by Robert E. Hunter
Following President Barak Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, it is remarkable to see so much speculation about whether this will set a precedent for a restoration of US ties with Iran
The word “remarkable” is chosen deliberately because, on the face of it, the two situations seem so different. The Cuban revolution has long since lost its force, with few true adherents outside of the gerontocracy, while that in Iran, if somewhat attenuated, still has a major, perhaps decisive, impact on society as well as on foreign policy.
Further, any geopolitical arguments for US efforts aimed at isolating Cuba, themselves imperfect at best, died with the Soviet Union, 23 years ago this week. But the geopolitics for the US to continue trying to isolate Iran are alive and well, flowing from some basic disagreements, not least the Iranian nuclear program but also Iran’s support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, for Hezbollah and, to a lesser degree, for Hamas. These cannot just be wished away, in contrast to the outmoded argument that somehow Cuba could act as another country’s proxy or could destabilize any part of its neighborhood.
So what can we make of a possible connection with Iran? At one level, what Mr. Obama has done takes the United States at least one step beyond the quixotic American practice of deciding whether to have diplomatic relations with other countries based at least in part on how we view their governments. (If we don’t like them or what they do, we call them “regimes,” which is a dead giveaway.)
Few other countries in the world impose their standard of a nation’s behavior, at home or abroad, in deciding whether to have at least some semblance of normal diplomatic intercourse—though there are major exceptions, such as the unwillingness of a number of Arab countries to deal formally with Israel. The US also tends to lose from imposing a test of purity regarding another country’s government or its international behavior. Not only do many countries not follow our lead but, more importantly, we deprive ourselves of the capacity to gain direct experience of the other country’s leaders.
Of course, it is rarely true that diplomatic relations are totally severed: some contacts are inevitable and are conducted by so-called “protecting powers.” In Iran, the US protecting power is Switzerland; in the United States, Iran’s protecting power is Pakistan. (All members of the United Nations also have diplomats in New York, and informal corridor contacts can always take place, “plausibly denied.”)
This round-about practice can have its price, however. For example, in 2003, when the US was about to invade Iraq—thus “putting the wind up” Iran’s clerical leadership—the Iranians made a proposal, through the Swiss, which, if it had worked out (a big imponderable) could have wrapped up the nuclear issue at that time. But in part because of the indirect nature of the proposal, the US was able simply to ignore it—such was the attitude of the US administration at the time to anyone in the Middle East out of step with US preferences. That would have been harder to do if American and Iranian diplomats had been dealing directly with one another.
Despite President Obama’s break with the tired old precedent regarding what governments we are prepared to deal with, he is not likely to follow suit with Iran, at least not just to tidy things up. US domestic politics is a major factor. The “Cuba lobby” may still have an important role to play in Florida’s politics—one of the “swing states” in US presidential elections—but the passage of time and a rising generation of young Cuban-Americans has attenuated the lobby’s power. Not so in regard to the domestic lobby that wants no part of relations with Iran. This lobby is mostly Israeli-inspired, but also includes some Christian evangelicals and a lot of neoconservatives, especially in Congress, who are not prepared to compromise with any government that is a challenge to the United States.
We thus cannot expect a “Nixon to China” opening to Iran, as much as that would bring us into line with the practice of most nations on the planet in terms of diplomatic relationships. Indeed, Obama will have enough trouble selling the opening to Cuba to Congress—whose Republican majority come January would love to deal him a setback, whatever the merits of the case. And without congressional action, a lot of what the president has in mind can’t be done. At least in this case, executive action has severe limits. Selling an opening to Iran that would have practical consequences, like the freeing-up of trade and investment with Cuba, could only be done if Iran came across on issues important to the US, with the nuclear program topping the list.
It also takes two to make something like this work. Despite the potential for success in the negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries on the former’s nuclear program, and despite the pressures exerted on the Iranian economy both by Western sanctions and by the Saudi-driven drop in the price of oil, it is not clear that Iran wants improved relations with the United States, at least unless the US were willing to remove at least a large part of the economic sanctions. This the United States will not do without a nuclear agreement. In fact, the hostile reception in much of Congress to the opening to Cuba has not helped the climate needed to foster success in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program: if a relatively simple thing like getting rid of congressional strictures on dealing with a tired old Cuban oligarchy that has long since ceased posing any threat to any US national security interest is so difficult to achieve, Iranian skeptics can wonder whether President Obama could deliver on any agreement that would include sanctions-lifting. No doubt, the same point has occurred to US domestic opponents of any deal with Iran.
The geopolitics of Iran’s situation has a further twist. Despite the emphasis put on the Iranian nuclear program and the pressures from the Israeli and other domestic lobbies, this is only part of the story. Several countries in the Middle East oppose Iran’s reemergence into regional society for a much broader set of reasons and—for at least some of them—the nuclear issue is simply the one that most easily catches the attention and support of outsiders, particularly the United States.
Sunni countries oppose “apostate” Shia Iran, an ideological point reinforced by the fact that most of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are located in the Eastern Province, with its large Shia population. Iran also supports the Alawite-dominated Syrian government, another poll of the region’s Sunni-Shia civil war. Other Gulf Arab states (though not Oman) also feel threatened by Iran, for reasons that have nothing to do with the nuclear question. Turkey would just as soon see Iran continue to be isolated, and this also applies to Israel, which does not want to see Washington and Tehran reconciled, even if the nuclear issue were resolved, at least without a major and credible change in Iran’s attitude toward the Jewish state.
Judged in its own terms, President Obama’s opening to Cuba is a useful departure from a sclerotic policy of many US administrations that has long outlived its value for the United States, if it ever indeed had any value. But while it does say something about the president’s cast of mind, in and of itself the new Cuba policy will not have much if any influence on US policy toward Iran. In fact, if fears on the part of the opponents of change see Obama as likely to continue cleaning up the past—as a president who has fought his last electoral battle—they may simply ramp up their opposition to a sensible US approach to the current talks with Iran.
Here is where the president needs to show his mettle: to persevere with the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, provided, of course, that Iran’s leaders will do the same. Success could then open up possibilities for the two countries to work together on areas of compatible interests, including Afghanistan, freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, countering Islamic State forces, and exploring possibilities for stability in Iraq. Such a course would put US national interests ahead of domestic politics, which is what we expect our presidents to do.