Which brings us back to Iran. Since I last wrote on the Iran nuclear deal, on December 30, the technical teams have reached agreement and the deal was supposed to begin implementation yesterday, January 20. This is good, tentatively, despite the fact that the agreement itself is flawed. The deal’s short term (just six months) and the fact that the West gave in on the principle of uranium enrichment, seen together, makes an eventual Iranian bomb more likely, not less. As I have explained before, only the prospect of a change in the U.S.-Iranian relationship outside the four corners of any document may make those risks worth running. How likely is that?
Not zero, but not very high. If, as explained in the previous post, the Iranians no longer fear U.S. efforts at regime change, and if they believe that this U.S. Administration, at least, is not obsessed by the bogeyman of Iranian regional hegemony, then maybe they will reason that they don’t need a full-fledged nuclear weapons capability to deter us. Problem solved, at least for the next three years: There will be no Iranian nuclear breakout as long as this diplomatic engagement persists. If the United States needs to pay over and over again for it to persist, as seems quite possible, it’s still a small price to pay—so the thinking may go—to avoid a war. And make no mistake: The Administration is still on record, as the result of a bruising and protracted but presumably ironclad ultimate Presidential decision, that the goal of the policy is and fully remains prevention, not deterrence. (Then again, we have Bob Gates’s remark that “the word of this White House means nothing.” You work out the sum.)
Now, this sort of pay and pay and pay again as you go approach reminds me of a wonderful line from William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram: “If you give to a thief then he can no longer steal from you, and he is therefore no longer a thief.” I do not mean to imply that Obama Administration policy toward Iran is pure appeasement. That’s one construction of its motive, but there is another way of looking at this. It requires, however, a creative mixing of levels of analysis.
Maybe, as some have argued, the Obama Administration has a grand theory, an ambitious strategy, that sees an entente with Iran as the best way to protect the region and the world from the protracted threat of Sunni jihadi radicalism. Maybe the Administration wants generally to lean Shi’a as a means of counterbalancing the proliferation of al-Qaeda franchises in and beyond the region, and thinks the short-term price of doing so is worth it. The price would include a severe deterioration of relations with Saudi Arabia, which we’ve already seen but, supporters might say, so what? Where else can the Saudis go for protection? The price also includes a strain of ties with Israel, which we would have to ask to trust us to ultimately have its back if things go wrong. This makes the Israelis nervous, but as power politics go it’s not an outlandish proposition—and of course the Israelis have to worry about Sunni jihadis as well as Iranian-inspired Shi’a enemies.
The complement to this argument is that fears of Iranian hegemony are vastly overblown. Iran is not ten cubits tall. Its annual military budget falls short even of U.S. supplementals in recent war years. U.S. technical military superiority over Iran is so huge as to be nearly incalculable. Far more important, just what does Iranian regional hegemony actually mean? What are its likely and natural limits?
A power that is Persian and Shi’i evokes natural antibodies in a region that is Arab and mostly Sunni. Iranian influence could make a big difference in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority regime rules and oppresses a Shi’a majority, and it could make a difference, perhaps, in al-Hasa province in Saudi Arabia, which is where most of the country’s Shi’a and oil are both located. We already know about Iraq—Iran can have a fair bit of influence in Baghdad as long as Shi’a are in power, but that doesn’t mean it can dictate and control everything that happens there. Iran can mess around inconclusively in Lebanon, but Lebanese politics are structurally inconclusive—so there’s not much lasting benefit in doing that. The Iranians can supply weapons to the Shi’a Houthis in Yemen, as they are in fact newly doing; but what vital interest does the United States have in Yemen short of preventing it from becoming an al-Qaeda breeding ground? And of course the Iranians can ally with Alawis in Syria, not that Twelver Shi’a and Alawis have anything in common except antipathy to Sunnis.
In other words, the idea that somehow the Iranians could recreate thoroughgoing imperial territorial control on the order of the Achaemenid, Sassanid or Safavid empires in today’s Middle East, even with the Arabs as dysfunctional as they are, is a fantasy. They can make trouble for selected locals, but without a robust nuclear order of battle, Iran cannot successfully attack or conquer Palestine or any other Levantine or Gulf real estate. In a century or two more than 280 million native Arabic speakers will still be native Arabic speakers, not Farsi speakers. So if U.S. policy can keep Iran below a robust nuclear order of battle, what real danger is there in letting Tehran enmesh itself in enervating conflicts unending with assorted Arabs and Sunnis? And if the Russians want to help them, it’s their privilege to stomp around futilely in the sandbox as well. They’ll probably live (and die) to regret it.
Let’s not wax too glib. There are clearly risks when the United States, which has supplied common security goods to the region for several decades, suddenly decides that it’s “overinvested” in a region, to use Ben Rhodes’s intemperately leaked language, that is increasingly harder to manage. Some associates begin to contemplate posterior-protecting deals, while others look to new forms of self-help. Saudi Arabia getting a nuclear bomb from Pakistan is not something we want to see happen. More problematic still, sectarian war tends to breed radicals and sideline (or extirpate) moderates, and that’s not in our long-term security interests either. Tacitly siding with Assad and his Iranian sponsors, or just being seen to do so, can only feed Sunni radicalism in and beyond the region. So it’s one thing to imagine that natural balances will bracket dangers in the Middle East if only we get out of the way and let them form, and quite another to survive the transition from one kind of security regime to another.
I suspect that Administration principals understand all this reasonably well. I am skeptical that Obama and Kerry “surely dream of a ‘Nixon to China’ masterstroke” regarding Iran, and that they “undoubtedly see Iran and its Shiite allies as potential partners in the fight against Sunni jihadism.” Those who sat in at the highest levels of first-term deliberations on such matters describe the President as very leery of ambitious ploys and very skeptical of Iranian motives. Words like “surely” and “undoubtedly” really do not belong in a discussion like this. When, more recently, Obama gave the nuclear deal no more than a 50-50 chance of working out in the end, he was speaking in similarly skeptical, reserved tones.
So I don’t think the President has any explicit strategic theory of the case on the Middle East. I don’t hear any Kissingerian gears turning. His orientation to the region is more like that of George H.W. Bush: He has intuitions, instincts. And those instincts tell him that getting what we want in this part of the world is very hard, and getting harder as the one-stop-shopping opportunities we used to “enjoy” with stable authoritarian Arab allies are not what they used to be. I think Rhodes was for all practical purposes channeling POTUS when he wrote Jeffrey Goldberg as follows:
The United States makes decisions about our foreign policy based on our interests. It’s not in America’s interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East, or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East. It is in our interests to spend significant diplomatic effort—and resources—seeking to resolve conflict and build the capacity of our partners, which is exactly what we are doing. This notion that there was a previous age when we dictated the internal affairs of countries in the Middle East is not borne out by reality. When we had well over a hundred thousand troops in Iraq, we weren’t able to shape the political reality of that country, or to end sectarian hatred. Moreover, the notion that we are disengaged doesn’t make sense when the United States is engaged across the region in ways that no other nation is—to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, destroy Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, counter al-Qaeda and its affiliates, secure Israel and our Gulf partners, and support transitions to democracy from Yemen to Libya.
Now, Rhodes was writing to a journalist, so there is spin here—especially toward the end. Our “engagement” is mostly for show, for the purpose of managing impressions, because, in the absence of a willingness to put and keep real skin in the game, that’s all it can be. The Syria diplomacy is deeply problematic, the Arab-Israeli diplomacy will not bring peace, the Iran deal may or may not have a happy ending, there are not going to be democratic transitions in Libya or Yemen, and so on. So this is one of those many statements that is true as spoken but false as intended. It’s intended to make passivity look like something other than it is, and to make it seem both wise and prudent at the same time.
The truth is that we have a classic Goldilocks problem. We don’t want to do too little, because that runs risks, and we don’t want to do too much, because that runs risks, too. Finding the level and specific focus that’s “just right” is hard, and even honest and well-informed people can disagree about it. Personally, I think the President underestimates the cumulative costs and risks of doing too little, which need not be limited to the Middle East. But I don’t think it moves the ball to ascribe very ambitious and controversial goals to those who do not have them. Way too many presidential “doctrines” have been created by outside observers trying to impose more coherence on an Administration’s views than really exists. Let’s please not invent an Obama Doctrine out of mostly thin air.
And of course, even if the Administration were pursuing some grand new regional balance with the mullahs as the Persian mean, the President has to know that there’s no guarantee that some new regional order will be so appealing as to obviate a need for policy. The collapse of Syria and Iraq as states poses gray-zone problems for counter-terrorism; the same could be said, prospectively, about Libya and some other countries. Our being less intrusive in the region would not necessarily make us less popular targets. Indeed, our being seen to be in bed with Iran could make us more popular targets. Local balances will not solve all our present problems, and may even create some new ones.
Which conveniently brings us to Iraq. Since I wrote on December 30 all hell has broken loose (again) in Iraq. Al-Qaeda, in the form of ISIS, is back, and it’s still in control of Ramadi and Falluja. Efforts directed from Baghdad to get tribal leaders to persuade ISIS to leave the cities have not succeeded, and they may even have resulted in a new Sunni pact directed against Maliki in Baghdad. As of this writing, too, al-Qaeda has forced Baghdad into lockdown mode: The demons are getting closer. And everyone in Iraq still privately believes that one Sunni desert tribesman is worth a hundred cowardly Shi’a villagers in a fight. That’s the lore, that’s the perception and hence to some extent that’s the reality. Could a Sunni vanguard force, whether Islamist or not, just ride roughshod over a much larger on-paper but disintegrating Shi’a army all the way to Baghdad? Damn right it could. Anyone who doubts that, after all these years, still doesn’t know the first thing about Iraq.
So, then, should the Obama Administration accede to Prime Minister Maliki’s request for U.S. weapons and training? It’s tempting. Having failed to get a SOFA agreement, we might now be able to guarantee that Iraq’s order of battle remains American for many years, and we might be able to salvage something of the working relationship we envisaged having with Iraq some years ago. If we help him, we might be able to get him to shut down the air corridor from Iran to Syria (or do we really want that corridor shut down?). Most Americans who were invested in the war policy want to do this, and they say they can get some of the right stuff delivered fast.
I understand the motive, and to some extent I credit it. Maliki needs us, so maybe we can help him in a way that persuades him to govern more inclusively. So far he’s been a blundering sectarian ass. We have an interest in Iraq not disintegrating utterly, and a more fully national rather than sectarian-minded government in Baghdad is instrumental to that. But what if, no matter how many weapons we send or how many Iraqi officers we promise to train, the Sunnis cannot be kept at bay?
What will the President decide, and when will he decide it? If he agrees that we are overinvested in the region, and if he doubts the capacity of outsiders to engage purposely in a place like Iraq, he might be tempted to ignore Maliki. If Iraq falls completely apart he can do what he does best: blame it all on George W. Bush. (What he should do if that happens is coordinate with Turkey to recognize the Kurdish Regional Government as an independent state, but he wouldn’t.)
On the other hand, the collapse of the Iraqi state is bad for us in its own right, and either collapse or a radical Sunni victory there will make things even worse in Syria, too. It’s a tough decision, and no overarching theory of the case can make it much easier. In the end, my guess is that politics will prevail, as it usually does in this Administration. When the President anticipates the optic of U.S. weapons and U.S. soldiers returning to Iraq—even if just as trainers—he’s got to cringe. I think he’ll balk. I wonder if Secretaries Hagel and Kerry have a view about this, and I wonder if it’s the same view. Oh to be a fly on the wall at a principals’ committee meeting over this one.