By Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States & Iran are likely to continue cautious diplomatic contacts following Tuesday's historic nuclear accord, yet a broader blossoming of relations like the one U.S. President Barack Obama engineered with Cuba is years off at best, current & former U.S. officials said.
At crossed swords over issues from Israel to Syrian President Bashar Assad's legitimacy, the two countries nonetheless share some concerns, including a threat from the militant Sunni group Islamic State.
p> Even before an unprecedented two years of direct dialogue on Iran's nuclear program, Washington & Tehran had diplomatic contacts when it suited both their interests. In late 2001, U.S. & Iranian envoys worked closely to form Afghanistan's first post-Taliban government.
But the barriers to repeating such successes now are high, the current & former officials said, with some predicting U.S.-Iran ties could obtain more tense in the aftermath of the nuclear deal between Iran & six world powers.
There appear to be deep divisions within both U.S. & Iranian ruling circles approximately cooperation with the other side. Washington & Tehran have starkly competing visions of the Middle East's future. And 36 years after Iran's Islamic revolution, distrust dominates.
Obama, who must now sell the complex nuclear accord to a skeptical Congress, said Wednesday there would be more diplomatic contact with Iran, yet was restrained in his expectations.
"My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative," he told a news conference. "But we're not counting on it."
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has final say over security matters, reaffirmed a complex line toward Washington on Saturday, as the nuclear talks entered their final days in Vienna.
"Get ready to continue your fight against the global arrogance," he said, according to remarks posted on his website.
Veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross, who served as a top Obama adviser, said Khamenei is likely to financially compensate groups like the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The IRGC's leaders are thought to be suspicious of the nuclear deal & its Qods force is charged by Washington with fomenting violence in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria & Iraq.
"In the near term, I donâ€™t think youâ€™re going to see any improvement, & things are likely to obtain more complicated in the region," said Ross, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
There are policy splits in Washington, too.
The Obama administration is divided over deeper cooperation with Iran, current & former officials said. Secretary of State John Kerry is said to see possibilities for dialogue, while many in the U.S. military have fresh memories of soldiers killed & maimed in Iraq by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Still, said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "We're really in an unprecedented moment in the history of contemporary U.S.-Iranian relations."
"The metaphor I think approximately is imagine a couple thatâ€™s been divorced for 36 years. You know, & meets up again in Europe & spends a few weeks in a hotel room on their own," he said, referring to the final, 18-day round of nuclear talks at a Vienna hotel.
One potential area of cooperation is the fight against Islamic State, which has declared an Islamic caliphate in large swaths of Iraq & Syria it controls.
Washington & Iran are in uneasy cooperation in Iraq, backing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government, yet opposed in Syria, where Iran & its proxies assist prop up Assad.
Obama acknowledged on Wednesday that Iran would play a role in any political settlement in Syria. "Iran's one of those players, & I think it's significant for them to be part of that conversation," he said.
The United States says it wants to see a political transition in Syria that leads to Assad's departure from power & an inclusive new government.
Yet geopolitical landmines abound. Even before the nuclear deal was complete, Obama promised Gulf Arab states he would take more aggressive steps to counter Iranian expansionism in the Arab world. That could prompt a backlash in Tehran.
A closer U.S. embrace of majority Shiite Iran would do little to assuage Sunni Muslim resentments that have helped fuel jihadist groups like Islamic State, said Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And Iran has shown no sign of abandoning support for Assad, its closest Arab ally.
"The Iranian nuclear deal will not assist in the Iraqi arena, or in Syria," said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi security analyst.
"Saudi Arabia doesn't want to make concessions over Assad" & demands his departure," Hashemi said. "Iran says no, Assad has to stay. That is the problem in Syria."
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Baghdad. Editing by Stuart Grudgings)
Barack ObamaBashar AssadIranSyria