WASHINGTON -- One question about Iran is on everybody's mind these days: Will last month's nuclear agreement between that country and five world powers go into effect? That answer will almost certainly be revealed by the end of September, once the deal's fate in Congress is decided.
What remains unclear is how policymakers in Washington want to handle every other aspect of working with Iran. With a nuclear agreement in hand, U.S. officials are split on whether Washington can cooperate with Tehran on mutual threats, like the Islamic State. Some have touted the accord as a monumental step forward for a nation that’s been shunned by the West for decades. But more cautious Iran-watchers say it’s nothing more than a narrow agreement to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, and that normalization isn’t part of the equation.
Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) demonstrated that high-level discord in an interview with The Huffington Post last week, which can be viewed below. While the three young senators are closely aligned on foreign policy -- including in their support for the deal -- they disagreed on whether the agreement should pave the way for cooperation with the temperamental cleric-ruled nation.
"I think most Americans are pretty clear-eyed about this: that the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend," said Heinrich, who is on the Senate's Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. "While we oftentimes may share an adversary with Iran, I don’t think that engenders any level of trust or cooperation at this point. That is a country that has a long way to go before that can even be a part of the conversation."
But his congressional colleagues weren’t so sure that cooperation with Iran was off the table. Murphy, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed to the example of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which has long supported the spread of fundamentalist Islamic ideology tied to extremism.
"I don’t think we’re opening up an embassy in Tehran any time soon, nor should we. But this clean distinction that we made in the region between named friends and named enemies hasn’t served us very well," he said. "I think that there is certainly going to be room for our interests to occasionally align, even with countries with which we have deep divisions, like Iran. And ... we shouldn’t forsake all potential cooperation in the future with countries that do bad things in the region if we can cooperate in discreet ways to try to do good things."
The U.S. has found itself in a regional dance with Iran for years. The two drift in and out of alignment, depending on what embattled Middle Eastern battleground they are focusing on.
In the Syrian civil war, for example, the U.S. and Iran are diametrically opposed. While Iran backs its tyrannical proxy, Syrian President Bashar Assad, the U.S. is calling for Assad to step down and funding rebel groups to battle his government.
Washington is also undermining the Tehran-linked Houthi rebel movement in Yemen by supporting Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Sunni partners in their military campaign against the rebels.
Meanwhile, the situations in Iraq and in Afghanistan illustrate the risks of working with Iran, even when there isn't a direct clash with U.S. priorities.
Tehran's support in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq -- a group Washington has now been bombing for almost a year -- certainly takes some of the burden off the shoulders of U.S. and other Western forces. Worried about the extremist Sunni group's belligerence towards Shiites, Iran has played its own role, even shoring up the U.S.'s favored anti-Islamic State actor: the Iraqi Kurds. The Islamic State, or ISIS, poses a major threat to Shiite shrines in Iraq revered by Iran's ayatollahs, as well as to the Iranian-backed governments in Iraq and Syria.
Late last year, HuffPost revealed that U.S. officials were aware that Iranian fighter jets were targeting the Islamic State in Iraq. Days later, Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran's role in the ISIS fight could be positive.
But Iran's role there could exacerbate the sectarian tensions that helped the group gain popularity in the first place. Tehran is known to be connected to brutal Iraqi Shiite militias which have, in some cases, treated Sunni Iraqis as viciously as the Islamic State has.
Afghanistan presents a similar picture. While Tehran also wants to prevent the Islamic State from gaining a hold there, it is reportedly choosing to do so by arming the extremist Taliban movement -- the last group Washington would like to see dominating Afghanistan.
Still, Schatz suggested, handling double-edged swords may be the only way to move forward in the Middle East.
"We’ve got to sort of be adults about compartmentalizing things," the senator argued, drawing a comparison to U.S. treaty ally Turkey's recent actions. While Turkey's government recently fulfilled U.S. hopes by taking direct action against the Islamic State, it has also complicated the U.S.'s alliance with Kurds in Syria by reinitiating a decades-long conflict with its own Kurdish population.
Washington should be able to say, "What Turkey’s doing over here, we disagree with; we find this other thing extremely helpful," Schatz told HuffPost. "And that’s what’s happening with Iran with ISIS."
"We’ve got to be able to have sort of contradictory thoughts in our own heads," he continued. "What undergirds all this is what is in the American best interest -- as opposed to what allows me to sound consistent on Sunday morning talk shows.”