Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, January 24, 2014

Thoughts on Iran, US-Iran ties, and Middle East Politics

With Iran in the news so much these days (the seeming change in Iran's political image, Rowhani's appearance at Davos, the nuclear deal, warming U.S.-Iran ties, Saudi Arabia and Israeli concern about Iran's nuclear program and U.S.-Iran ties, etc.), I've been doing lots of thinking on Iran's politics and foreign and strategic policy as well as Middle East foreign relations. Below are some of my thoughts.

1. It doesn't make sense for the U.S. Senate to pass further sanctions on Iran right now. Why not wait until we observe the results of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1? If they lead nowhere, with Iran stalling and taking uncompromising positions, then the topic of sanctions and other punishment can then be broached. But at this point, more sanctions only sabotage the implementation of the interim agreement and negotiations on a final, comprehensive nuclear deal. Such moves will prompt the clerics to walk away from the bargaining table. Furthermore, slapping on additional sanctions now risks showing the world that the U.S. isn't negotiating in good faith, thereby generating sympathy for Iran, both inside and outside the country. And of course, there's this little point: the negotiations could succeed. Let's give it some time.

2. I'm not quite sure why more analysts don't voice the idea that tying Iran gradually into international institutional cooperation with the West is a very good thing? This type of cooperation can become routinized. It can also lead to expanded multilateral and bilateral cooperation, as Iran feels more comfortable dealing with foreign institutions and Western diplomats and bureaucrats.

3. Dialing down tensions and seeking a thaw in the cold war with Iran can be good for the U.S. Anytime the U.S. can move a foreign country from foe or enemy to, say, rival or competitor, that's a very good thing. A reduction in tensions and hostilities means a lower likelihood of an Iran-U.S. war and a reduced chance of reckless Iranian policies, at least those directed toward the U.S. It can also provide the foundation for gradual confidence building exercises between Tehran and Washington. And over time, perhaps, just maybe, this can lead to Iran being more productive on issues that matter to the U.S., like events in Syria and Afghanistan and international terrorism. The trick is for Team Obama to convince Israel and Saudi Arabia that a deal is in their interest as well.

4. It appears we're at a favorable moment. Iran has a leader in Rowhani who seeks better relations with the U.S. Iran is dire economic straits and wants relief. And the Ayatollah has given Rowhani long enough rope to work more productively with the U.S. and the West more generally than he has in years. All of this doesn't mean that Iran is about to capitulate to Western demands and interests, but it does seem like conditions are increasingly favorable--though not probable--for Iran to meet the West half-way on a final nuclear deal (if not more than that).

5. To the critics and hysterics out there, Iran-U.S. ties aren't going to change overnight. Iran still says and does things that frustrate and anger Washington. Critics see this as evidence that Iran isn't genuine, that it's really playing a double game with the West. For instance, according to Maseh Zaeif, of the American Enterprise Institute:
"While Secretary Kerry was reprimanding Congress for its effort to increase the credibility of future pressure against Iran and declaring that “this is the time for statesmanship,” his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was in Beirut offering praise for and laying a wreath at the tomb of Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, among other attacks."
 Okay, but please keep in mind that there are lots of things going on inside Iran, including pressure from hawks and hardliners, especially those in the Revolutionary Guards. The hawks and hardliners are threatened by major changes in Iranian foreign policy. So if Iran warms up to the outside world, or, if it heads in that direction, it will, from time to time, act up and lash out so as to appease these folks. Iranian leaders have to throw them a bone occasionally to muffle their dissent. They must show the hawks and hardliners that changes aren't coming too fast or deep and that they are still valued members of the Iranian state. Otherwise, opening up to the West carries the grave risk of massive political instability, which then would throw the entire project of international engagement into jeopardy.

6. What's the alternative to the current roadmap ? Ramping up political pressure? More sanctions? Threats of war? The use of force--either by the U.S. or Israel? None of these options are particularly good. The first three have already been tried and probably have gotten the U.S. probably about as far as it can go in coercing Iran to make concessions; and the latter one is completely terrible. As pointed out by self-described Iran hawk Jeffrey Goldberg:
Such a strike might end in disaster. While it could set back (though not destroy) Iran’s nuclear program, it could also lead to the complete collapse of whatever sanctions remained in place. In addition, it could unify the Iranian people behind their country’s unelected leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- a particularly perverse outcome. And in some ways, an attack would justify Iran’s paranoia and pursuit of nuclear weapons: After all, the regime could somewhat plausibly argue, post-attack, that it needs to defend itself against further aggression. A military campaign should be considered only when everything else has failed, and Iran is at the very cusp of gaining a deliverable nuclear weapon. 
 7. There's even been criticism that Obama has made a risky bet on Iran playing a role in Middle East security cooperation. The U.S., certainly, would welcome such actions by Iran, but it doesn't expect anything like this anytime soon. Critics are reading more into the administration's comments than is really there. Statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, who suggested that Iran might be able to play a productive role in Syria, were speculative at best. I don't see any evidence that Obama or Kerry, or anyone else on Team Obama, sees or is betting on Iran quickly becoming a source of peace and cooperation in the region.

8. Better relations with Iran, even marginally so, will require Obama  to walk a fine line with Israel and Saudi Arabia, America's longstanding allies in the Middle East. Arguably, reassuring these two countries will be just a tough a task as getting Iran to come in from the cold. Obama will have to show--in word and deed--that the U.S. isn't abandoning Saudi Arabia and Israel, that it has both their backs in times of trouble, and isn't helping to position Iran as the regional hegemon. If this task isn't done or is done in an unconvincing way, both countries are likely to see U.S.-Iran ties as a net strategic loss and will work on their own (though perhaps collaboratively), without the U.S. to enhance their security and standing in the region. Should this happen, the U.S., in effect, would be trading  Israel and Saudi Arabia for Iran. On many counts, this wouldn't be smart foreign or domestic politics for Team Obama.

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