevent Iran from forming effective economic ties with these countries, the healthy trade relations that could otherwise develop would bring greater economic stability to the region and free these former Soviet republics from their economic dependence on Russia.

The Nuclear Question

US and European leaders have repeatedly characterized the nuclear question as one of preventing an ambitious rogue regime from acquiring the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Many fear that once Iran has the bomb, it will be in a position to support international terrorist groups with impunity or to make good on its threats against Israel. Even those who dismiss such fears as alarmist are concerned that if Iran does develop nuclear weapons, it might fuel a regional arms race and/or undermine the world’s ability to deal with other aspiring nuclear powers. Thus, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms is not only an important goal in its own right, but it is also an essential prerequisite to prolonging and strengthening the global non-proliferation regime.

Iranians, on the other hand, maintain that they are not seeking nuclear weapons but merely a peaceful nuclear capability to support future economic growth. To those who question why a country with vast oil and gas reserves would need a peaceful nuclear energy capability, Iranians would say that a reliable source of nuclear power would enable the country to profit from selling the oil that it currently consumes for domestic requirements. Some critics who question Iran’s sincerity on this score, however, readily accept the fact that Iran has more than ample incentive to develop a nuclear weapons capability if for no other reason than to provide deterrence in an increasingly hostile neighborhood that includes Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel, all of which have nuclear weapons and effective delivery systems. Yet, even in spite of this reality, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hossayni Khamenei has issued a fatwa opposing weapons of mass destruction on the grounds that they are unIslamic because of their nondiscriminatory effects on innocent civilians. His predecessor Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini issued a similar fatwa. The fact that Iran did not respond-in-kind when attacked with chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war suggests at least some seriousness of intent behind these religious proclamations.

Stabilizing the region and actively addressing legitimate Iranian security concerns could possibly ease the pressure that appears to be propelling Iran toward developing a nuclear capability. Security guarantees and transparency in US military activities would be one way of approaching this goal. Joint stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan could prove useful as well.

Economic Benefits

The United States and Iran would both benefit from a termination of American economic sanctions. Iran offers a lucrative target for US investment, particularly in the oil and natural gas sectors; and the Iranian economy would significantly benefit from the added capital such investments would provide. American companies would be able to compete with foreign firms for profitable business opportunities, including sizeable infrastructure and transportation projects, while US competition would constrain the growing Chinese influence in Iran’s domestic oil industry. Further, many Iranian businessmen would like to buy American technology instead of less-sophisticated European and Chinese alternatives. Indeed, some energy analysts believe that without advanced US technology, Iran will be unable to keep pace with the growing demand for oil over the coming decade. The long-term development of Iran’s natural gas infrastructure, with the help of American technology and capital, would also stimulate global economic growth by providing cheap, environmentally-friendly energy.


The case for compromise is made all the more compelling by the fact that neither the United States nor Iran has at its disposal the means to “win” an adversarial contest without paying too steep a price along the way. None of America’s military options appear attractive in light of the damaging counterattack that would likely ensue against US interests in the Middle East and around the globe either through terrorist attacks or reduced oil production (or both). The United States is also limited in the economic suasion it can bring to bear against Iran. Having already imposed unilateral sanctions, America would have to persuade other nations to join in a multilateral embargo if it wanted to step up the economic pressure. Even if America’s European allies were to sever their ties with Iran, it is likely that a Chinese or Russian veto would prevent the UN from spearheading more effective global sanctions. Waiting for a regime change in Tehran shows even less promise. Of the many journalists, commentators and analysts who claim to have their fingers on the much-monitored pulse of the Iranian people, few have suggested that the country is on the verge of a major internal revolt, or that the government is likely to fall under increased US pressure. Instead, most have argued that US pressure on Iran will only provoke a nationalist response among the majority of Iranians, thereby further strengthening the current regime.

If America’s options are unappealing, so too are Iran’s. Further steps toward an ambiguous nuclear capability will not only cost it trading partners in Europe but it will also increase the pariah status Iran has been working to overcome for most of the past decade. Further, because of the alignment of US-Iranian interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran could not substantially damage US interests in either country without creating a dangerously unstable environment for itself. Finally, as long as Iran remains opposed to US policies in the Middle East, its influence in the region will continue to be constrained by America’s military presence.

At this crossroads, where neither the United States nor Iran can impose its will on the other without incurring unacceptable hardships in return, both sides should see the wisdom of elevating cooperation over confrontation. Chief among the benefits is the fact that the policy options of both countries for bringing peace to the region would be considerably enhanced.



ICRD White Paper
May 25, 2006

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