The debate over a final nuclear deal with Iran can be mind-numbingly technical. To what percentage will Tehran be allowed to enrich uranium? What rules will govern inspections of its nuclear sites? Which sanctions will be lifted and how?
But to a large extent, that debate misses the point. Yes, an agreement may contain Iran’s nuclear program somewhat. Yes, it could make the program more transparent. But deal or no deal, Iran will be a threshold nuclear power, able to build a nuke relatively quickly whenever it wants. (Attacking Iran, according to experts like former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, would only speed that process up). One day, I suspect, the people obsessing about the details of an Iranian nuclear deal will look a bit like the people who obsessed about the details of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in 1987. In retrospect, what mattered wasn’t the number of ballistic and cruise missiles each side dismantled. What mattered was ending the cold war.
When the cold war ended, America and the Soviet Union stopped viewing every third-world regime as a chess piece in their global struggle. They realized that by fueling civil wars in countries like Angola and Nicaragua, they were wasting money and subsidizing murder. Once the world’s superpowers scaled back their arms sales and began urging their former proxies to reach political agreements, some of the world’s most horrific wars stopped.
Obviously, U.S.-Iranian relations today differ in many ways from U.S.-Soviet relations in the late 1980s. But today, as then, the two sides are waging a cold war that is taking a horrifying toll on the people whose countries have been made battlefields. One hundred and thirty thousand Syrians have already died. More than 2 million are displaced. Many are at risk of starvation. Polio is breaking out. The best thing the United States can do for Syrians, by far, is to reach a nuclear deal that ends its cold war with Iran.
Iran has good reason to want the carnage in Syria to stop. Propping up Bashar al-Assad is costing Tehran’s sanctions-ravaged regime financially. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces are dying on Syrian soil. Most importantly, the war has devastated Iran’s reputation. As a Persian, Shia power, Iran’s Islamic regime has traditionally looked for causes—like the Palestinians—that give it credibility in the Sunni-dominated Arab and Muslim world. Tehran’s support for Assad’s murderous repression of Syria’s Sunnis has done the exact opposite. Iran’s approval rating in 20 Muslim-majority countries, according to Zogby Research Services, has plunged from 75 percent in 2006 to 25 percent today.
So what’s preventing Iran from backing a process that eventually leads to Assad’s exit? According to Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd, author most recently of The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Iran’s militant Revolutionary Guards see Assad’s Syria as a key base for projecting Iranian power. Others in the Iranian regime are less convinced of Assad’s value, but fear that the forces that oust him will use Syria as a beachhead to try to oust them. The United States cannot entirely allay that fear since acolytes of al-Qaeda now dominate the militias fighting Assad. Still, it would be easier for Iran’s regime to support elections that produced a Sunni-led Syrian government if the U.S. promised to try to prevent that government from expressing virulent hostility to Iran. And the U.S. can’t credibly make that promise if Iran’s leaders think Washington is virulently hostile itself.
For a model of what post-cold war cooperation with Iran might look like, the U.S. can look to Turkey. Turkey’s Sunni Islamist regime initially supported Syria’s rebels. But now, seeing the danger their extremism poses, it says it will back a peace agreement that allows some elements of the current Syrian regime—though presumably not Assad himself—to remain. For months, Turkey has been pushing for Iran to participate in the conference on ending Syria’s civil war scheduled for later this month in Geneva. This weekend, to his credit, John Kerry partially agreed.
Make no mistake: Even if the U.S. and Iran transform their relationship, ending the horror in Syria will remain excruciatingly hard. Syria is frighteningly divided along sectarian lines. There are multiple rebel groups. Saudi Arabia, which is terrified of Iranian power, now espouses a far more militantly anti-Assad line than the United States does. But if the U.S., Turkey, Iran, and Russia could come to a common understanding on how to structure Syria’s political transition, perhaps the Saudis might realize the futility of their efforts at promoting rebel military victory. Perhaps they might grasp the danger of prolonging a war that empowers jihadists who—like their hero, Osama bin Laden—may eventually turn their guns on Riyadh.
The U.S. and Iran have cooperated to end wars before. In December 2001, before the Bush administration called Tehran part of the “axis of evil,” Iran proved a crucial partner in the Bonn Conference that forged a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. “This experience,” suggests Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who ran the Foreign Relation Committee of Iran’s National Security Council from 1997 to 2005, “can serve as a blueprint for a new collaboration on Syria.”
Let’s hope so, because although America’s leaders sometimes romanticize our half-century-long standoff with Moscow, cold wars are brutal, ugly things. Ending America’s cold war with Iran would deny Iran’s regime a key pretext it uses to repress domestic dissent. And it would increase the chances of ending a war in Syria that should shame the world. That’s what’s really at stake in the nuclear negotiations America and Iran will pursue in 2014.