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How Militants In Iraq Could Affect U.S.-Iran Relations

ARUN RATH, HOST:

One of the most surprising developments to emerge from the chaos in Iraq is that the United States is considering working with Iran to stop the advance of ISIS. Vali Nasr is a former senior State Department advisor. He's now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Study. He says the U.S. relationship with Iran is already softening.

VALI NASR: Well, first of all, they're on a much more positive track together because the nuclear talks have been progressing well, and there is now an open channel of communication with Iran's Foreign Ministry. And, therefore, there is more hope that the United States could get Iran to share its position on Maliki in Iraq. And to that extent, the U.S. sees this as a constructive role.

RATH: If there is some sort cooperation on Iraq what effect, would that have on a nuclear issue?

NASR: I don't think it would have much of a direct impact. The nuclear issue is fairly technical. They're fairly advanced in their talks. I think these are really two separate tracks. And Iran is actually treating them as separate tracks. It's very focused on the nuclear issue. It's open to talking to Iran, but they have resisted so far to tie either Syria or Iraq to the nuclear issue.

RATH: And is there a sense - because the U.S. relationship with Iran is really casted as adversarial that what's happening in Iraq could give one an edge over the other in terms of negotiation or the dynamic?

NASR: Well, I think Iran has the edge because Iran has the force on the ground - has been supporting the Maliki government. The United States basically took itself out of Iraq by removing its troops and ending its leverage on Maliki. And also, currently, I think Maliki looks to Iran as the only country in the region which is actually really willing to defend Iraqi Shias against ISIS. The U.S. is still hedging and that's why the United States needs Iran if it is to convince Maliki of doing anything.

RATH: The United States has worked with Iran and with Syria before, of course after 9/11, sharing intelligence on terrorists and the Taliban. Would new cooperation be a simple matter of just reopening those old channels?

NASR: Yes, those old channels could already be open for all practical purposes. And that could help the United States in assessing the position of ISIS. But I think the United States is really looking to resolve this crisis, and this crisis cannot be resolved with airstrikes. This crisis has to be resolved politically by having a different government makeup and a different political makeup in Baghdad that is inclusive of the Sunnis and assuages Sunni public opinion in Iraq. Now, Maliki has resisted this. But Maliki cannot resist Iran if Iran were to say the same thing. So I think the United States would benefit by persuading Iran to openly pressure Maliki to compromise in the manner that the United States is asking of him.

RATH: Vali, do you think we'll look back at the current crisis in Iraq and see it as a turning point in the U.S. relationship with Iran?

NASR: Yes. And it could be. We could look back at this as a turning point that's provided that the two actually do end up in an agreement. And I think that will have great consequences for the region because so far, the United States has tackled every crisis in the region by keeping Iran at arm's length and even treating it as an adversary. Now, if ISIS insurgency in Iraq motivates the United States to build new bridges with Iran, this would be a completely new access in the region that would be quite consequential in a host of other conflicts going forward.

RATH: Vali Nasr is the Dean of the Johns Hopkin's School of Advanced International Study. Vali, thank you.

NASR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.