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The Islamic State and the re-evaluation of the US agenda towards the Middle East: the shifting importance of Iran, by Pedro Simão Mendes  

How is the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and Syria affecting both Iranian and North American foreign policies towards each other and in which ways does this affect other nations in the region?

It is no secret that Iran has been publicly pursuing the development of its nuclear program for at least one decade. Despite of having signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 – before the Iranian Revolution –, the country had several secret plants of uranium enrichment across its territory which were uncovered in 2002 by the United Nations. Since then, Iran’s initiatives regarding its nuclear program turned the country into one of America’s major concerns in the Middle East. In 2003, this situation led to a series of agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that were supposed to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and submit the country to regular inspections. However, in 2004, Iran failed to cooperate with IAEA’s inspectors – refusing to halt its uranium enrichment facilities and strengthened its nuclear program (ARMS CONTROL, 2015).

After thorough negotiations between Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and the US Secretary of State John Kerry, both countries have finally managed to pull off a preliminary deal. Although it is something that might become a final nuclear arrangement, this resolution could be a great step towards international cooperation. Moreover, this initial agreement does not fully cover everything intended by the US and Iran. Therefore, it is expected that the talks will continue for a while – until both nations reach a final version of the deal. The recent mediation involves measures such as a considerable cut in Iran’s infrastructure for uranium enrichment (which is expected to be reduced by more than two thirds – from 19,000 centrifuges to only 6,104) (THE GUARDIAN, 2015). It also includes the reduction by 98% of the Iranian low-enriched uranium stockpile for 15 years, among other measures. Those, in turn, should ensure the international community that Iran is using its nuclear facilities strictly for peaceful resources. Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency will submit Iran to inspections for the next 20 years (THE GUARDIAN, 2015).

In return, it is expected from the United States and the European Union that both will remove their sanctions on Iran – which were mostly being applied over nuclear-related issues. However, the deal does not specify how much time that process should take. In addition, Iran will not have to close any nuclear facility. Finally, Tehran should be able to resume, once the restrictions expire, its significant nuclear industry (for peaceful ends) (BBC, 2015). Notwithstanding, the fact that the western powers have not yet given a timetable for removing their sanctions on Iran worries Ayatollah Khamenei. The Supreme Leader, in response, refuses to proceed with the arrangements unless all parties lift their sanctions on the very first day of the deal’s implementation. According to Iran’s president Hassan Rohani, “We will not sign any agreement unless all economic sanctions are totally lifted on the first day of the implementation of the deal” (NY TIMES, 2015a).

On the other hand, the US president Barack Obama and Mr. John Kerry stated, on previous occasions, that the sanctions would be suspended in stages (NY TIMES, 2015a). That could give the United States enough leverage to press Iran to following the deal. Thus, as a result from Iran’s compliance, the US government would lift some of the sanctions. Accordingly, it is unlikely that a final version of the deal will be reached any soon. Though the preliminary version of the agreement involves many concessions from both sides, there is still much to negotiate in order for the negotiations to proceed.

It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time that a country tries to reach an agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program. The first real attempt was pushed by the E3+3 – composed by UN’s Security Council plus Germany. According to this deal, Tehran would be prohibited from enriching uranium in its own territory. Instead, they would have to send it to Russia. Along with other terms that would submit Iran to international rule and thorough inspection, the country rejected the proposals. The E3+3 decided then, a few years ago, to use Brazil – under Lula’s administration and with Celso Amorim as its Foreign Minister – along with Turkey as proxy negotiators towards a nuclear arrangement. Both countries tried to carry out a diplomatic initiative with Iran, resulting in the Tehran Declaration. Much more limited than today’s agreement, this declaration ended up being rejected by France, Russia and the United States. Nevertheless, it showed the world that it was possible negotiating with Iran, laying the grounds upon which the current nuclear agreements have been built.

Under Ahmadinejad’s government, the country started contesting both American and European objections and resumed its nuclear program, adopting numerous measures towards the development of nuclear power plants. These actions resulted in a series of political and economic sanctions from the international community. Led by the E3+3, many of the sanctions mentioned before are still being applied. With Iran’s deteriorating economic scenario, which shall resumed later, the sanctions are aggravating many of the problems already faced by the country (CFR, 2012).  Given this scenario, the purpose of this analysis is to explain how Iran recently shifted from being a considerable threat to a potential “ally” to the West. Furthermore, this brief analysis intends to discuss how becoming one of West’s biggest assets in the Middle East affects Iran’s surrounding countries. Note that this alleged approximation between Iran and the United States relies not only on a common enemy (the Islamic State, or ISIS). There has also been a tendency in US’s Department of State recent foreign policy that links the Iran talks to a bigger process. The US rapprochement with countries previously seen as “enemies” (not only with Iran, but also with Cuba and China) through bilateral approaches may be seen, perhaps, as a hegemonic exercise. Most of the abovementioned nations fit into the “Southern bloc”, while the US is the most prominent country from the North. That indicates a small attempt to improve North-South relations by consolidating North’s position and the decay of multilateral approaches – which has been at the core of US’s foreign policy since the decade of 1990.

So how is the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and Syria affecting both Iranian and North American foreign policies towards each other and in which ways does this affect other nations in the region?        Before moving on to the above questions, we must first understand the context in which ISIS arose. During the Syrian Civil War, the political crisis and the absence of governance in Syria created the perfect situation for a rebel takeover in the north of its territory – spreading then to the east. Moreover, the conflict spilled-over to Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the country experienced years of war and political instability, paving the way for Islamic State’s takeover of Iraqi regions.

Regarding Iran’s economy, falling oil prices and increasing inflation rates are pressing current president Hassan Rohani to push forward the deals with the United States. Even though the country is not dependent on the United States – the USA does not even fit into the top-20 exporters nor importers from Iran (OEC, 2015) –, one of Rohani’s goals is to boost the Iranian economy. Without the sanctions, Iran would probably see an increase in foreign investments, which could help the country relief its current economic status. As diagnosed by The Economist (2015): “Iran’s economy is suffering from the effects of sanctions, a plummeting oil price and decades of mismanagement, not to mention the cost of funding militias and dictators in the region. Youth unemployment is rising and living standards are falling”.

It is also important to consider the religious demographics in the Middle East. Thus, we must take into account that (i) Assad’s regime in Syria was Alawite, a sect from Shia Islamism – even though most Syrians are in fact Sunnis (CIA, 2014a); (ii) Iraq’s population is majorly Shia, although the country has a considerable Sunni minority of around 35% (CIA, 2014b) of its total population; (iii) Iran is ruled by a vast Shia majority and, finally (and perhaps most importantly), (iv) the Islamic State claims a Sunni caliphate with strong Sharia Law enforcement. These features are crucial to understanding why Iran suddenly became so relevant to the United States as a potential “ally” and why no one else, even in the media, is talking about Assad’s regime and the civilian uprising – which was, until last year, Middle East’s main issue. Nowadays, it’s possible to say that the Syrian Civil War has been eclipsed by the ISIS conflict.

Western countries, which have always been more inclined to cooperate with Sunni States, are now beginning to shift their predisposition in order to negotiate with Iran – in spite of all last decade´s quarrelling between the US and Iran. Why? Because they are running out of options to fight ISIS, because Iran holds a strategic position in the Persian Gulf that must not fall into the hands of the Islamic State, and because, right now, Israel does not matter strategically and politically as much as the whole Middle Eastern region. With American influence over that entire area at stake, the United States are willing negotiate even the Iranian nuclear program with Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime.

Hedley Bull argues, in his classical work The Anarchical Society, that the advent of an International Society implies the acknowledgement of shared values, moral standards and common ideas between nations – making cooperation more likely and deterring conflicts (BULL, 1977). Though these claims were specially made for the European context, it is not possible to say they are applicable to Iran’s situation.  The negotiations between the United States and Iran have not much to do with those precepts. In fact, the principles behind their willingness to cooperate are quite simple: to both countries, the political costs of compromising some of their interests in an agreement is simply lower than the costs of not cooperating against the Islamic State. In a more constructivist approach, it would be possible to say that US’s perception of Iran has changed in face of another actor, and vice-versa. In sum, along with the constant structural changes in the international system, comes the ever changing ideas that fuel policy-makers decisions (WENDT, 1999). If in Bush’s perception Iran was deemed as member of an “evil axis”, along with Iraq (which was later invaded by the US, ironically) and North Korea (BBC, 2002), now it is seem as a potential source of help against ISIS.

As mentioned before in this analysis, both the preliminary and the final versions of the agreement include the western countries lifting their sanctions on Iran. In exchange, Iran will have its nuclear facilities heavily monitored and limited. On this matter, the US Secretary of State John Kerry says that “We [the US] want to recognize the main goal here is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And on that, Israel and the United States agree” (NY TIMES, 2015b). However, unlike what John Kerry stated, Israel is not supportive of Iran-US negotiations at all. Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has, on several occasions, made clear its contempt for the Iran talks. Due to the fact that there is no real assurance over the long term that Iran will keep its promise not to use their uranium enrichment facilities for offensive purposes, Israel is concerned that they might have another nuclear state in the Middle East in the future.

These negotiations threaten the Islamic State, as a stronger Iran would pose a bigger obstacle for that terrorist group. Nonetheless, ISIS is not the only one who is being menaced by the agreements. By lifting the sanctions on Iran and allowing them to develop a peaceful nuclear program for power and medical purposes, the US is not only strengthening the Shia position in the Middle East but also shifting the regional balance of power. This affects specially countries like Israel – which has been, for decades, the only nuclear country in the Middle East – and Saudi Arabia, an important and old US ally with a huge Sunni majority that is also displeased with the Iran talks. Adding to the decaying Obama’s administration relations with Israel, the US President has stated that the recognition of the state of Israel is not among the conditions for a final deal with Iran.

How to proceed then, when there are so many clashing variables in the field? The answer, at least for the US, has been to choose the most profitable actions in terms of cost-benefit – both in the short and long terms. That includes, at least for now, going against Saudi and Israeli’s interests, even straining relations with them, in order to fight ISIS. The cost of that is cooperating with a country that, not so long ago, was seen by some as having a widespread “anti-Americanism” feeling among its citizens (ever since the Iranian Revolution) (WASHINGTON POST, 2014). Besides, by relegating Israeli and Saudi interests to the second plan, the US is finally not “playing favorites” in the Middle East. In an optimistic (though unlikely) scenario, these measures will contribute to a more even distribution of power in the Middle East. On the other hand, it may force Israel to pursue its own agenda against Iran in the future. Will the “cooperation” with Iran remain for long? May be. But both U.S and Iran are making considerable efforts that have already affected the frail political dynamics of the Middle East.

It is even possible to say that with the Iran talks, the rapprochement with Cuba and the recent environmental-related deals with China that the US – or at least Obama’s administration – is trying to renew its hegemony over the International System. This trend is expressed in the form of bilateral approaches, especially towards emerging countries. By reshaping the current world order, the United States reinforces its dominant position in the International System. In Robert Cox’s concept of hegemony, exemplified in his work Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory, “force will not have to be used in order to ensure the dominance of the strong to the extent that the weak accept the prevailing power relations as legitimate” (COX, 1986, p. 219).

On the other hand, imagine the following situation: a US conservative congressman, an Israeli politician and an Iranian radical walk into a bar. What do they all have in common? The answer is: they all oppose to any sort of agreement between the US and Iran. Obama may be pushing this deal with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, but he is facing great opposition from the US Congress – whose majority is ruled by the Republican Party. While Obama’s priority seems to be fighting ISIS and trying to push them out of Iraq, Libya and Syria, the conservatives are more concerned with the alleged threat that Iran poses to Israel and other US-friendly nations like Saudi Arabia. On Iran’s side, Hassan Rohani – from the Reformist Party – seems to be less radical than his predecessor and conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, he also faces great opposition from the conservative majority in the Parliament. Thus, going against US’s and Iran’s conservative majorities may be a risky move for both leaders. Nevertheless, it is a risk worth taking in terms of international cooperation and possible outcomes.

Although this analysis presents an almost optimistic view on the Iran talks, it is important to mention that the Middle East is far from reaching regional stability. ISIS is deeply rooted into Iraqi and Syrian territories – and have spread its branches all the way to northern Africa. Not even the most naive scenario would suggest that the Iran talks can be by itself the solution against IS’s potential to thrive in the region. Moreover, US’s strategy to arm and support Kurds in north Iraq and Turkey must be optimized in order to succeed; otherwise, it can easily backfire in the future – as it did in similar occasions with different actors during the past.

Also, it is highly unlikely that either Israel or Saudi Arabia will drop any of their disputes with Iran. The three countries mentioned before have among their interests securing power over the region, and none of them is willing to concede to one another. Given the complexity of the situation, which involves several interconnected phenomena and opposing interests, even though the Iran talks slowly paves the way for cooperation in the Middle East, it is far from granting stability to the region. At least in the short term.


Pedro Simão Mendes is member of the Program of Tutorial Education in International Relations at the University of Brasília – PET-REL and of the International Relations Analysis Lab – LARI (

Professor e pesquisador da área de política externa brasileira do Instituto de Relações Internacionais da Universidade de Brasília (iREL-UnB). É editor da Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional - RBPI ( e de Meridiano 47 ( Pesquisador do Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq).

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