Near the very end of his speech after the Iranian missile barrage, President Trump made the following remark: “ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran. The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”
Why is this worth mentioning?
First, it is true. But more important, this simple fact, to the best of my knowledge, had never been acknowledged even in passing by senior members of the Trump administration over three years of public commentary about Iran.
There is a tendency to disregard such a statement as a throwaway line at the end of a speech that was marked by the typical Trumpian bluster, exaggeration, and braggadocio. But the menacing and self-serving context lends it even more significance. In international politics, interesting and potentially positive messages often arrive wrapped in venom and bile.
At a minimum, this accurate statement of fact and open invitation to cooperation survived what must have been a hectic speechwriting process that morning. Either the president or someone near to him thought it was worth saying to an international audience, and those who might have disagreed failed to excise it from the text. So let us assume that President Trump means what he said.
There is an irony, of course, in the image of Iran and the United States fighting ISIS. Indeed, Iran rushed to organize regional defenses when ISIS burst out of its home base in Raqqa, Syria, five years ago to drive directly toward Baghdad and the holy sites of Iraq. The man who organized that emergency response to the ISIS onslaught was, of course, General Qassem Soleimani, whom President Trump had ordered killed a few days before this speech.
The United States did join the fight against ISIS, organizing an effective international coalition, which succeeded in severely reducing the caliphate’s strength by the end of 2018 and then killing its leader in October 2019. Iran continued to fight ISIS over the same time period, but coordination with the U.S. coalition was indirect and went totally unmentioned by the United States and most of the international media. Trump’s decision to mention it in his speech was therefore remarkable.
The really significant part of Trump’s passing remark, however, came after the mention of ISIS: “we should work together on this and other shared priorities.” If you have followed U.S.-Iran relations during the Trump administration, you would be forgiven for being unaware that Iran and the United States have any shared interests (priorities). But they do.
Let me highlight a few areas that might be targets for President Trump’s suggestion of working together.
Immediately following 9/11, Iran offered its services to the United States to defeat the Taliban and create a new legitimate government in Kabul. Iranian intervention, and particularly the political support of Javad Zarif (now Iranian foreign minister, sanctioned by the Trump administration and recently denied a visa to attend a meeting at the United Nations in New York), were critical to that process. Iran continues to share fundamental U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and supports the Kabul government as much as Washington does. The U.S. special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is negotiating with the Taliban, knows Zarif very well. Iran’s influence in Afghanistan remains very strong. Why not consult?
Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemeni civil war in 2015 with both bombings and ground attacks by a coalition of Arab and foreign forces. Iran has provided increasing levels of training and support for the Ansarallah (Houthi) faction in an attempt to bleed their Saudi rival. Over the past five years, the Yemen war has become the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe, leading the U.S. Congress to oppose sales of American weapons to the combatants. Iran has indicated a willingness to participate in a peace process. A serious U.S. initiative to broker a settlement either directly or through the U.N. would be in the interests of all parties. Why not try?
Military and Political Actions
President Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to reduce the American military presence in the Middle East. Iran has routinely harassed U.S. forces in the region. There are several possible avenues in which the dangers of military escalation could be reduced, to everyone’s benefit, perhaps starting with a hotline and/or an agreement on avoiding incidents at sea, as was done with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. On a more ambitious note, the United States and the Soviet Union also negotiated an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that offered a wide-ranging and effective forum for discussion of issues of mutual concern. The Middle East needs such a forum.
This is far from a complete list. Without straining either creativity or credibility, it would be possible to explore areas of possible mutual interest concerning oil, external intervention in Iraq, and other regional flash points that the United States has identified as a matter of concern.
The fact that the Trump administration for three years has chosen not to explore any of these areas of possible diplomatic action inevitably raises doubts about its declared willingness to “work together on this and other shared priorities.” But this is not the only signal that Washington has let drop during this period of intense confrontation. In the past few days, the State Department has instructed U.S. diplomats to limit contact with five dissident groups that Iran has claimed are being used to promote political destabilization in Iran. Although a tiny straw in a blustery wind, this notice is likely to be seen as a positive development in Iran.
These statements coming from the Trump administration suggest that there is at least some willingness to consider positive inducements to accompany their “maximum pressure” campaign. That is a significant change that should not be permitted to pass unnoticed. We will know just how serious this initiative may be when and if the words are translated into action.