If not exactly friendly, U.S.-Iranian relations have in the past year become more productive than they’ve been in more than 30 years. The past week saw a dizzying succession of major events involving cooperation between the two longtime antagonists.
On Wednesday, Iran quickly released 10 U.S. sailors whose patrol boat had drifted into Iranian waters, defusing a potentially dangerous crisis in what the Obama administration touted as a vindication of its strategy of engagement.
On Saturday, world powers lifted sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program after the U.N. nuclear agency said that the country had abided by the steps it had agreed to in July to curb its nuclear program. That historic news was nearly overshadowed by Iran’s release of four American prisoners, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, in exchange for seven Iranians imprisoned in the United States. And in a move that got less attention, the U.S. and Iran settled a long-standing dispute at the Hague that will see the U.S. release $1.7 billion in funds to Iran.
The presidents of both countries have hailed the implementation of the nuclear deal as a diplomatic breakthrough, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has given it his grudging blessing while issuing his requisite warning to look out for American perfidy.
But going forward, it’s worth asking whether this is the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Iranian cooperation, or a short-lived high point.
The next big challenge for the two countries is the ongoing effort to reach a peace settlement in the bloody and destabilizing Syrian civil war. Peace talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian rebels are due to begin in Geneva next Monday, but that meeting may not even happen, given that the outside powers involved haven’t even agreed yet on which rebel groups will get to negotiate. The optimistic view is that the new climate of cooperation, particularly the relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, will help smooth negotiations on some of the most fraught issues in Syria, mainly if and when Bashar al-Assad will have to step down. But as former White House Mideast adviser Dennis Ross suggests, the Iranian government may also now be less willing to make concessions on Syria that would make it look like it was taking orders from Washington in exchange for sanctions relief.
Election season is also complicating matters for both governments. Iran is holding a parliamentary election on Feb. 26 and President Hassan Rouhani is hoping his moderate allies can shift the balance of power in that body away from conservative hard-liners. But Iranian security forces, warning of “sedition” at the polls, have been stepping up arrests of political opponents in business, the arts, and media, a crackdown likely aimed at curbing Rouhani’s influence ahead of voting and minimizing the risk of post-election protests. Rouhani came to power promising that ending Iran’s international isolation would benefit the country’s sluggish economy, but the effects of the lifting of sanctions are likely to take a while to trickle down to ordinary Iranians: Many international companies are still wary of investing in Iran and the country is pumping its oil into an already glutted global market.
In the U.S., a Republican victory in November would bring a swift end to any rapprochement between the two countries. The party’s candidates have unanimously portrayed the developments of the past week as dangerous capitulations by a weak-willed administration.
Even before then, the two countries will still be at odds far more often than they agree, as shown by the administration’s decision to slap new sanctions on 11 individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program just a day after nuclear sanctions were lifted. There are also ongoing questions over the fate of two Americans not included in the prisoner exchange, Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman arrested in October, and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared on Iranian soil in 2007. The escalating diplomatic tensions between Iran and U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia aren’t going to make things any easier.
Ultimately, the new era of good feelings between the two enemies may prove to be a very short one.