In the short term, the question is not whether the U.S. will ally with Iran, but how far that connection will go. I have no doubt that contacts between the two sides have been intense in recent weeks, albeit through indirect channels.
I hope that U.S. participants in particular will be reading their history books closely as they make their decisions, because in a sense, we have been here before. Although it’s a very long story, we might begin in September 1980, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, beginning an eight year war that killed a million people. The war spilled over the globe, as both nations were in desperate need of money and weaponry. As neither side could achieve its goals through the law courts, it did so by extra-legal means of international terrorism and hostage taking, intended to put pressure on governments and corporations. Without that Iran-Iraq context, we cannot understand the appalling wave of terrorism that characterized the 1980s.
Part of that global nightmare came close to bringing down a U.S. president. By the mid-1980s, Iranian-linked guerrillas in Lebanon controlled some twenty Western hostages. Ronald Reagan’s administration famously reached out to Iran, trading weapons for hostages, and subsequently diverting funds from the deal to anti-Communist forces it was supporting in Central America. The exposure of the deals in 1986 made impeachment a real possibility.
In so many ways, the present situation is utterly different, and the potential nature of U.S. involvement would be less compromising. Even so, a battery of federal laws now stringently limits U.S. relationships with Iran, at all levels of government and commerce, and any violations would be deeply dangerous.
The main danger with any such covert alliance is that there is little chance of keeping it covert. A key player here is Israel, which desperately fears the strengthening of ISIS, but which at the same time regards Iran as an existential threat. Perhaps Israeli administrations and intelligence agencies could be persuaded to keep quiet about U.S.-Iran ties for a while, but the dam would eventually break. At that point, watch for a significant blowback in U.S. domestic politics.
The modern U.S. nightmare with Iran began with the taking of American hostages in Tehran in 1979, half a lifetime ago. That nightmare might still not be wholly ended.
Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History atBaylor Universityand author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.