They have been called state sponsors of terrorism – but now the United States is considering working together with Iran, as both countries try to stop Iraq disintegrating into chaos.
Here is something no-one expected: American offiicals talking up the prospects of co-operation with Tehran. Diplomats have already held informal talks on the fringes of nuclear negotiations in Vienna in pursuit of one common cause: curbing the onward march the Islamic insurgent group Isis as it rampages through Iraq.
And officials are being quite explicit about the prospect. Secretary of State John Kerry told Yahoo! News that the US was “open to discussions if there’s something constructive that can be contributed by Iran”.
This represents quite a turnaround. The Obama administration has avoided engaging with Iran over the conflict in Syria – indeed, John Kerry tried to persuade the United Nations not to include the Iranians in the Syria peace talks held in Geneva earlier this year.
And there is a long history of rivalry, some of it bloody, between the two nations in Iraq itself. Iranian-backed al-Quds fighters have been blamed for numerous attacks on American forces. In 2010 the US ambassador to Iraq said Iran, through its surrrogates, could be linked to the deaths of more than a thousand Americans.
It is in the interests of everybody to stabilise the government of Iraq, said Javed Zarif, Iranian foreign minister.
“Up to a quarter of the American casualties, and some of the more horrific incidents in which Americans were kidnapped… can be traced without doubt to these Iranian groups”, he claimed.
There is a long history of rivalry, some of it bloody, between Iran and the United States in Iraq itself.
Now, though, strategic interests have temporarily changed. If the US keeps engaged with Iran. goes the thinking, it will be better placed to stop the Iranians backing hard-line Shi’ite militias battling against Isis forces, which could inflame the situation to yet more dangerous levels.
Iran appears to share a similar pragmatism, or at least according to its foreign minister Javad Zarif, who told the New Yorker: “It is in the interest of everybody to stabilise the government of Iraq. If the US has come to realise that these groups pose a threat to the security of the region, and if the US truly wants to fight terrorism and extremism, then it’s a common global cause.
Clearly, this kind of statement has not gone down well with American conservatives, who fear Iran has a sinister motive: milking any advantage it gets, perhaps, to gain a more favourable deal at the negotiations over its nuclear programme. Or even using the situation to consolidate its power base in southern Iraq.
Take former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who has been delivering strong warnings about the risks of a closer partnership with the government in Tehran.
“It would be the height of folly to believe that the Iranian regime can be our partner in managing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq,” he declared.
McCain insisted that greater intervention by Iran would simply inflame sectarian tensions, empower radical Shia militias and alienate US allies in the region.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers also warned that working with Iran would be a “trap” and a “failure of leadership”.
However, one of the senate’s leading Republican hawks, Lindsey Graham, astonished many on Sunday when he claimed: “The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad does not fall” – although there were caveats, he insisited: no chance for any territorial gains. “We need to put a red line with Iran,” he said.
Fred Kaplan, author of The Insurgents, says it is all about timing, and the coincidence of an immediate strategic interest – keeping Sunni radicals from taking over Iraq. “Sometimes nations have to form alliances with unpleasant nations to prevent the victory of something worse,” he wrote.
In other words, there may be no love lost between Washington and Tehran, but faced with the prospect of seeing Iraq collapse into meltdown – my enemy’s enemy is suddenly my friend.
Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News