On the fourteenth of July, a deal was reached on the Iranian nuclear program. Both sides are boasting their diplomatic achievements. Seeing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry, along with European Union and Russian diplomats, pose for a group picture at the United Nations building in Vienna might seem unnatural at first. Indeed, the agreement is a historic moment after decades of hostile policies and rhetorical ‘slinging matches’ between the two nations (Iran on the axis of evil and the US as the great Satan). However, it is not difficult to see how such a rapprochement is in fact much more natural than it appears and it could be argued that it was the previous situation which was after all abnormal.
The recent events have made it easy to realise that both nations have misunderstood who their real enemy was and have failed to understand their shared interests. The recent events in Syria and Iraq have forced both powers to acknowledge these shared interests. On the one hand, the US (and the broader West) has spent decades, ever since the 1979 revolution, to portray Iran as a threat and emphasised the (clearly problematic, although complex) authoritarianism of the Iranian authorities while at the same time, the US and the West have been forming alliances with much more repressive and undemocratic regimes which has inadvertently promoted intolerant and dogmatic Islamic ideologies. On the other hand, Iran has focused its populist rhetoric on the evil of an American-Israeli axis which – unrealistically – needed to be fought against while keeping ties or at least turning a blind eye to the much more problematic policies of some of its neighbours.
The rise of a variety of (almost exclusively) Sunni extremist terrorist groups (al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Daesh, etc.) has reshuffled the game and US and Iranian forces are starting to realise that they both misidentified their enemy as their recent tacit military cooperation in Iraq exemplifies. Indeed, US and Western media have portrayed Iran has a dangerous Islamic theocracy hostile to the Western pluralist democratic world while remaining silent on US and European deals and alliances with Saudi Arabia, a nation which practices the same kind of physical punishments as Daesh, forbids other religions than Islam, prohibits women to drive and propagates the very theocratic ideology which animates jihadi terrorists (Wahhabism or Salafism, both terms being almost synonyms). Of course, Iran’s support for Hezbollah or ex-president’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad friendship with Hugo Chavez can explain some of the hostility and negative propaganda from the West. But it could in no way sustain an excessive demonization of Iran (which recognises religious plurality, has not attacked any other nations in many centuries and has a majority of women in its Universities) in parallel with an acceptance of economic and military ties with Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians, on the other hand, have constantly emphasised the evil and injustice of American foreign policies and its support for Israel while downplaying (and even helping some, such as Hamas) the threat and injustice posed by Sunni extremist groups and states towards Shia communities (which Iran pretends to represent). As a matter of fact, neither the Americans nor the Israelis have called for the murder of Shias (for example Daesh) or to ban Shi’ism in the public sphere (for example Malaysia), nor to attack Iran unless it continued its menacing attitude. Therefore it seems that the extreme hostility between the two powers was hardly justifiable even if zealots on both sides (Bush and Ahmadinejad, for example) used rhetorical means to persuade of the contrary.
It is therefore easy to see how the recent agreement between Iran and other (mainly western) powers does not represent an incomprehensible arrangement between two enemies but instead represents a very rational turn of event. The US have now potentially found a very strategic ally in their fight against terrorism and Iran has found a way to potentially increase its political and economic impact on the region and the world. Of course, the Israeli issue will remain an object of discord between the two powers. One may ask however if such an unlikely rapprochement could not also change the way each side supports its major ally in the region. Would it be possible for Iran to soften its position towards Israel and turn its military support for Hezbollah away from the struggle against Israel and towards the real threat (for Shias and other religious minorities) of Wahhabi extremism? This new trend might already be at work ever since Hezbollah fighters have crossed the border, not of Israel but of Syria.
Nicolas Pirsoul is a PhD candidate in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, democracy and Middle Eastern politics.
Photo credit: David Holt