Trudy Rubin | The gulf between Iran, U.S. remains wide

When President Barack Obama addressed the nation this month about building a coalition to fight the Islamic State, there was a critical word that he never mentioned.

That word was Iran.

The absence of the I-word was telling, because Shiite Iran is a crucial player in any effort to repel the Sunni jihadi of the Islamic State, which it regards as an existential danger. There was rampant speculation that the United States and Iran would cooperate behind the scenes in fighting a common foe, as they did in 2001 against the Afghan Taliban.

Yet the deep mistrust between Washington and Tehran — and a schizophrenic strategy in both capitals — seems to have ruled out any such coordination. It also raises the strong possibility that talks on Iran’s nuclear program — with a critical round now underway in New York — are headed for failure. That would cause a huge new crisis in the Mideast and undercut efforts to “degrade and destroy” the so-called Islamic State.

The administration has long insisted that the Iran nuclear talks be kept separate from discussions of regional problems, lest Tehran seek concessions on nuclear issues in return for cooperation on Syria or Iraq. Since the Islamic State invaded Iraq, however, Secretary of State John Kerry has said publicly that Washington is open to talking with Iranian officials about the problem, possibly on the margins of this week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting.

Yet Kerry opposed inviting Iran to an international conference in Paris on Monday that was meant to rally international support for Iraq in fighting the Islamic State. Kerry knew that Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, which are considered crucial to the anti-Islamic State fight, would balk at attending if Shiite Iran was present. In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei insisted publicly that Tehran would not cooperate with the United States against the Islamic State, and denounced the U.S.-led coalition. He sarcastically jibed that several American officials had repeatedly urged Iran’s help in private while “lying” in public.

More telling was the reaction of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a sophisticated diplomat with a doctorate from the University of Denver who has led Iran’s push for a nuclear deal under the moderate presidency of Hassan Rouhani. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Zarif ridiculed America’s “coalition of repenters” assembled in Paris, which, he said, had helped create the “Frankenstein” monster — Islamic State — that it was now opposing.

Without naming specific countries, Zarif made clear he was referring to Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which have sent weapons and funds to jihadi in Syria (or let private donors send them), and to Turkey, which still lets foreign fighters cross its border into Syria.

Zarif’s points were valid. But he was disingenuous when questioned about massive Iranian support for the Syrian regime, whose slaughter of Sunni civilians led to the creation of Islamic State and the influx of foreign jihadi. Moreover, Syrian leader Bashar Assad has refused to confront the group, choosing instead to destroy more moderate rebel forces.

The Iranian foreign minister finessed those truths. Had he “not been disinvited” from Geneva peace talks on Syria, said Zarif, he would have proposed a national unity government in Syria and U.N.-run elections. “We are not saying Assad should be president,” Zarif added, astonishingly, but “if he’s so brutal, kick him out.” Never mind that Assad rejected all political reform proposals, to the extent that the U.N. mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, blamed the dictator for the failure of his efforts.

And when asked if Iran would use its influence on Syria to stop its attacks on civilians that have killed tens of thousands of people, Zarif punted, claiming, “We have influence but no control.”

So, despite the interests they share in Islamic State’s demise, the United States and Iran won’t be engaging in any open coordination. Zarif did say that if both countries help the Iraqi government and the Kurds “it is up to the Iraqi government to coordinate” their efforts. As for Syria — the Islamic State heartland — the two countries remain on opposing sides.

However, even more worrying is the yawning gap that remains in nuclear negotiations between Iran, on the one side, and Washington and five other major powers on the other. A critical round of talks on curbing Iran’s nuclear program will be held during the coming week in New York. With a November deadline, the talks have stalled, creating a real possibility they might fail and create a huge new Middle East crisis — one that would undercut the struggle against the Islamic State.

“None of the parties wants to admit today that an agreement is not possible by Nov. 24, but realistically, that would be very hard to achieve if there is no major breakthrough this week or next,” says Robert Einhorn, a former top State Department negotiator on the Iran nuclear issue who is now at the Brookings Institution. Iran wants to retain a far larger enrichment program and to have any limits on the program apply for a much more limited time frame than its negotiating partners are willing to accept. “The discrepancy is huge,” Einhorn says.

Zarif was blunt about the likely effect on Iran’s foreign policy if the talks fall apart. He recalled that when previous talks in which he was involved failed, “the people rebuffed us by electing a different kind of president, who gave me early retirement. Now that I’m back from the dead, it is important to consider the kind of message the international community sends to Iran.”

The problem is that the message Americans hear from Tehran is divided and unclear, and the facts on the Syrian ground contradict what is said. Left alone, Zarif and Rouhani could probably close a deal with Kerry and Obama, but Khamenei is the man with the real power.

So Obama refuses to mention the I-word as we fight the Islamic State, and we can only hope that progress on nuclear talks will be made behind the scenes.