by Charles Naas
Within a few days we will know whether President Obama’s efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran over the latter’s nuclear power ambitions have proven successful or not and, if final compromises are not reached, whether the talks can be continued. The tens of thousands of words devoted to these efforts by negotiators over the last year have naturally focused on the details of an agreed protocol on the number of operating centrifuges in Iran and the pace of sanctions relief.
The president has invested much political capital into this endeavor and the failure to reach a final accord could end his aim of trying to alter the political and military balance of power in the Middle East. The effort has been so arduous and controversial that he has very carefully avoided a full explication of his strategic aims. The recent letter he reportedly sent to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the full text of which has not been released—in which he is said to have suggested working together in battling Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, might be the closest we could get to Obama’s reasoning.
The long freeze in US-Iranian affairs is softening but where that process is headed has yet to be determined. The election last year of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the delegation of authority to him of testing US intent by the supreme leader reflects not only the pressures of broad economic sanctions but also the slight easing of revolutionary strictures, as well as the shared concern by both countries that events were threatening to run out of control. The US policy of aligning with Israel and the Sunni monarchies has long required adjusting, and President Obama has taken on that initiative with Iran in mind.
Every area of the globe presents a complex mix of old and new frictions, serious and minor conflicts of interests, and the rise of new and challenging issues that further the sense of confusion and helplessness. More than anywhere else, the Middle East evades a clear US strategy or a broad domestic political consensus on clear, rational, and practical interests. In the Middle East the United States contends today with the consequences of its failure to bring democratic governments to old societies; the rise of well-armed militias based in part on extremist Islam; severe tensions between political and religious divisions within Islam; waves of anti-western and anti-American sentiment; the regional antagonism to the close US-Israeli relationship; and the regional efforts to adjust the political boundaries of a post-Ottoman world. American financial assistance to the Sunni militias from the Arab monarchies has meanwhile created a monster that defies our interests.
The Bush administration’s efforts to cope with new and old adversaries and challenges typically were military—the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Both have had, charitably, very limited success and have further distorted the political landscape. At the moment, there is no recognizable and acceptable balance of power, no consensus on limits of national rights and no regional institutions to cope with shared questions.
President Obama has recognized this hapless and dangerous condition and accordingly tried to adjust American policies in the region. He has tried to withdraw militarily from Iraq and Afghanistan while pursuing a more diplomatic posture, starting with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Until recently this year, he was also reluctant to engage militarily in Syria, having understood that the collapse of the country’s government would introduce an array of additional threats to regional peace.
Ending the 35-year-long cold war with Iran has also been a top priority in Obama’s vision of America’s future, but resolving fears, both regional and domestic, over Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is entirely peaceful, has been the prerequisite. Beyond allaying fears of regional nuclear proliferation is the hope that over time, a new relationship will constitute a path to political realignments—a new direction for us and Middle Eastern nations.
Of course, the president still has to contend with his predecessor’s legacy in Iraq. Following the withdrawal of US forces in 2011, Obama repeatedly said that there would be no more US boots on the ground in that country. Yet this year nearly all his military officers have been quoted saying that without ground forces, air power will be insufficient in thwarting the new militant force of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS). If not us, then who? Turkey, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt? Wishful thinking—they are hardly equipped for the job.
Iraq, of course, has its own vision and demands. What is necessary is the very ephemeral realization of greater cooperation and coordination of those who recognize a common threat to their well being—if not their existence. Like it or not, Iran can play a significant part in the attempts to defeat IS and find an acceptable solution for Syria, which is currently the most affected by the rise of Islamic militancy.
Quarantining Syria makes little sense. Its domestic politics may be loathsome but its leaders are not causing American casualties and losses. It may be time for a realistic debate over the role of the Syrian government in its own defense and the struggles against IS and the other extremist forces ravaging the country.
Unfortunately, nothing is easy in the Middle East, and such initiatives will also continue to meet the strong opposition of American conservatives who do not trust Iran and are subject to lobbying pressure from Israel, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey. In this light, the reach for a greater rationality may simply prove impossible.