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The United States needs a deal with Iran, not detente

| Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

An unusual fear is gripping the Arab world, namely that nuclear diplomacy may yet bring Iran and the United States into a close regional embrace. This may seem comical given the legacy of mistrust separating the two nations. Yet this concern among Arab rulers may have some justification in history.

The United States has never been able to pursue arms control without delusion and has always insisted on sanctifying its negotiating partners. The challenge for Washington today is to defy its history and reach a nuclear agreement with Iran while negating the Islamic republic's regional ambitions.

During the heyday of detente in the 1970s, nuclear accords between the United States and Soviet Union were inevitably followed by commerce and diplomatic recognition. Successive U.S. administrations were seduced by the notion that a nuclear agreement could pave the way for grander geopolitical convergence.

If thorny nuclear issues could be resolved, the thinking went, then why not other areas of contention? This proved a fools' errand. U.S. adversaries have always been more practical about arms control and have seldom forfeited their ideological claims for the sake of trade and reconciliation.

On the surface, the chimera of bringing Iran in from the cold could prove equally alluring. Perhaps once the two sides have agreed on the nuclear file, they could move toward a larger canvas of cooperation. These sober strategic arguments are seemingly buttressed by the rise of pragmatists led by President Hassan Rouhani. As such, a concerted U.S. effort at engagement might foster Iranian moderation in its foreign policy as well as strengthen the forces of progressive change domestically.

Like their Soviet predecessors, the guardians of Iranian theocracy are far less sentimental than Americans about their diplomacy. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei insisted as recently as late November that Iran is “challenging the influence of America in the region and is extending its own influence.” It is not Khamenei's burden to salvage the wreckage of the United States but merely to fill the vacuums left by its abdication.

The key actors defining Iran's regional policy are not its urbane diplomats mingling with their Western counterparts in Geneva but the Revolutionary Guard Corps, particularly the famed Quds Force. For the force's commander, Qassem Suleimani, the struggle to evict the United States from the Middle East began in Iraq, as Suleimani proclaimed in September. The struggle has moved on to Syria. The survival and success of the Assad dynasty is now a central element of Iran's foreign policy.

The U.S. task remains imposing stringent limits on Iran's nuclear program through negotiations while restraining Tehran's regional ambitions through pressure. This latter goal will require mending the United States' battered alliances in the Middle East. The United States cannot reclaim its allies' confidence without being an active player in the Syria saga. As long as the United States exempts itself from this conflict, its other pledges ring hollow to a skeptical Arab audience.

At the core, tensions between the United States and Iran are ideological: Iran does not want us to succeed, and we should not want Tehran to prevail. Iran's assault on the Arab order will define the parameters of Middle East politics for some time to come. The first step toward a sensible Iran policy is to dispense with the illusion of detente that too often accompanies arms control diplomacy.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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