Devil in the Details; Angel in the “Big Picture”

by Robert E. Hunter

The devil is in the details. This cliché is already being invoked regarding the deal concluded this past weekend between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, along with the European Union’s High Representative, Baroness Ashton.

Devil and details, yes; but if there is such a thing, the “angel” is in the “big picture,” the fact of the agreement itself – interim, certainly; flawed, perhaps; but a basic break with the past, come-what-may. It will now become much harder for Iran to get the bomb, even if it were hell-bent on doing so.  The risk of war has plummeted.  Israel is safer – along with the rest of the region and the world — even as Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu denies that fact.

This is the end of the Cold War with Iran, (accurately) defined as a state when it is not possible to distinguish between what is negotiable and what is not. Going back to that parlous state would require a major act of Iranian bad faith, perfidy, or aggression, not at all in its self-interest.

In the last few days, the Middle East has become different from what it was before.  Indeed, that happened, if one needs to denote “moments of history,” when President Barack Obama picked up the phone to call Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, in the latter’s limousine on the way to Kennedy Airport.

Even that moment was months in the making. But psychologically it set in train a sequence of events that is causing an earthquake in the region. And like any good earthquake, the extent, the impact, and even the direction it travels will not be clear for some time.  But one thing is clear: much is now different, and despite serious down-side risks, that can be positive if people in power will make it so.  As said by John Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of whose assassination also came this past week, “Our problems are manmade, therefore they may be solved by man.”

The struggle with Iran has never been just about “the bomb.”  Even putting aside the question whether Iran’s insistence on having a domestic nuclear energy program would ineluctably morph into a nuclear weapons capability (or threshold capability, a “screwdriver’s turn” away from a weapon), Iran has posed a problem for the Middle East, many of its neighbors, and outsiders in the West ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That turned Iran from being a supporter of Western, especially American, interests – a so-called “regional influential” – to being a challenger of US hegemony, the more-or-less accepted predominance of Sunnis over Shiites in the heart of the Middle East, and the comfort level of close US partners among Arab oil-producing states and Israel.  That all happened well before Iran’s nuclear program became an issue.

Led by the United States, countries challenged by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution fostered a policy of containing Iran. It included diplomatic isolation, the introduction of economic sanctions, US support – some covert, some open – for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war against Iran, and US buttressing of the military security of its regional partners, along with the plentiful supply of Western armaments. There have also been widespread reports of external efforts to destabilize Iran, along with a US predilection, when not also a formal policy, for regime change in Iran, a goal which continues to have its adherents.  For example, see here.

Why Iran has now decided to negotiate seriously about its nuclear program will be long debated and will be variously ascribed to swingeing economic sanctions that have increased pressures by average Iranians on their government to do what is needed to get them lifted; to progressive loss of popular support for the mullah-led regime and a “mellowing” of ideology — factors analogous to the crumbling of Soviet and East European communism two decades ago; and to the election of an Iranian president with an agenda different from his predecessor – blessed, one has to emphasize, by the Supreme Leader for reasons he has not revealed.

The current state of possibilities was helped immeasurably by a US administration that has itself been prepared to negotiate seriously, unlike its two predecessors, from the time a decade ago when Iran put a positive offer on the table that went unanswered — as Secretary of State John Kerry noted in early Sunday morning (Geneva time) commentary.

At heart, what has happened in the last two months is that Iran is now back “in play” in the region and is beginning the march toward resuming a role in the international community — slow perhaps, abortive perhaps, but for now pointed in that direction. Assuming that the issue of Iran’s nuclear program can be dealt with successfully – a big “assuming” — that is clearly in US interests. While it is much too soon to “count chickens,” that could lead toward renewed US-Iranian cooperation, tacit or explicit, over Afghanistan, where complementary interests led Iran to support the US overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. The possibility of Iran’s potentially no longer being a pariah state could lead it to value stability in Iraq over the pursuit of major influence there, which itself is problematic, given historic tensions between the two countries that Shia co-fraternity between the leaderships in Baghdad and Teheran only partially obscures.

It is still a stretch, however, to see Iran’s working to reconcile with Israel (a quasi-ally before 1979), although Iran’s full reengagement in the outside world and especially in relations with the United States can never be completed without Iran’s reaching out to Israel (and vice versa), a feat far more difficult than the diplomacy that began to bear fruit last weekend in Geneva. And for Iran to change its posture toward Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon would require not just alteration of Iran’s ambitions but also changes in policies by other states and groups.

Syria is both symbol and substance of the core problem of Iran’s re-emergence as a serious player in the Middle East. At one level is the slow-burning civil war between Sunnis and Shias that was reignited by the Iranian Revolution and then, when that fire began to be tamped down, by the US-led invasion of Iraq, which overthrew a Sunni minority government dominating a majority Shia population.  The war in Syria is at least in part an effort by Sunni states to “right the balance.” In the process, however, Saudi Arabia in particular has been unwilling to control elements in its country that are both inspiring and arming the worst elements of Islamist extremism and which also fuel not just Al Qaeda and its ilk but also the Taliban. They have been primary sources of destabilization in several regional states and have killed American soldiers and others in Afghanistan.

At another level is the state-centered competition for influence in the region – geopolitics. This is also linked to the relationships of regional states with the West and especially the United States.  In particular, Saudi Arabia and Israel each has a basic stake in their ties to, and support by, the United States; both stoutly oppose Iran’s reentry into that competition, however modest. Of course, Israel is also concerned by the continuing risk that, somehow, the US (and others) will fail to trammel Iran’s capacity to get the bomb; and also that attention will again swing back to the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Saudi Arabia faces no potential military threat from Iran.  Indeed, to the extent it and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf face a threat or challenge from Iran, it is denominated in terms of Sunni vs. Shia, cultural and economic penetration, and the greater vibrancy of Iranian society – none of which can be dealt with by the huge quantities of modern armaments these countries have accumulated.

Further, as Iran does again become a player and moves out from under crippling sanctions, in the process attracting massive foreign investments, uncertainties regarding Iranian power and potential challenges to its neighbors will lead the latter to cleave even more closely to the United States; and the US will have to continue being a critical strategic presence in the region — its desire to “pivot” to East Asia notwithstanding.

With all these stakes, it is not surprising that several regional states are opposing the US-led opening to Iran and have already signaled a no-holds-barred campaign, including in US domestic politics, if not to scuttle what has been achieved so far, at least to limit US (and P5+1) negotiating flexibility. (Iranian hard-liners will also be working to undercut President Rouhani.)  Israel and others can rightly ask that the US not fall for a “sucker’s deal,” though, as Secretary Kerry correctly stated, “We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid.” But they are also worried that they will lose their long-unchallenged preeminence in Washington and with Western business interests.  This is not Washington’s problem. Indeed, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria and even to Israeli-Palestinian relations, drawing Iran constructively into the outside world – if that can be done and done safely – is very much in US interests.

Even as things stand now, at an early stage in moving beyond cold war with Iran, President Obama has earned his Nobel Peace Prize.

Photo: President Barack Obama talks on a conference call with U.S. negotiators in Geneva, and Deputy National Security Advisors Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes in the Oval Office, to discuss negotiations with Iran, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Well written piece here. Hope the momentum continues to a peaceful conclusion, so we can get on to other pressing demands.

  2. For much of the last 30 years or so Robert Hunter has been an advocate of better relations between Iran and the U.S. To finally witness the first steps toward that goal is a personal vindication. To Americans it means re-establishing contacts with a country that it shares a number of regional interests. And to Iran it will be the beginning of a relationship with the West that Iranians have sought for two centuries or more — independence and mutual respect.

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