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What Happens if We View Iran Not As An Enemy, But As An Ally?

The Iran Nuclear Accord has the potential to drastically transform power dynamics in the Middle East. Yet tensions between the U.S. and Iran are far from resolved, and distrust abounds within segments of both country’s populations. This roundtable evaluated a number of possible implications of the Iran Deal, and discussed whether the U.S. could begin to view Iran not as an enemy, but as a partner.

“I think those of us who have spent some time studying Iran, and traveled there, have come to a conclusion that this might be the world’s most misunderstood country,” said veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer. According to Kinzer, the Iran Deal essentially reorders the world. “This is a chance for Iran to reenter the world, and for the world to come back to Iran,” Kinzer said.

Yet despite the opportunities created by this accord, many people who supported it did so primarily because they hoped it would keep Iran in check, and didn’t necessarily view Iran as a potential force for good in the Middle East. What happens if we turn this paradigm on its head?

“It’s actually sort of remarkable how quickly the U.S./Iran relationship is developing here,” said Joseph Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Fund. “The nuclear accord was not about regional conflicts. It wasn’t about a broader U.S./Iran relationship. It just did one thing: It stopped Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. But you’re seeing the ripples now. It’s true we have to proceed carefully and we don’t know what kind of role Iran is going to play, but realists in the American security establishment are looking at this accord as the gateway to these other conversations with Iran.”

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While the U.S. and Iran don’t see eye-to-eye on a number of important issues (including ongoing human rights violations in Iran), it may be possible to leverage this deal to help the U.S. negotiate new allies in the Middle East. Iran has adopted the role of protector of Shia in the Middle East, Kinzer said, and ideally would be willing to use these ties to help facilitate stabilization.

It may be time – or, some would say, past time – for the United States to re-evaluate not only its relationship with Iran and other allies in the region, but also its level of involvement in the Middle East. The United States has been over-committed in the Middle East, said President of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi. The U.S. could benefit from expending more time and resources to better position itself in other parts of the world. “At the end of the day, the competitor to America’s global standing is not going to come out of the Middle East,” Parsi said. “And over the course of the last 15 years, we’ve seen a couple of very important trends that have made it much more difficult and far more costly to be the ultimate guarantor of security in the Middle East. The cost of hegemony has gone up.”

Parsi and Sara Haghdoosti, the co-founder of Berim.org, emphasized the importance of the young, Internet-savy population of Iran, a population which has one of the highest rates of Internet connectivity in the Middle East. Sixty percent of Iran’s population is middle class, Parsi said, and if this deal is successful, this number could reach 85 percent in just 10 years. Parsi believes this large middle class will function as an anchor of stability.

As to whether the hope many young Iranians have for post-sanctions Iran is realistic, “I don’t think hope and pragmatism are counter-opposed,” Haghdoosti said. “I think all of the key ingredients are there for us to have hope. That change might not look like what we, as people in the West, want it to look like, but it might have very important impacts for the people who are in Iran.”