A recent Washington Post op-ed by some of America’s top diplomats and thinkers on the Middle East illustrates the hope that continues to guide Obama’s Middle East policy: that rapprochement with Iran will provide a means to settle some of the worst and most dangerous issues in an increasingly explosive part of the world.
There’s a lot of appeal to this idea. As it happens, the U.S. and Iran do have some common interests—these were the basis of the U.S. relationship with Iran under the Shah. In some ways, the question is still what it has been since 1979: Can the U.S. and Iran under the mullahs have at least some of the same kind of mutually beneficial relationship they had in the days of the Shah?
Ronald Reagan was hoping for something like this when he opened channels to Iran, and he wasn’t the only president to try. But no president since 1979 has done as much as President Obama to attempt to lay the foundations for a new U.S.-Iran relationship. It’s been a mix of carrots and sticks, and it is the single most significant and sustained foreign policy effort the administration has made. Sticks include the sanctions program and the international coalition that the administration has painstakingly pulled together (though, one should note, some of the most effective sanctions have been those that Congress demanded and that the administration didn’t want). Carrots range from the conspicuous silence of the U.S. administration when the mullahs crushed democratic protesters against Ahmadinejad’s apparently rigged re-election, to offers that Iran could continue to enrich nuclear material after a deal with the U.S., to partial sanctions relief to jump start the nuclear talks and perhaps to other things not generally known.
Other items on Obama’s foreign policy agenda have come and gone: Support for the Muslim Brotherhood as a democratic alternative, a close rapport and working relationship with Erdogan, various attempts to get peace between the Arabs and the Israelis, the reset with Russia and so on and so forth. But the effort to resolve U.S.-Iran relations without war, without an Iranian bomb and with some type of regional cooperation in mutual interests has remained at the core of this president’s foreign policy from day one. The consistency and unswerving determination behind this foreign policy initiative is one of the most remarkable things about this president’s tenure, and it deserves sustained attention from everyone interested in the fortunes of American foreign policy. The lack of intelligent press and elite analysis of this top priority—what the Iran focus says about the president’s overall strategy, whether it’s a good or viable idea, what it costs, how likely it is to succeed and, if it succeeds, what benefits can be expected from it—is one of the key failings in the national discussion about President Obama’s record.
Today, with the world in flames and Obama’s foreign policy on the receiving end of a lot of skepticism at home and abroad, success with Iran remains the administration’s most important single preoccupation, and it is probably, in the President’s mind, his single greatest hope for turning around the growing perception that his foreign policy has failed.
For something as important to American security and regional stability as the president’s Iran initiative, it’s surprising and a bit discouraging that the press has covered it so poorly. The twists and turns of the events have been covered, but even serious regular readers of the major newspapers aren’t getting the kind of analysis that would help them understand what is going on here.
It is not too late for a serious national Iran conversation to begin, and there are three basic questions that conversation needs to address.
The first is the simplest: Do the Iranian and U.S. bottom lines actually permit a settlement on the nuclear deal? The gaps are narrowing as the July 20th deadline for a deal approaches, but the picture is very hard to read. The sides are still far apart on a number of issues, and both in DC and in Tehran it isn’t just the negotiators at the table who have to buy the deal—it’s those at home with tougher approaches. How many concessions can Tehran’s negotiators sell to the hardliners back home? The same question can be asked regarding the Obama administration and what its negotiators can sell to the US Congress, who ultimately must ratify a deal (Iran wants the permanent repeal of some congressionally imposed sanctions, which gives US opponents of the deal a lot of leverage).
This is the question that the press has by and large fixated on, and it seems to be the question that has engaged the administration most deeply as well. It appears unlikely that we will know the answer for certain by the July 20 deadline for the current talks as it appears that some kind of extension will be needed—we shall see. But although this is the question the press has focused on the hardest, and the one where the average intelligent reader of the major press outlets is most likely to have a reasonable stock of information and analysis to work with, it is not actually the biggest or most consequential of the questions that hang over America’s Iran policy at the moment.
The second question is if anything more pertinent, and it’s one that the press really should be addressing with more attention: Would a nuclear deal open the way to a renewed Iranian drive for regional supremacy? The Sunni-Shi’a war now embroiling the Middle East is in part a war of Iranian power expansion. With the overthrow of Saddam and the collapse of Sunni hegemony in Iraq, followed up by the failure of the US to build a strong non-sectarian Iraq and, more broadly, to to build a strong non-radical Sunni counterweight to Iran in the region, Iran is on the brink of a possessing a kind of regional power that the Shah could only dream about.
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are all subject to enormous and growing Iranian influence. Shi’a populations in strategically vital gulf countries (a majority in Bahrain, a large and important minority in others, including Saudi Arabia) are politically restive and attracted by Iran’s power. The removal of economic sanctions would be a huge boost for Iran’s economy; It would increase its regional influence directly through growing economic links and, perhaps even more significantly, it would massively increase the resources that the Iranian state can devote to the proxy wars and to its regional clients and allies by easing Iran’s need to subsidize its own population and by feeding the state increased revenues through higher tax revenues as the economy rebounds.
Thus, the people in Iran arguing for a nuclear deal could be making a very realpolitik, power-maximizing argument saying that Iran should prioritize establishing a regional hegemony over acquiring nuclear weapons. Then, when the regional hegemony is established, the U.S. will be even less willing or able to oppose Iran’s nuclear drive than it is now, and a nuclear Iran that is also a regional hegemon would have immense power over the world’s oil supply. Iran’s dream of becoming a true global great power would have been reached.
What’s extremely troubling and alarming about the establishment press debate over the nuclear agreement with Iran is that the deal’s partisans by and large simply don’t engage with this absolutely vital and indispensable question. This is the kind of silence that frequently occurs when a political establishment is about to make a truly monumental blunder; history’s worst decisions are made by people with blinkers on, who ignore the wider implications of the choices they are making and concentrate of a limited and narrow set of considerations. To think about the Iran deal solely as a question of non-proliferation is to miss the essence of Iran’s national strategy and its potential consequences for U.S. interests. Americans need to know whether the administration has really thought this issue through and, if it hasn’t, there needs to be strong pressure from Congress and elsewhere for a serious and in depth reappraisal to begin.
This brings us to the third question about the deal that the press—and, one fears, the administration—is not taking up in anything like the depth it demands: Is a real strategic rapprochement between the US and the Iranian mullahs in the cards or are our interests and objectives inherently too opposed to one another for more than episodic and limited cooperation to take place against a long-term background of rivalry and conflicting strategies?
Proponents of the deal, like the three co-authors of the op-ed referenced above, see the nuclear deal as a first and necessary step towards strategic rapprochement. This is the view of many members of the well funded Iranian-American lobby, who believe in and hope for a true reconciliation between the country they come from and the country that gave them refuge. What makes the hope even more attractive is a widespread belief that better U.S.-Iranian governmental relations would strengthen the political position of moderates and democratic forces within Iran itself—a nuclear deal and a strategic rapprochement would accelerate a process of change within Iran, leading ultimately to the emergence of a pro-American democracy as the most powerful country in the Middle East.
Reaching out to the mullahs then becomes a way to reach past the mullahs toward the (supposed) pro-American majority of Iranians who dislike the ways in which the mullahcracy has distorted Iranian culture and stunted the economy. And the moderate and stable Iran that would then emerge would be a true anchor for the region, one that would work with the U.S. against jihadi terror and would (presumably) also give up the radical anti-Zionism and return to Iran’s pre-revolutionary policy of good relations with Israel—if not all the way, at least enough to make the emergence of Iran as the greatest regional power no threat to Israeli security.
This is the attractive picture that many of the strongest advocates of President Obama’s outreach policy see as the real goal. It is, without a doubt, an attractive goal. But one of the greatest failures of the U.S. debate on our Iran policy is the failure to really look at how likely it is that a nuclear deal would get us to this kind of cooperation—or even to some kind of manageable detente if the full utopian dream doesn’t end up coming true.
Some of the elements of the reconciliation scenario make sense. There really are strong elements of civil society in Iran, and there really is a widespread desire in the country for a significant liberalization of the current regime. There really is a reform wing of the Iranian establishment that would like to move the country towards a more democratic polity at home and a less polarized foreign policy.
One doesn’t know, again in part because the reporting on the subject is so inadequate, how far President Obama himself has bought into this scenario. We also don’t know very much about how likely the rosy scenario really is. It’s certainly possible to construct an optimistic scenario about where this deal could lead, but it is at least equally possible to construct plausible scenarios in which the hardliners benefit more from the deal and Iran emerges from a nuclear agreement stronger and more prosperous, but just as opposed to the U.S. as ever. (Indeed, if the Iranian hardliners themselves didn’t believe that such a result was possible, it’s unlikely that Iran would have gone as far down the negotiation road as it has.)
In any case, it is a sign of great weakness in the way the American foreign policy establishment and the serious press has approached this negotiation that these questions haven’t been much more thoroughly worked over. And it’s even more troubling that some of the very obvious weaknesses in the arguments for U.S.-Iranian cooperation haven’t been challenged more broadly.
In particular, one of the strongest arguments made by those in the detente camp is that the emergence of radical Sunni jihadi groups like ISIS increases the interest in both Iran and in the U.S. for deeper cooperation. That’s certainly true from the U.S. standpoint—the more we look at ISIS and indeed the rising tide of Sunni radicalism across a region where the Obama administration recently thought such movements were in disarray and retreat, the more interested we are in finding allies against them. However, while it is absolutely clear that in the long run ISIS and other such movements are mortal enemies of Iranian Shi’ism, it’s not at all clear that in the short run Iran is so unnerved by them as to be ready to bury its hostility toward the U.S. in a struggle against this common foe.
In some ways, ISIS is helping Iran in the short term. Its rise has made it more likely that the U.S. will acquiesce in the survival of the Syrian regime, a vital Iranian ally. The rise of ISIS and other radical movements both splits the Sunni world into competing forces and factions and drives the U.S. away from supporting the emergence of what Iran may fear much more than ISIS—an effective, non-radical Sunni political alliance that could unite the Saudis and other Iranian opponents, break the Alawite stranglehold in Syria, and cut Hezbollah down to size. Iran may see ISIS and its ilk as both symptoms of the Sunni meltdown that gives Iran its biggest opportunity for regional hegemony in centuries and also as potent tools for further dividing and weakening its Sunni opponents—while driving the U.S. in desperation toward Iran as the only possible regional bulwark against the bad guys.
There is some troubling evidence both in the behavior of Tehran and Damascus that Iran and its allies do in fact see ISIS in exactly this light, and have provided back door financial and other subsidies to a group whose rise, they hope and expect, will split their truly dangerous opponents without creating a durable force that can really stand for the long term. If that is in fact what is happening, for the U.S. to embrace Iran out of fear of ISIS would be a terrible blunder.
More broadly, there’s a case to be made that Iran’s mullahs depend on maintaining an adversarial relationship both with the U.S. and with Israel, and that the current Iranian government’s survival is tied up in maintaining that opposition. Supporters of a U.S. move to detente with Iran seem to buy this argument when they make the case that if the US removes the grounds on our side for this hostility, the result with be regime change (or at least strategic regime moderation) in Iran. But will the Iranian hardliners so obligingly play the role of idiot and play cluelessly into our hands?
It is well within those hardliners’ ability to keep U.S. and Iran hostility alive by engaging in provocations of various kinds. In fact, if the nuclear deal goes through and the sanctions are removed, they would have a greater ability to annoy and harass us than they do now. The global alliance against a nuclear Iran would presumably fall apart when the sanctions come down, making it much harder for the U.S. to coordinate international and multilateral responses to non-nuclear provocations (like big arms transfers to Hezbollah and Hamas, for example, or massive support to Shi’a dissidents in the Gulf). Being radically anti-Zionist and being a focus of U.S. rivalry actually enhances Iran’s ‘soft power’ in the region; if Iran is the major bugaboo of both Israel and the U.S., it is easier for Iran to claim to Sunni Arabs that it is the legitimate leader of Islamic ‘resistance’ to hated western power and intervention. If their domestic political power and their regional power is strengthened by stoking hatred and rivalry with the U.S. and Israel, and the ability of the U.S. to respond with devastating sanctions is dramatically reduced by a nuclear deal, why wouldn’t the Iranian hardliners follow a path of confrontation rather than one of cooperation once the nuclear issue is off the table?
There’s another problem for the rosy scenario. Those who think that a U.S.-Iran alliance could be the basis for a stable Middle East may miss the destabilizing consequence that this alliance would have on the Sunni world. Countries like Saudi Arabia will be driven toward cooperation with more radical forces if the U.S. seems to be siding with the Shi’a in the regional war. Already this perception has made it easier for ISIS and other radical groups to raise money from private individuals and foundations in the Gulf. Instead of calming the region and weakening terrorism, a close and visible U.S.-Iran alliance may radicalize the Sunni world and lead, for example, the Saudis to bring Pakistan and Egypt into an anti-Shi’a bloc. Think of Pakistani-trained militants with Saudi funds playing a larger role across the Middle East; think of a closer engagement between an increasingly radical and insecure Saudi Arabia with Pakistani politics and Islamabad’s nuclear program. This is not necessarily a recipe for a quiet Middle East.
It is very hard for anyone outside government and the flow of classified information and expert analysis available to the top levels of policymakers to figure out which scenarios are the most likely and what the relative dangers of the alternative courses really are. But the relative emptiness of the discussion of these issues even among informed and sophisticated press observers whose sources are within the magic circle is a telling and worrying indicator that those inside aren’t really asking themselves the tough questions.
We’ve seen this pattern before in Washington, and even in the current administration. The foolish invasion of Libya, the shortsighted and self-defeating approach to Egypt’s non-revolution, the repeated failures in Israeli-Palestinian policy, the horrendous and massive misreading of President Putin’s intentions and the pattern of poor choices in Syria all point to blind spots in the administration’s policymaking process and a tendency for hard questions to be ignored in favor of rosy and optimistic scenarios. With its foreign policy in global disarray, and with public disapproval of the President’s handling of foreign policy sharply rising, there’s a danger that a harassed and worried White House would bet the ranch on a big win in Iran that could, some of the President’s advisors no doubt deeply hope, turn everything around.
Hopefully, none of this is true, and a sober and deliberative White House decision-making process has taken all of these questions deeply into account and made reasonable, prudent and carefully hedged decisions about how to proceed. Alternatively, a failure to reach a nuclear deal with Iran could make the whole issue moot. But we are left with the feeling that the poverty of the intellectual discussion around America’s Iran policy is deeply unsettling; hope is not a plan.