Why America Needs Iran

President Obama is tiptoeing around the sensitivities of Israel and Saudi Arabia as he depicts the Iran-nuclear deal as a one-off affair. But broader cooperation with Iran may be vital to salvage U.S. interests in the Mideast, say Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was announced last week, the Obama administration, echoing previous pledges that nuclear talks with Tehran do not presage a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain”, has assiduously reaffirmed that progress on the nuclear issue does not signal a wider diplomatic opening.

Such a posture ignores an overwhelming strategic reality: America’s position in the Middle East is in free fall, and the only way out is to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington must do this as purposefully as it realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, when it struggled to extricate America from the self-inflicted debacle of the Vietnam War and to renew its diplomatic options, for the Cold War’s last phase and beyond.

King Salman greets the President and First Lady during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

King Salman greets the President and First Lady during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By not using nuclear diplomacy as a catalyst for broader, “Nixon to China” rapprochement with Iran, Obama and his team ensure further erosion of America’s standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally.

U.S. engagement in the Middle East over the past quarter century is a textbook example of what Paul Kennedy famously described as “imperial overstretch”, a great power’s expansion of strategic ambitions and commitments beyond its capacity to sustain them.

In the U.S. case, trying to remake and, ultimately, subordinate the Middle East through military campaigns and other forms of coercive intervention has not just failed; it has been profoundly self-damaging to America’s strategic position.

By seeking to dominate the region, in the process imposing missions on U.S. armed forces that not even the world’s most powerful military could accomplish, squandering vast human and material resources on a scale that not even the world’s largest economy could sustain, and eviscerating the perceived legitimacy of U.S. purposes for the vast majority of Middle Easterners, America has made itself weaker.

To recover, Washington must embrace a new Middle East strategy, one aimed not at coercive dominance but at a reasonably stable balance of power in which major regional states check one another’s reckless impulses. Such a strategy requires two things:

First, Washington needs to engage, positively and comprehensively, with all important regional actors.  Second, Washington needs to recalibrate relations with America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies, most notably, Israel and Saudi Arabia. A robust diplomatic opening to Iran is essential to both these tasks.

Whether American elites like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable power in today’s Middle East. The Islamic Republic’s influence is due to its revolutionary commitment to independence and its participatory Islamist order (not despite these things). Its influence is, therefore, rising in arenas across the region, and will continue to do so when and as Middle Eastern Muslims gain greater access to participatory politics.

This prompts increasingly alarmist warnings from Israel, Saudi Arabia and their mouthpieces that Iranian “proxies” are “gobbling up the Middle East.” In fact, Tehran has grown its influence by supporting unavoidable constituencies marginalized by unrepresentative power structures.

Iran did not create Shi’a majorities in Iraq and Bahrain, or Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality; it did not invent Yemen’s Zaidi community (the Houthis’s base) or occupied Palestinians. But Tehran has helped these constituencies organize to press their legitimate grievances, so that virtually any expansion of political participation in these venues empowers Iranian allies.

This approach makes it impossible to circumscribe Iranian influence over time. America must recognize that influence as an indispensable factor in regional politics. Washington needs positive relations with Tehran not only to fight common foes like the Islamist State, but also to promote genuine regional security.

To these same ends, Washington should look soberly at its allies’ regional impact. Today, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia truly represents most of those it governs; neither can endorse more participatory politics in the region.

Likewise, neither can compete with Iran’s capacity to exercise positive political influence and facilitate real conflict resolution in contested regional arenas; on their own, Israel and Saudi Arabia can only make things worse.

And, regardless of whatever various segments of America’s political class may perceive Israel and Saudi Arabia to have done for the United States, both pursue policies harmful to U.S. interests (e.g., Israel’s open-ended occupation of Arab populations and aggressive military posture; Saudi Arabia’s support for violent Sunni jihadis and suppression of moderate Sunni Islamists across the region willing to compete for political power through elections).

To reduce the mounting costs that Israeli and Saudi policies impose on America’s position in the Middle East, Washington needs to reduce its dependence on Israel and Saudi Arabia. A rising Iran could be very helpful in checking the counter-productive policies of America’s traditional regional allies.

But, instead, Obama and his team are reducing a prospective nuclear deal with Iran to the latest version of a self-deluding but widely held ambition among American elites: to “contain” the Islamic Republic while playing on what those elites imagine are its internal contradictions, so as to hasten its demise.

America has tried this before in the Middle East, against Saddam’s Iraq, which had vastly inferior sources of legitimacy than the Islamic Republic. Notwithstanding sanctions that killed over half a million Iraqis (half of them children) over 13 years, Iraqis did not replace Saddam with figures ready to implement sanctioning powers’ preferred policies. Unseating Saddam required a U.S.-led invasion that proved a blunder of historic proportions for America.

As it follows this well-trod path to strategic failure, the Obama administration is also doubling down on some of the unhealthiest aspects of America’s traditional regional partnerships.

Following the JCPOA’s [the Iran deal’s] announcement, Obama promised to maintain Israel’s “qualitative edge”, Washington-speak for continued U.S. backing for offensive Israeli military actions. In recent weeks, his administration has acquiesced to the Saudi-instigated capture of a Syrian city by an al-Qa’ida affiliate and is providing intelligence, logistical, and political support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen that has killed hundreds of civilians and is enabling al-Qa’ida affiliates to make territorial gains.

Now Obama wants to convene Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies to deepen collaboration on Middle Eastern “security,” without in any serious way engaging Tehran.

This is folly. Rather than gamble anew on demonstrably failed policies, America needs to take charge of its own strategic destiny, through full-fledged rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of  Going to Tehran. [This story first appeared at The National Interest and can be read at:  http://goingtotehran.com/iran-and-the-future-of-americas-middle-east-strategy]

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2 comments for “Why America Needs Iran

  1. Zachary Smith
    April 7, 2015 at 19:07

    As it follows this well-trod path to strategic failure, the Obama administration is also doubling down on some of the unhealthiest aspects of America’s traditional regional partnerships.

    Expecting for Obama to suddenly become a man who rejects failure and – in the twilight of his presidency – to actually change his ways just isn’t the way to bet.

    Going further, the authors made a serious mistake all though this essay. That was “writing while sane and rational”.

    Opinion time now, but it’s my view that BHO is little more than a figurehead, but for several constituencies. The end product of all the alliances (and disagreements) for any particular policy will determine what the US will “officially” be doing and how BHO will be posturing. I propose that unlike 2003 when Big Money was in full agreement with Big Zionism, the two have split up on Iran policy this time. Probably that’s because Big Money figures it can profit more with an Iran which hasn’t been smashed to flinders. Back in 2003, there was LOTS of money to be made in destroying Iraq. And of course Iraq had been in Israel’s crosshairs for a long time, so those two groups were in full agreement.

    Big Zionism (AKA neocons) is currently furious, and will use its pet poodles (including both houses of the US Congress) to try to sabotage whatever deal emerges. Since at first glance it looks as if BHO has gotten a totally non-nuke Iran, the sales pitch by the neocons won’t be as easy as usual. But with unending propaganda from the likes of the neocon rag The Washington Post and the rest, they’ll make lots of noise.

    And since Big Money has only shown an interest in Iran, any other demonstrations of reasonable-looking diplomacy are unlikely to show up in regard to China, Russia, Syria, or Venezuela.

    • Peter Loeb
      April 9, 2015 at 06:20

      “POLITICS IS A BLOODSPORT….” (Mayoral candidate in City of B__)

      The Leverett article above provides key insights into the reality of any US-ISRAELI-SAUDI
      relationship with IRAN. It fails however to evaluate the role of accumulated power.Here commenter Zachary Smith is on target.

      It should be noted that the Israeli lobby (AIPAC) is not peculiar in its methods of operation.
      As Professor Lawrence Davidson has documented, the number of so-called “Jewish votes” in
      the United States is small with the exception of some constituencies. New York State is one
      of these and it is not coincidental that Hillary Clinton was formerly Senator from New York.
      So is Carl Schumer today and Schumer is the presumptive candidate for Minority Leader in
      the US Senate to replace retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid. Reid has given his blessing to
      Schumer in his bid for Minority Leadership. Schumer is already on record in opposition to
      the “preliminary framework”, far from an “historic deal”. The rickety “framework” addresses
      nuclear issues —and limits such limitations only to Iran while exempting the nuclear powerhouse of the Middle East, Israel.

      In any case, if the recent negotiations seriously addressed the reduction of sanctions this has been kept a secret. Should any intimation of any meaningful agreement on the reduction of sanctions be clarified, the Senate would kill such it. The Democratic Party would suffer financially in upcoming elections as a result.

      Many large lobbies from pharmaceuticals to gun lobbies use the same methods AIPAC also uses and it has been quite successful from their points of view. No politician eagerly looks forward to his imminent DISSELECTION!

      (See Lawrence Davidson’s article in his archive at http://www.tothepointanalyses.com.)

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

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