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Too Many Carrots/No Sticks
Iran is Not The Answer

A big dispute is roiling DC: Is Iran the answer to America’s problems in the Middle East? Can we turn to Iran for help with ISIS and will the joint interest in defeating the radical group lead to a broader US-Iran rapprochement and help get the nuclear deal?

Sadly, the answer to these questions is no. As Eric Edelman, Dennis Ross and Ray Takeyh persuasively argued in the Washington Post, collaboration with Iran will undermine U.S. alliances and reduce, not enhance, our effectiveness against ISIS. Worse, if we turn to Iran on ISIS, it will expect a reward in the form of a better deal on the nuke issue.

Here’s a Reuters article pointing out this very dynamic at play:

“Iran is a very influential country in the region and can help in the fight against the ISIL (IS) terrorists … but it is a two-way street. You give something, you take something,” said a senior Iranian official on condition of anonymity.

“ISIL is a threat to world security, not our (nuclear) program, which is a peaceful program,” the official added.

The core American miscalculation is that Iran feels the rise of ISIS as the same kind of major threat that we do, and that the presence of this new threat will increase the attraction of a good relationship with the U.S. Beyond that, there seems to be a sense among White House policymakers that Iran’s mullahs and hardcore revolutionaries are so beaten down by sanctions and feel so much pressure to liberalize from Iranian civil society that, if US hostility is removed, a major turn toward moderation is going to change the way Iran looks at foreign policy.

The problem with this is that the progressive erosion of America’s position in the Middle East, combined with the evidence from Ukraine and elsewhere that the U.S. under this administration is a power in retreat, has almost certainly boosted the morale of the hard liners in Iran and made them feel that the world is going their way. They probably don’t see the rise of ISIS as an existential threat; they see it as one more sign of the political disintegration of the Sunni Arab world, now split into three bitterly hostile camps—the Saudi/Egypt/UAE axis, the Muslim Brotherhood/Qatar/Gaza axis with Turkish backing, and the pool of crazies like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. With the U.S. in retreat and the Sunni splits deepening, Iran’s hard core revolutionaries have every reason to feel emboldened and no reasons to make serious concessions to the U.S.

We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks as the nuclear negotiations move toward the next stage, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that a historic opportunity has been lost. A deal with Iran might well have been within reach, one in which Iran accepted sensible limits on both its regional ambitions and its nuclear program—if the Obama administration had been willing to take a stronger position in the region. By maintaining its military presence (in a non-combat role) in Iraq and engaging to prevent Maliki from alienating the Sunnis on the one hand, and by doing in Syria what it did in Libya (with more attention to the aftermath), the administration could have had a serious conversation with Iran in which the Supreme Leader would have strong motives to accept, however reluctantly, the kind of historical compromise that could get U.S.-Iran relations to a better place.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration made different choices. It wanted to get out of Iraq, it wanted to minimize its engagement with Syria, and it thought that a reduced American regional profile would be the way to induce the Iranians to rethink their approach to the U.S. Currently the White House and the rest of us must live with the consequences: President Obama has dusted off President Bush’s war authorization to engage once again in military actions in Iraq, we are closer to a wider war in Syria under less favorable conditions than would have been the case had we acted earlier, and Iranian hardliners think they are on a roll. Meanwhile, our relationships with our historic regional allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt) are all at new lows, without a new relationship with Iran to balance the losses. This is not what successful foreign policy looks like.

The White House seems committed to its strategy—or at least cannot find an acceptable alternative to it. This is excellent news for Tehran; Washington’s current approach to the region produces nothing but failure and crisis. The best advice anyone could give to Iran today is steady as you go: keep President Obama exactly where he is, taking bigger risks and paying higher costs for a nuclear deal that remains tantalizingly just out of reach.The game can’t go on forever, but why not enjoy it while it lasts?

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  • Arkeygeezer

    I never did understand the “nuke issue” with Iran. For 20 years we have been accusing Iran of getting nuclear weapons. Meanwhile China has them; North Korea has them; Pakistan has them; India has them; and the world has not become a nuclear cinder. If Iran wanted nuclear weapons, they could have gotten them long ago from Pakistan or North Korea. In my mind, this is a phony issue.

    • Andrew Allison

      The “nuke issue” with Iran is that they are fanatics who don’t care about, and in fact welcome, the consequences of their or, more likely, their surrogates’ actions. The other nuclear powers do care. Simply put, nuclear war between non-fanatics could only occur by accident, whereas with fanatics it’s inevitable. I could’t agree more about supporting the Kurds.

      • Arkeygeezer

        North Korea is not a “fanatic”? Iran is no more fanatical than either North Korea or Pakistan. The only reason any nation holds back on using nuclear weapons is fear of retaliation.

        • Josephbleau

          I have to take Iran at its word that Israel will become a radioactive waste land. I want no truck with such a clan and will never be free of the fleas I get from being their friend.

          • Arkeygeezer

            I don’t want them to be their friend. I want to help them fight with the Kurds against ISIS, so that our troops don’t have to.

        • Andrew Allison

          The point of my comment was that Muslim fanatics do not fear retaliation but welcome it.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Joining either side of the Jihadist spawning factions is utterly stupid. And treating Syria as Libya with more attention to the aftermath (which was stupid war on the cheap to begin with) is only a recipe for another failure. Obama has made a career of avoiding responsibility, blaming others for his failures, and voting present. He doesn’t have any plans or strategy beyond maintaining his own position. So how can he lead America to any kind of victory, when he has no direction in which to lead. Even in Libya, he was leading from behind, it was the UK and France that were the motivating force behind that failure, and Obama will blame them for it if pressed.
    In any case ISIS is getting headlines, but it is being blown way out of proportion. Think about it, modern warfare uses up material at an awesome rate, where are they going to steal more arms, ammo, and equipment? Enemies sit on all their supply lines, so they would have to pay smugglers prices for even the most basic needs. How long will they last? I think they will soon start fighting among themselves over scarce resources and then desertions, theft, and their many local enemies will break them like an egg.

  • PDQuig

    If “Iran” is not the answer, perhaps the wrong question is being asked? Here are some questions for which “Iran” is definitely the answer:

    Q: Which country is the worst state sponsor of terror and poses the largest threat to stability in the Middle East?
    Q: Which country’s military and energy infrastructure should be completely destroyed before they catalyze WWIII?
    Q: In which country was President Obama’s closest confidante and Svengali born?

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