by Mark N. Katz
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some of the other ArabGulf states are deeply skeptical of the Obama Administration’s efforts to reach a deal with Iran limiting its nuclear program and to improve U.S.-Iranian relations generally. America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies warn that the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted, and that Washington must not reach a deal with Iran that either fails to adequately limit Iranian nuclear ambitions, or which Tehran has no intention of abiding by even if it does.
Israeli and Saudi leaders in particular are adamant about this, and are frustrated, angry, and mystified that the Obama Administration knows of their concerns about Iran, but is attempting to reach an agreement with it anyway. What their behavior reveals is that it is not just Iran whom Israeli and Saudi leaders don’t trust, but also the Obama Administration and Washington more generally.
While Israel and Saudi Arabia (among others) have had good reason to fear the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past, the strong degree of Iranian-American hostility motivated Washington to contain Iran—and its doing so benefited Israel and Saudi Arabia. What Israeli and Saudi leaders now fear is that if Iranian-American relations improve significantly, Washington will no longer act so strongly to contain Iran. Indeed, the U.S. may press Israel and Saudi Arabia to soften their own policies toward Iran so as not to hinder the process of Iranian-American rapprochement or Tehran’s progress in “rejoining the international community.”
Something like this may well occur. And it might not just be the Obama Administration doing this. Because American sanctions against Iran have been so very tight and because American public opinion has viewed Iran so negatively for so very many years, there have been few vested interests in the U.S. (apart from a portion of the small Iranian-American community) willing to lobby for improved ties between Washington and Tehran. But as Iranian-American relations improve, this will change. American corporations—especially petroleum firms—have long wanted to do business with Iran, but sanctions and Iran’s negative image prevented this. Improved Iranian-American relations will result in American business being more willing to lobby for reducing sanctions (which, they will argue, mainly benefit their competitors in Europe, Russia, and China).
Further, the prospect of improved Washington-Tehran ties may free the Armenian-American lobby to argue that better Iranian-American relations would greatly help their homeland escape its over-dependence on Russia vis-à-vis Turkey and Azerbaijan (neighbors with which Armenia has long had difficult relations). And despite its differences with Armenia, Azerbaijan—as well as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and American petroleum companies active in them—would welcome the opportunity to export petroleum via Iran. Further, the U.S. military and all those concerned with containing the Taliban may see a friendly Iran as a better route for supplying Afghan government forces than either unreliable Pakistan or the long and expensive route through Russia and Central Asia. And being a professor, I cannot help but note that cash-strapped American universities would very much like to see the return of large numbers of full tuition-paying Iranian students.
If all these—and probably other unanticipated—constituencies with a strong interest in friendly Iranian-American relations in the U.S. arise, then Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others who now fear Iran will find it difficult to press Washington to resume a tougher policy toward Iran in the future. Anticipation of this state of affairs is undoubtedly an important factor motivating Israeli and Saudi leaders to try to forestall an Iranian-American rapprochement now before this occurs.
What they do not appreciate, though, is that improved Iranian-American relations will lead to a similar process unfolding in Iran. The prospect of improved Iranian-American relations will allow those who would benefit from it to argue in favor of this process and against policies that undermine it. While it is difficult for Iranian actors to argue against the position that Iran must remain ever vigilant against American hostility when U.S. policy toward Iran is indeed hostile, it will be easier for them to do so if they can point to a real prospect of an improved relationship, or better yet, an actually improved relationship that has provided benefits they do not want to lose. To put it bluntly: when the ayatollahs and even the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards can travel to and own property in the U.S., send their children to college there, and earn money as consultants to and partners with American corporations, it is doubtful that they will want to risk losing all this for the dubious benefits of issuing nuclear threats or supporting ungrateful and unprofitable allies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, or Assad.
Fearful Israelis and Saudis (along with their American supporters) reading this will undoubtedly claim that the Iranians want to “have their cake and eat it too” through benefiting from improved economic ties with the West in order to more easily build up their military strength and support their militant allies. But while those who fear Iran may believe otherwise, it will simply be impossible for Tehran to build and maintain good relations with the U.S. while at the same time pursuing hostile policies toward Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others. The rapprochement process—and all of Iran’s benefits from it—would quickly end if it did despite the growing American and Iranian domestic constituencies seeking better relations. The growth of these constituencies, though, could be powerful forces acting to forestall counter-productive Iranian behavior.
Hostile Iranian-American relations have not served to put an end to hostile Iranian policies toward Israel and Saudi Arabia in the past, and are unlikely to do so in the future. An improved Iranian-American relationship will not lead to Iran becoming friends with Israel and Saudi Arabia (which, of course, are not exactly friends with each other). Better ties between Washington and Tehran, though, offer the best opportunity to change how Tehran calculates the costs and benefits of hostile behavior (if not hostile statements) toward America’s traditional allies in the Middle East.