by Robert E. Hunter
By the morning of July 1, we should know whether President Barack Obama has achieved one of his presidency’s central foreign policy goals: an agreement to deal effectively with the Iranian nuclear program.
The negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations have been in the final phase since they agreed on a Joint Plan of Action last November, with a notional deadline of June 30 to decide remaining issues and fill in the mass of necessary details. It would be foolish to place a bet on the outcome a few days in advance or to try reading the tealeaves—in particular since for weeks nothing has leaked from the talks in Geneva (itself a good sign of progress). It is also to be expected that some key issues will not be decided until the last minute. That is the nature of high-stakes diplomacy. Both sides might decide that they need some more time, though that is not a course to be recommended, since it would just give opponents of an agreement, who exist on both sides, more time to scotch the effort.
But if there is an agreement, God willing (Inch’Allah), that is just the “end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end” of the process. Although the Iranian Majlis (parliament) can be expected to follow the dictates of Iran’s supreme leader, the same is not true of the US Congress (the other members of the P5+1 will take pro forma parliamentary steps to ratify). Already, a head of steam is building up on Capitol Hill to try denying to Obama this achievement or at least to burden it with so many objections that it would in effect be nugatory. Congress has a month to act, and that is a long time in the legislative process.
Some congressional opponents of the deal, which we only know so far in outline, will do so out of a genuine concern for American security. Even more will do so in response to intense lobbying pressures from supporters of Israel on the one hand and of the oil-producing Arab states of the Persian Gulf on the other hand (the two have formed a short-term tactical alliance on this issue). This pressure is a tragedy for the United States, matched only by the work of the so-called China Lobby in the 1950s and ‘60s, which did so much to delay the US “opening to China” and was thus even a factor in causing the Vietnam War. Yes, a tragedy: but still a fact with which the US president must contend.
Despite these pressures, however, Congress rarely defies a president on a national security issue when he determines that it is necessary to keep the nation safe and also when his course will radically decrease the chances that young Americans will at some point have to risk their lives in war, in this case with Iran. It is also unseemly for anyone to argue that President Obama does not keep clearly in mind the need to provide for Israel’s security and that of Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Yes, each of these countries has its own judgments to make. But so does the United States, which carries so much of the burden of providing for their security. Indeed, without US commitments and practical evidence of those commitments, Israel, for one, would today be far less secure than it is, a point lost on its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has done so much to confound Obama’s policies in the Middle East.
The Alphabet of Opposition
For some time, key US opponents of an agreement have been pursuing Plan A: to try derailing in advance an agreement that would in fact significantly constrain Iran’s ability to get the bomb. One tactic has been to push the Obama administration to harden its terms to the point of driving Iran away from the bargaining table. So far, Plan A has not been working, so there is Plan B: to get Congress to turn down whatever is agreed. But since, as argued above, the success of Plan B is problematic, a shift is taking place to Plan C: to try ensuring that there will be no further development of US relations with Iran.
Remarkably, with all three plans designed to work against the president’s efforts, opposition has been coming from some former senior officials of his administration who, one might suggest, should not now be offering gratuitous public advice to make Obama’s current tasks more difficult.
Plan C turns on the argument that Iran is pushing to become the regional hegemon and will inevitably succeed if not for a rigid American containment doctrine, an elaboration of new US security arrangements, and the shipment of masses of weapons to regional countries—to Israel and most of the Persian Gulf Arab states. This argument ignores three points. First, Iran’s success as a putative regional hegemon would depend on America’s complete departure from the region, which is most unlikely to happen. Second, the challenge that Iran does pose is not denominated in military terms (absent nuclear weapons) but instead comes from its dynamic economy and slowing modernizing internal politics and society, a process that regional Arab monarchies should emulate but are not. Third, the United States does have some other serious business to do with Iran.
The last point is most important for Washington, as opposed to a number of regional countries for whom concern over the Iranian nuclear program has been symbol as well as substance. As they put forward their arguments about a possible Iranian bomb, these countries are deflecting attention from key geopolitical factors, including the classic Sunni-Shia battle that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 reignited, plus struggles for regional preeminence that include all the major countries in the region, notably Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps at some point Iraq.
The United States and Iran have some complementary if not coincident interests that call for, at least, clear thinking in Washington about what might be possible – and what should be tested – in improved relations.
Both countries want stability in Afghanistan: Iran because of the neighborhood, the US in hopes that it will not have to admit, after 14 years of trying, that the government it supports in Kabul is not likely to prevail over the Taliban once Western forces depart. Both countries want freedom of the seas and security for the Straits of Hormuz. Both want, in President Obama’s words, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Iran is more whole-heartedly committed to that objective and is more useful to the United States than are regional Sunni states, notably Saudi Arabia, whose people have done so much to inspire, fund, and thus arm the various Islamist terrorist groups. And although the US and Iran have different views about Iraq’s longer-term political orientation, they do share a form of devil’s bargain in Syria. Neither wants the regime of its president, Bashar al-Assad, overthrown: Iran because of the tactical if not strategic value it sees in this Alawite (Shia) regime and the US because of President Obama’s correct fear that getting rid of Assad, without a clear path to a stable future, would be a fool’s errand. Washington says otherwise, but its true policy is obvious.
None of these arguments for testing the possibilities for some form of US-Iranian working relationship should obscure the fact that the two countries are not slated to become allies or even “strategic partners,” at least not for the foreseeable future. Notably, the US rightly supports Israel in its concerns about Iranian rhetoric questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a state and Iran’s support for Hezbollah (though that just might decrease if and when Iran gains a domestic economic stake in its readmission to international society).
Rethinking Regional Policy
If an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program is reached by next Tuesday, it will not yet be time for a sigh of relief. Turmoil will continue in the Middle East. Indeed, it’s likely to get even worse.
As the Obama administration faces this unwelcome future, it needs to get a few things right. First, it must think through its interests in the entire region in terms of what matters most to the United States before considering what other countries want from us that may not be fully consistent with those US interests. Second, Washington must understand, finally, that all elements of the Middle East puzzle are related to all the others and have to be seen as a whole.
Third, the United States needs to remind countries in the region that are asking “What will the United States do for us?” that relationships need to work both ways. Given what is going on now, Washington has the right to ask the following question: “Are you willing to understand our needs and also to stop making our task even worse than it already is?” Fourth, the United States has to demand—yes, that is the word—that regional Sunni states get off the fence and start acting wholeheartedly to help destroy IS. It is also past time for the European allies to start pitching in, including with military force. It was one thing for the Europeans to send troops to Afghanistan as a favor to Washington; it is another thing to pretend that they don’t have a lot at stake in what is now happening closer to home in the Middle East and especially with IS. The flow of refugees to Europe from the region underscores that point.
President Obama has been showing a lot of leadership and (domestic) political courage in regard to the negotiations with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. He now needs to extend that leadership and courage to recalibrating US interests and policies throughout the region.