The relationship between the United States and Iran has been at loggerheads since 1979 when the US backed government in Tehran was pushed to the sidelines by Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolution, resulting in the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In recent times however, signs of a potentially positive relationship between the two states have materialized. While both countries seem reluctant to develop a relationship with one another, they may stand to benefit from such a union should common enemies present themselves elsewhere in the Gulf. They may have to put aside their rocky past, marked by severe distrust and US imposed sanctions on Iran to address these new, potentially hazardous regional developments.

Under the new President Hassan Rouhani, Iran wants to cooperate with the West and rid itself of crippling economic sanctions. Rouhani, a diplomat before taking office as President, has surprisingly high regard for business and economic development, quite unlike his predecessor.

It was September 27, 2013; the historic date when US President Barack Obama and President Rouhani held a telephone conversation regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program. A direct conversation between the two sitting heads of these states had taken place after more than 34 years. President Rouhani’s excitement was palpable as he tweeted immediately after the conversation:

“President Rouhani and President Obama expressed their mutual political will to rapidly solve the nuclear issue.”

This engagement with social media in and of itself is a marked turn for the Iranian establishment as Twitter has remained banned in Iran since 2009. The attempts to engage with the US and the world at large must not be underrated in importance. President Rouhani’s actions are significant in subtly positioning Iran as a power-player in the Middle East.

In November last year, an agreement was signed by Iran and the P5+1 members (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) on the limitation of nuclear activity in exchange for reduced sanctions. Iran insists it will use its nuclear facilities peacefully. It has also shown intent to scale back its nuclear program, which has so far been acceptable to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and the P5+1 powers. Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program started on June 16th, 2014, and are currently underway.

While progress seems to be occurring in relation to Iran, Iraq is destabilizing under the leadership of a weak central government poised to topple as the militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIS) advances towards Baghdad. ISIS is a predominantly Sunni jihadist militant movement gaining strength and position in Iraq and Syria. The infiltration of ISIS in Iraq is of grave concern to both the US and Iran. Representatives of both states have indicated that discussions on this matter will take place in the near future.

US Secretary of State John Kerry commented early on regarding this particular issue. When asked about possible military cooperation with Iran against a common enemy, Kerry stated, “We’re open to discussions if Iran is prepared to do something... to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and the ability of the government to reform.” He also stated, “At this moment I think we need to go step-by-step and see what in fact might be a reality. But I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability.”

Three hours after the remarks made by John Kerry, the Pentagon came to the rescue by backtracking on the statement made earlier by asserting, “There has been no contact, nor are there plans for contact, between [the Department of Defense] and the Iranian military on the security situation in Iraq.” The spokeswoman for the State Department also mentioned, “We’re not talking about coordinating any military action with Iran.”

Senior officials in Iran also downplayed a possibility of military cooperation between both states. Deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian confirmed by saying, “The Islamic Republic of Iran has had no negotiations with the Americans over mutual cooperation in Iraq.”

The statements given by both parties suggest a sense of wariness to cooperate with each other after decades of discord. Agreeing to have sidelined discussions on the situation in Iraq at the Vienna P5+1 talks is a clear indication of possible cooperation between the two states in the near future. While the Obama administration has taken some steps to size up the ISIS movement, including the deployment of three hundred military advisers to Iraq to help gather intelligence for future action, it remains to be seen what exact efforts, military, diplomatic or otherwise will be taken to neutralize any possible threat in the region.

Realistically speaking, the US will hesitate in affiliating itself with Iran against the ISIS. Primarily because hardliners in Iran blame Saudi Arabia for funding ISIS and the Saudis are a key US ally and trade partner. It is too ambitious a notion to believe that Rouhani, as an individual institution, has the capacity to sideline the stance held by the majority hardliners in Tehran. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent of the threat this ISIS movement poses. Is it enough to push two reluctant allies together? As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend- perhaps the outcome here will be a wary friendship between Washington and Tehran.

 The writer is a research fellow at the Research Society of International Law.

mogheeskhan@rsilpak.org