Where new cooperation could lead

The history of Iran and America is full of bitter memories on both sides. Could that ugly history ever give way to a sunnier view?

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani waves to reporters at the conclusion of his press conference in Tehran, Iran.

One of the ironies of our time is that the people of Iran are among the most pro-American in the greater Middle East. Sure, Americans may find it hard not to take those “Death to America” chants at least a bit personally. But Americans who have been to Iran find that on the streets and in shops and restaurants, they are greeted with enthusiasm. 

At the political level, however, the history of the two countries is full of bitter memories on both sides, some of them pretty recent. Could that ugly history ever give way to a sunnier view?

In our cover story this week, scholar Andrew Bacevich describes how the nuclear deal struck with Iran this summer opens up a much larger vista for a new, less militarized dynamic in the Middle East. A noted writer on international affairs, and a recently retired professor at Boston University, Mr. Bacevich is no academic idealist. He was a career Army officer, leaving with the rank of colonel, and his son, also an Army officer, was killed in Iraq in 2007. He’s no fan of either the Bush or Obama foreign policies. The path blazed with the Iranian nuclear deal has large risks, he writes. But it holds much more promise for the region than the misery-ridden and unstable status quo.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also casts the nuclear deal as the first step down a new path.

“We cannot live in the past forever,” he told a small group of journalists (this one included) at a meeting in New York last month. He was directing his comments not just to distrustful Americans but also to the conservative “Death to America” crowd in his own country.

The mild and methodical Mr. Rouhani is himself a change from the flaming, holocaust-denying, anti-American provocateur Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he succeeded only two years ago. Rouhani argues that the importance of the recent nuclear deal he reached with the United States and five other countries could be the beginning of a whole different relationship that will, in the long run, matter much more than the deal itself.

If trust can grow between Iran and the US, if people in both countries can see – even over the next few months – that dialogue can work, then that new atmosphere opens many possibilities for cooperating around common interests, Rouhani said. He added that even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the chief keeper of the conservative, anti-American flame – is open to this possibility. “So this path is not closed.”

Rouhani suggested that Iran and the West could find common cause in the “existential fight against terrorism,” and against Islamic State in particular. 

“Without Iran’s help, [Islamic State] would be ruling from Baghdad today,” he said. True or not, it is not an absurd claim. Shiite militias coordinated by Iranians helped stop Islamic State all over Iraq as Iraq’s own forces were overwhelmed. “Iran, whether anyone likes it or not, is a powerful and effective player in the region.”

And that could be trouble for American interests, as the conventional calculation has it. Or that could be – eventually, possibly – a great relief.

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