Relax, Israel – if your ally is working with your enemy, it doesn’t make them friends

March 12, 2015

U.S. President Obama walks with Saudi King Salman to a meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh

President Barack Obama (L) walks with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to a meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

There is significant concern across the Middle East that if Washington and Tehran reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, it would mark the beginning of a U.S. pivot to Persia and away from its traditional regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel.  

Such concerns are unrealistic and overblown, however. Washington and Tehran are likely to continue to have conflicting interests in Syria, where Iran supports the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and in Lebanon, where it backs Hezbollah.


In Iraq, Washington and Tehran have a common enemy in Islamic State militants. But while the United States supports an inclusive government of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, the Iranian approach doubles down on the conflict’s sectarian nature and supports Shi’ite militias.


Domestic politics in both Iran and the United States will also limit their cooperation. Many members of Congress are deeply concerned about establishing closer ties with Iran, as Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) open letter to Iran’s leaders revealed. The Iranian regime, meanwhile, continues using anti-Americanism as a central tenet of its political strategy.


U.S. Senator McCain and House Minority Leader Pelosi walk together to a meeting between U.S. President Obama and Saudi King Salman in Riyadh

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walk to a meeting between President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Even as the revelations of two secret letters between President Barack Obama and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stoke fears among Washington’s Gulf partners, the real indicator of future U.S. commitments to the region was the delegation that Obama led to the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The group included numerous cabinet officials, members of Congress from both parties and a cast of foreign-policy heavyweights from previous administrations.


Yet the anxiety and confusion from some of Washington’s key regional partners is not just unfounded paranoia. It is the result of a muddled U.S. foreign policy that has rightfully focused first on the nuclear question but has wrongly ignored Iran’s dangerous activities in other Middle East arenas.


If there is a nuclear agreement with Iran, Washington should clarify its regional policy and pursue a three-pronged policy that: 1) seeks additional areas of cooperation with Iran to improve bilateral relations; 2) pushes back forcefully in areas where Iran’s destabilizing influence has harmed U.S. interests in the region, and 3) lays out a long-term and well-resourced commitment to Washington’s key regional partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel.  


First, the United States must use any areas of common interest with Iran to help bolster confidence and expand communication. After 35 years of enmity, the nuclear talks have finally opened a direct channel between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. 


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif gesture as they arrive to resume nuclear negotiations in Montreux

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif (C) resume nuclear negotiations in Montreux, March 2, 2015. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool

This high-level channel could become a key component of U.S. strategy throughout the Middle East and expanded to end the no-contact policy that bars U.S. officials from speaking freely with their Iranian counterparts. The United States and Iran should build on other areas of common interest, among them Afghanistan, where the two nations have historically worked together, and maritime security in key Gulf shipping lanes.


Even as the United States cooperates with Iran in some areas, Washington must make clear to Tehran that though it might gain significant sanctions relief through a nuclear deal, it would not be fully welcome in the community of nations or receive relief from terrorism-related sanctions until Tehran backs off support for subversive activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.


The United States must also consider increasing interdictions of Iranian weapons shipments to these countries and pursuing more covert actions against Iranian-supported terrorism. In addition, it should name, shame and financially penalize Iranian operatives who carry out dangerously destabilizing policies in the Middle East.   


The United States will have to signal to key regional partners that it is committed to their security and will continue to work with them on their top priorities. This means coordinating with Saudi Arabia, Israel and other important allies to develop and execute a comprehensive strategy for pushing back on destabilizing Iranian influence in the region. It also means increasing intelligence cooperation.


In the aftermath of a successful nuclear deal, U.S. relations with Iran should shift from that of an adversary to that of a competitor. They must feature a dialogue on areas of common interest. But Washington must also push back where it disagrees and compete.


Through word and deed, Washington must continue demonstrating to longtime key partners that the United States remains committed to their security.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

I suspect the over inflation of the of foreign policy issues, which have existed for 100s of years at similar levels of concern is an attempt by our leaders to distract us from the destruction of the middleclass. PC correctness and religious fanaticism at home are far more dangerous to the US citizen in the long run than any foreign entity whether nuked up or not.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Long time partnership with Israel or any country must be mutual.Despite giving protection and despite becoming anti to all mideast countries,Israel has not co.operated with US regarding two state formula and stop construction on illegal land of Palestine.Obama was very specific on this and again and again insisted on Israel yet they did not heed him.More over PM of Israel attended US congress against wishes of Obama.It is the limit tolerance on part of Obama and he is acting on proper lines.
Next election of Israel is crucial and if current PM is replaced all will be well including understanding with Iran.Peace will prevail all over mideast region and Iran.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Relax, Israel — your bribe money (funded by the US taxpayer) is still good in Congress. The Israel lobby, headed by AIPAC, still owns 99% of American politicians at the federal level. And most of the general public is kept in your corner by way of endless propaganda from the six major US media companies, all of which are controlled by members of your tribe. No need to worry about America escaping your grasp anytime soon. Just be patient and wait for the next war Americans will fight on your behalf.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

First the nuclear deal then the the settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The deal with the Iranians regarding their military activity in the middle east will be part of the latter. There is no real reason to believe that the Iranians want to waste their substance in surrounding Israel once the central problem they represent is resolved.

Posted by 8131939hw | Report as abusive

As a liberal nationalist, I will be glad to see Iran-US relations remain cool. US “friendship” has only meant Iran’s subservient to U.S. interests and we had that for at least 25 years under the dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (The CIA enthroned, “King of Kings”).

Posted by FMalekafzali | Report as abusive