The politics of Iran-U.S. relations are such that only a "strong Iran", with an "equal role" in regional issues, will have the propensity to talk directly with the United States. The political-security developments in post-invasion Iraq have increased Iran's regional role and strength, a situation that has led Iran to accept direct talks with America on Iraq's political-security issues.
From the perspective of the governing elites in Iran, any direct talks with the U.S. in an unequal condition will endanger Iran's national security and interests, and as past experiences show, Iran would ultimately lose in such talks. Meanwhile, Iran's strategic value, along with the legitimacy of its role among the friendly political factions and states in the region, is based on playing an independent role and avoiding direct engagement with the U.S. on the regional issues. Instead, Iran should resolve its strategic differences with the U.S. through strength in the region. This policy will give Iran more importance, and subsequently better serve the interests of its friends in the region. Iran's effective role in post-invasion Iraq and post-2006 Lebanon are two examples in this regard.
But, through initiating an "active" foreign policy and by "decisive engagement" in regional issues, Iran in four stages, i.e. the Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and recently Gaza crises, has been able, for the first time in its contemporary history, to reach a kind of "strategic balance" in terms of playing "equal roles" versus a foreign hegemonic power like the United States in the region-- a situation that provides Iran with the opportunity to shift the region's traditional "lose-win" game (lose for Iran, win for the US) to a "win-win" game, thereby attempting to redefine its political-security role in its security backyard, especially in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. Iran's active presence in the three rounds of direct talks with the US on Iraq's political-security issues is the result of Iran's increased regional role. Having a solid regional position resulted in Iran managing direct talks and thereby optimizing its national security objectives.
The strategic value of talking with the US at present is to obstruct the institutionalization of the US’s role and presence in Iran's backyard. The US attempts to establish military bases, along with supporting like-minded elites thereby institutionalizing a new kind of power division, which further serves America's interests in the region, are regarded by Iran as an attempt to advance the traditional lose-win strategy in which Iran will ultimately lose in any process of redressing new political-security architecture in the region's transformation.
Iran knows well that America has vital interests and is not likely to leave the region completely. Iran also knows that the public, in both America and the region, will not welcome the US’s long-term presence. A feasible middle way is helping America to secure its interests without intense presence. Based on its increased regional role, Iran should acknowledge the US interests in a win-win situation in which Iran can also play its role thereby preserving its legitimate national security concerns and interests. The strategic value of this deal is to establish a new kind of "balance of interests" and "balance of security" between Iran and the US in the region.
Of course, reaching such a deal is not easy since it contradicts the traditional presumption that the interests of the US and its traditional allies, Israel and conservative Arab regimes, can only be secured by a "balance of power" policy. In the past, the Bat'thist Iraq played the role of balancing against Iran, today Saudi Arabia and Israel have taken over this role. Stressing the emergence of a supposed "Shiite Crescent" with Iran's leading role, or concepts such as the existing "new Cold War" between Iran and US, are mainly aimed at showing that Iran has an obstructive role in the region, thereby stressing that there is an "unsolvable strategic discrepancy" between Iran and America in all regional conflicts including Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and ultimately the region will have to choose between either Iran or America. Such a categorization is dangerous, especially for Iran. Staying in endless conflict will require Iran’s political security energy in confronting such a great foreign power, further complicating Iran's security dilemma. These kinds of perspectives are naturally against advancing any policy of change by Obama's administration toward Iran.
Unlike the pessimistic views in Iran, the Obama administration's policy of change should not be underestimated by Tehran. Such a change is inevitable, mainly because of the recent geopolitical changes, which prioritized the significance of the Middle East in US national and security interests. Combating terrorism and extremism, settling regional crises, international energy security, and the NPT- and WMD-related issues as the focus of America's foreign policy in the coming years are mainly related to the fate of political-security dynamics in three regional sub-systems, namely, "Afghanistan and South Asia", "Iraq and the Persian Gulf,” and "Lebanon-Palestine and the Levant." Iran has the key role in all of this. The Bush administration's opposition with accepting Iran's regional role kept America from initiating comprehensive engagement with Iran, thereby complicating the process of resolving the crises in these regions. President Obama must change the mindset that Iran-US interests in the region are hard to converge. Any change in Iran's regional policies depends on redefining Iran's role and place in US national and security interests.
The politics of Iran-US relations shows that only a strong Iran can accept talking with America. The strategic value of Iran's growing role in the region depends on the reduction of US presence around Iran's immediate borders. In exchange for resolving its strategic differences with America including its nuclear issue, Iran should help the Obama administration withdraw troops from Iraq, along with settling the crises in Afghanistan and the Levant. The unstable and transformative nature of political situations in the Middle East will not guarantee Iran's indefinite and increased role among the friendly political factions and states. With an "active diplomacy", and in the peak of its regional role, Iran should take advantage of this momentous time and, for the sake of "sustainable security" and subsequently "sustainable development," resolve its issues with America.
* Kayhan Barzegar is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research (CSR). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CSR.