It’s been a dramatic week in the long-running nuclear talks between Iran and the six major powers (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). With Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers flocking to Geneva, there is a possibility that at least a partial and temporary agreement between Iran and the powers may be taking shape.
The details of the deal aren’t publicly available at this point, but the broad outline seems to involve Iran freezing certain nuclear activity while gaining access to up to $50 billion in frozen funds. The sanctions would not be lifted and Iran would not accept a long term limit to its nuclear program, but the agreement, proponents say, would be a first step towards something more durable.
The agreement isn’t agreed yet, and late last night there were some signs that even a temporary agreement will have to wait until a few more kinks are ironed out, but there is no shortage of punditry about whether this hypothetical deal is a good thing or not. It is not, for example, clear just how serious and verifiable Iran’s steps must be. Will Iran really be locking down its nuclear program or is the US administration looking for a face saving way out of a tight diplomatic position? Public signals from Iran are mixed; while hard liners seethe and liberals speak hopefully of progress, the Supreme Leader is as Delphic as ever.
VM is not ready to express a decisive judgment on an as-yet unfinished agreement whose details have neither been hammered out or made public. We don’t want Iran to get a bomb, and we don’t want the United States to have a war with Iran, so we are definitely among those who hope that at the end of the day the negotiations succeed.
But success will be tricky. Even assuming that the Iranians are willing to put the nuclear drive on hold, America’s problems with Iran are not limited to its quest for nuclear weapons. Iran’s attempt to dominate its region threatens the security of key US allies, and America’s relations with Iran need to be understood in this wider context. Between its advances in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran right now looks closer to achieving its regional goals than ever before; if American diplomacy focuses only on the nuclear issue and fails to address the concerns of others in the region, we could end up with a bigger mess on our hands than the one we have now.
We have not, on the whole, been impressed with the Obama administration’s Middle East diplomacy to date. Other than killing some bad guys, we look in vain for any serious accomplishments since President Obama took the oath of office to hymns and hosannas from a besotted American press corps. The opening to ‘moderate Islamists’ like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt appears to have begun with starry eyed optimism about the triumph of democracy, and ended in blood and tears. The failure to negotiate an agreement with Iraq that would have left non-combat US forces in the country is costing more each day. The surge in Afghanistan does not seem to have achieved what the President expected. The Libya invasion was a foolish intervention that diminished the administration’s political capital in the United States and failed to do much for either the people of Libya or the Arab Spring. The administration’s track record on Syria is one of serial self-humiliations, as blustery invocations of high principle were succeeded by timorous inaction in the face of a growing threat. Our relations with Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all seem to be going downhill.
At the same time, when we look at Iran’s strategy, we don’t see signs of a new moderation. Iran appears to be on a roll. With the US missing in action in Iraq, Iran’s influence there is surging. The country’s decisive intervention in Syria has humiliated and frustrated the United States, and what is left of Assad’s government is bound more closely to Tehran than ever. With Hezbollah joining Iranian experts and the Syrian forces in a common front, Iran appears to have built a secure corridor to the Mediterranean and completely outclassed both its Sunni Arab opponents and their western allies.
Though there is much talk in the western press about the effectiveness of sanctions in crippling Iran, its recent activities in the region would suggest that Iran is by no means finished as an effective power. Iran obviously has enough money to support Assad and Hezbollah against the Saudis and the other Gulf Arabs. No doubt it is feeling some pain, but there are few signs that the regime is in anything like serious trouble at home.
Given all this, whatever Iran is negotiating in Geneva, we don’t think it is a surrender. At most, we think Iran is looking for a compromise in which it trades its nuclear program for US recognition of an expanded Iranian sphere of influence. The United States will accept Iran’s Shia Crescent and regional hegemony in exchange for Iranian nuclear restraint. (The truly pessimistic think the US is ready to accept Iran’s regional conquests in exchange of the appearance of Iranian nuclear restraint.) With Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in its pocket, and with the United States presumably committing not to help the Saudis and Gulf Arabs reverse Tehran’s recent gains, Iran can hope to bestride the region like a colossus and the Shia can hope for something like a decisive victory in the religious war now ripping across the Middle East.
A settlement on terms like this works for Iran, works for Russia (which fears a Sunni victory in the religious war), and might look like a way out of an unpleasant region to the Obama administration. After years of failure and frustration in the Middle East, and with absolutely no appetite for further adventures there, Washington might just be willing to wash its hands of the region. The Navy can ensure the security of the Straits of Hormuz, the thinking runs, and with sanctions lifted from Iran, an abundance of oil will gush onto world markets.
President Obama seems to be repeatedly drawn to the idea of the United States becoming an ‘offshore balancer’ in the Middle East. Instead of worrying about the details of the region’s power relations, we would stand back and keep our eye on the big picture. By liquidating our quarrel with Iran, some hope, we can both stabilize the region and reduce our exposure to conflict.
The domestic politics of such a deal in the US would be interesting. Iran is unpopular, but so is war in the Middle East. Certainly the Democratic voters who put this President in the White House are looking for less US involvement in the Middle East rather than more; ending the nuclear standoff, reducing America’s Middle East profile, and unleashing a flood of oil onto world markets must strike many people around President Obama as an answer to prayer. The opposition will be weaker than anyone would have thought possible a year ago; Republicans are divided over national security issues, and Middle East involvement is pretty unpopular all across the spectrum of American politics.
Given all this, the administration seems ready to deal with the nuclear issue in isolation from Iran’s broader quest for regional leadership. That simplifies the task of negotiating with Iran, but it may complicate America’s life in the Middle East. The fear that we are giving the keys of the region to Iran as the price of ending the nuclear standoff looks to be driving both the Israeli and the Saudi responses to the still-hypothetical deal. It’s not only that the Israelis and Saudis not trust Iran’s word on its nuclear program. More fundamentally, they see US acquiescence to Iran’s regional predominance as a major and even horrifying threat to their security. The Saudis believe that Iran is pursuing a religiously motivated war of aggression that won’t end until the Iranians topple the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and replace them with Shia allies. The Israelis believe Iran’s policy of fiery hostility to the Jewish state is an integral part of Iran’s strategy to make itself the dominant power in the region. Hostility to Israel, and support for groups like Hezbollah and other radicals, makes Iran look less Persian and less Shia to the Arab masses it now hopes to lead. If Iran solidifies its position in the Levant as the result of a nuclear deal with the United States, both the Israelis and the Saudis fear that Iran will continue to press its advantages.
We hope the White House isn’t underestimating the terror and rage that its Iran diplomacy is touching off in Jerusalem and Riyadh. Iran’s nuclear program has become the central and almost the only thing in Iran’s policy that deeply worries a White House otherwise more focused on domestic politics than on international issues; it is only one item on a long checklist for both the Saudis and the Israelis. US diplomats may underestimate the forces that will be unleashed in the region if Israel and Saudi Arabia believe that they must deal with Iran on their own. The Saudis are likely to be pushed to a closer alliance with radical jihadis in Syria and elsewhere than the US would really like, and it would also be a mistake to rule out the possibility of Saudi help for Israeli military efforts against Iran.
If the sanctions against Iran are dismantled even as the religious war and the Syrian conflict continue, Iran and its allies will be greatly strengthened. Already, squeezed by sanctions, Tehran has been able to stabilize Assad and upgrade Hezbollah. With the US stepping back and Iran getting access to tens of billions of dollars as the sanctions come down, what is likely to happen to the balance of forces throughout the Middle East? If Secretary Kerry doesn’t understand just how real these concerns are across the region, he may be very unpleasantly surprised by the consequences of a US deal with Iran. Worried that their security guarantees from the United States are no longer meaningful, Iran’s opponents in the Middle East may well take steps that make our lives much more difficult.
Past administrations have generally concluded that the price Iran wants for a different relationship with the United States is unsustainably high. Essentially, to get a deal with Iran we would have to sell out all of our other regional allies. That’s not only a moral problem. Throwing over old allies like that would reduce the confidence that America’s allies all over the world have in our support. But there is also a question as to whether Tehran can actually impose a Pax Iranica on the neighborhood. If the US steps out of the picture, and the Turks, Kurds, Gulf monarchies and Israel are all determined to balance against Iran, we could see the region becoming even more unstable and warlike than it already is. The war in Syria would become a regional conflict, the Saudis would likely look for ways to bring Pakistan into the equation, and in the ensuing chaos, America’s abiding interest in maintaining the smooth flow of oil from the region to world markets might be hard to defend.
The French, who are closer to thinking in the Gulf than some of the other members of the six power negotiating group, are raising some red flags. “The security concerns of Israel and all the countries of the region have to be taken into account,” France’s foreign minister was quoted in a Reuters dispatch, and the French are said to be taking a tougher line in the talks than the deal-hungry Americans. (The French are not channeling Netanyahu here; it is the “all the countries of the region” that they are speaking for.)
The negotiations in Geneva could potentially be the most consequential discussions about the Middle East since the British and the French carved it up during World War One. We hope that the White House is not looking at this negotiation purely through the prism of the Iranian nuclear program. There are much wider interests at stake, and reaching a nuclear agreement that doesn’t satisfy the non-nuclear concerns of other countries in the region could be a recipe for trouble on a vast scale.