Rouhani, Pakistan, and the big issue stalling an Iran-U.S. alliance

Fighting ISIS could make for strange bedfellows...

(Image credit: (John Moore/Getty Images))

As a U.S.-led coalition once again wades into his neighborhood to rid it of terrorism, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the U.S. and other Western leaders to learn lessons from the past, but downplayed some unpleasant facts of the present.

Rouhani brought his unique brand of friendly firebrand to a conversation with CNN's Fareed Zakaria at a New America event in New York last Wednesday. He spoke of wanting to collaborate more with the U.S. — and vaguely referenced the many issues we could work through together — even while he accused the U.S. of creating the problem it's trying to solve.

According to Rouhani, the U.S. hasn't learned the lessons of its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. He said groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria never existed before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. New terrorist organizations were incubated in the security vacuum during the "years of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan," a beneficiary of "the people who wanted to destabilize" the new democracies there.

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"Bombing and airstrikes are not the appropriate way to deal with [violent extremism]," he said, later denying any knowledge of the president's recently announced strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Military intervention only serves to "feed and strengthen terrorism" by providing more justification for terrorist acts.

Right now, Rouhani explained, the U.S. is setting the entire region up for disaster. "American authorities have announced that they wish to train another terrorist group and send them to Syria to fight," he said.

"You mean the Free Syrian Army?" asked Zakaria.

"You can call them whatever you wish," Rouhani responded. "Be that as it may, it is a group. I'm not sure what [the American] plan is — they say we wish to train these folks…get them ready to enter Syrian territory and fight. With whose permission? With what mandate? According to what international laws and norms are they doing this?"

In questioning our recent behavior, Rouhani's intention was not "to assign blame or rehash history," but rather to highlight this need to "learn and draw lessons from the past." The most important takeaway: "The imposition of one's will on societies and other nations with violent and extremist methods is not successful. It may yield results over the short term, but over the long term, it only creates tragedies."

But Rouhani didn't talk much about Tehran's support for the brutal Assad regime in Damascus. "Iran's support of Assad has done as much to destabilize the region, and create the atmosphere that ISIS has taken advantage of, so while he can point to mistakes made my the U.S., he has to acknowledge Iran's own hand in today's crisis," said Suzanne DiMaggio, director of New America's Iran Initiative.

According to Rouhani, the best way to defeat ISIS and other Al Qaeda affiliates while not inadvertently spawning new pockets of extremism is to better coordinate with the Islamic Republic's similar efforts. But Rouhani also stressed that Iran can't be a full partner in a U.S.-led coalition until a nuclear accord is reached.

If he's trying to set this up as a quid pro quo (give in on nuclear talks so we can work together against ISIS), this seems like a dubious vow. Syria and Iraq are strong allies of Iran, and Iran has a strong incentive to act regardless of what the U.S. does.

"For now, U.S.-Iran discussions on ISIS on the margins of the P5+1 nuclear talks and through intermediaries is better than nothing," DiMaggio said. "But at some point very soon there will need to be direct, ongoing communication and even coordination. We must begin to consider the possibility of U.S.-Iran cooperation to counter ISIS even before a final nuclear agreement is signed."

But either way, in this case, holding assistance hostage may not be a winning diplomatic strategy for Iran. Here, Rouhani may benefit from a history refresher on the story of Pakistan. The U.S. considered Pakistan a rogue state after it tested a nuclear weapon back in 1998. But after 9/11, the countries reconciled. The U.S. removed the sanctions on Pakistan and began pumping the country with aid. Why? It needed Pakistan as an ally in the War on Terror. The U.S. might not see Iran as playing the same role in the fight against ISIS, as ISIS isn't using Iran as a staging area as al Qaeda used Pakistan.

The other game-changer in the Pakistan-U.S. reconciliation: it had already proven its nuclear capabilities. "There was nothing the U.S. could do to change that, and so they decided they may as well lift sanctions to get what they want," said Anish Goel, a Senior Fellow in New America's International Security Program. On Iran, the "calculation from the U.S. might be that a nuclear Iran is more dangerous for us than an Islamic State that is well-armed and trying to strike us." Even if not, domestic politics makes it harder for a U.S. president to achieve rapprochement with Iran than it was with Pakistan.

As far as getting involved in U.S. domestic affairs, Rouhani has made it clear that his office has no interest in helping to sell any nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress, which will likely hesitate to approve it. Still, he said there was potential for more U.S.-Iranian collaboration down the road both in his speech on Wednesday, and during the historic phone call with President Obama last fall. He even paid homage to his hosts at New America, suggesting Iranian and U.S. think tanks should work together more.

Of course, all potential collaboration is contingent on a nuclear deal and end to sanctions. "In Farsi, we say 'let's first raise the baby that we just gave birth to, and then let's go onto number two,'" Rouhani said to audience laughter.

But does he even want to raise a second baby?

"Rouhani has a good opportunity here, because the U.S. is willing to play ball," Goel said. "He could get the U.S. well on his side. But I'm not sure that's something that Iran as a whole wants. I'm not sure that's what Rouhani wants. I don't think anyone really knows what his ultimate goal is."

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