The nuclear negotiations with Iran are in their eleventh hour. By Monday we’ll know whether a resolution has been reached or a new crisis of the first order added to the conflagrations in the Middle East – indeed, one that will exacerbate all the others. Even an understanding that lays out a few principles while extending the deadline would be a dangerous outcome. For opponents of an accord would mobilize with redoubled vigor to snuff out the chances of an eventual success. At the moment, signals coming out of the White House point to a Blue Monday.
The technical issues are complicated. But they are not in themselves the main obstacles to be overcome. Let’s get down to brass tacks. The starbursts of commentary on centrifuge numbers and Iran’s retention of low-enriched uranium (LEU) , albeit under international inspection, should not be allowed to conceal the underlying reality: if Washington and Tehran want a nuclear deal, it is there for the taking. While the responsibility is shared, the crucial decision rests with the White House. This is not the way that President Obama and his advisers see it, though.
In early October, the President sent a letter to Ayatollah Khomeini spelling out his views. The letter’s main importance is that it reveals the Obama administration’s state of mind in regard to Iran, the multilayered ISIL crisis, and the United States’ place in the tangled politics of the Middle East. Above all, it demonstrates that the hubris on display since 9/11 lives on in Washington in this the sixth year of the Obama presidency. Let’s look at the assumptions – explicit and implied – that underlay the letter’s message.
* Iran needs America more in dealing with ISIL than America needs Iran. Therefore, it should make further concessions in the nuclear talks. In fact, this is erroneous. While Iran’s national interests are greater and it is more exposed, its ability to influence what happens is considerably greater. Iran has no reason to fear ISIL’s military prowess – certainly not as regards its own territory or even the Shi’ite portions of Iraq. If the latter were threatened, it has the physical means to intervene and to make short shrift of the ISIL forces. The United States, by contrast, is not in a position to determine the outcome of the military contest short of deploying substantial troops which is politically out of the question.
* “If the US consented to Iran joining an international coalition against the insurgents, it would no doubt elevate Iran’s standing in the region.” What counts most in regard to ISIL is who has clout among the leadership in Iraq. Teheran’s influence in Baghdad is far deeper than Washington’s. The Iraqi call to help from the United States was an expedient action; ties with Iran are entrenched and institutionalized. Iran already is a key part of the coalition. It has advisors, Quds force commanders, and perhaps a few commando units on the battlefield, e.g. the Mosul dam operation. That could be easily expanded. Iraq’s Shi’ite militias are the most effective element of the coalition – they are schooled by and in partnership with the Iranians. The al-Abadi government in Baghdad similarly is in league with the Iranians and open to their influence. The proposition that Obama is able to grant or deny entry to the coalition is condescending in tone and absurd in substance.
* The nuclear issue. The Obama letter makes it clear that it sees the ISIL phenomenon as increasing American leverage. Khameini’s public remarks convey just the opposite. In light of the above, objective reality conforms more to the Khameini interpretation of the situation. Syria is a complicating factor. In the past, Washington has indicated that a moderation of Iran’s support for the Assad regime may create a more favorable atmosphere for the nuclear talks. Washington’s shift in attention in Syria to the ISIL threat could reduce somewhat the American interest in cooperation there. But the opposite might be equally true. The American shift in focus has aggravated relations with the moderate Syrian opposition and with Turkey. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that Obama would like Tehran’s help in persuading Assad to ease off his attacks while the coalition deals with ISIL – Assad’s main threat.
In effect, Washington would be asking: hold off until we finish with ISIL and then we’ll get around to you. Fanciful? Of course. Then again, just about everything the United States has done in the greater Middle East over the past thirteen years has been fanciful.
* The world will blame Iran if the talks fail. Yes – if the world is limited to Washington, London, Paris, Riyadh and Jerusalem. Not if it includes Moscow, Beijing and lots of other capitals.
President Obama has boxed himself in a corner. He has taken a tough line in the negotiations under relentless Israeli pressure and that generated at home where the Republicans en bloc, with some Democratic allies, have directed withering fire at the White House any time that there is a suggestion of accommodation. The post-election fear now is that Congress will legislate a continuation of severe economic sanctions on Iran unless he delivers on a pledge to accept only an accord that provides ironclad guarantees against Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon at any future time. Terms that could conceivably do that (unless flouted brazenly by future leadership in Tehran) would so impinge on Iranian sovereignty as to be unacceptable. What is not in the cards is a guarantee that the country of Iran never will be in a position to acquire the elements for bomb-making for all eternity. The world doesn’t provide us with such guarantees.
The White House’s own rhetoric depicting the IRI as diabolically menacing makes the Obama people victims of their own propaganda – whether or not they believe it. For the effect is to raise the political bar that the White House must surmount if it ever considers a true diplomatic dialogue with Tehran. The political environment both has discouraged fresh thinking and militated against diplomatic initiative were the intellectual judgment ever made that a course correction is called for. Obama, by playing this game, has further narrowed his options in the vain hope that tough talk will scare the Iranians into yielding. When that gamble fails, he will find himself facing either a war he doesn’t want or the daunting task of reversing political course against strong headwinds. That unforgiving dilemma is the outgrowth of taking the path of least resistance.
A further diplomatic obstruction is Saudi Arabia. Backed by their Gulf allies, the Saudi leaders are vociferously opposed to a nuclear deal; they see it as bringing the shi’ite power directly into the game of Middle East politics as a rival and competitor. In so doing, the House of Saud may be making a strategic miscalculation of the first magnitude by giving priority to perceived threats from Iran/Qajar/champion-of-Shi’ism. Here is the line of reasoning that points to that conclusion.
The royal family’s overriding concern always has been to secure their own rule. Latent apprehension has stemmed from their dubious legitimacy. Their assumption of the custodianship of the Holy Sites of Islam in the 1920s was by force without even a veneer of consultation; their reliance on the Wahhabi clerics for their legitimation – hence, their status is a function of Wahhabism being recognized as the purest form of Islam; there is dissonance among other tribes of the Arabian Peninsular lies just below the surface; and there is growing disaffection among the Shi’ite minority in the oil rich eastern provinces – all amid worries about their military weakness vis a vis regional rivals and external parties.
Therefore, the House of Saud perceives three threats: secular democracy promoted by the West; a rise of Iranian led Shi’ite influence cum Iranian military power; and salafist groups that challenge their religious primacy. The Arab Spring was a manifestation of the first. It is now neutralized. However, the feared American readiness to talk to the Iranians – and signs that Washington accepts the legitimacy of the IRI – means that the threat from that quarter is still alive in their eyes. The Saudis, therefore, have been prepared to back salafist groups like al-Nousr in Syria and even to tolerate ISIL at first, in order to counteract the Iranians. They cannot control those groups, though, and thereby have fostered movements that could outflank them on the fundamentalist end of the Sunni Islam continuum. This dilemma is now a constant since the Sunni-Shi’ite confrontation is becoming institutionalized in the region as have militant Salafist forces.
The conclusion: by positing Iran/Persia as the number one threat, the Saudi leaders may be imperiling their own rule.
The Saudi campaign to block a nuclear accord has gone so far as to include a threat to start its own nuclear weapons program – in the awareness that the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the region exposes the United States to intensified Israeli pressure. In this, Riyadh and Jerusalem are tactical allies. The Saudi threat completely lacks credibility, though. Yes, it is true that nuclear weapons are considerably easier to build than they were in the early decades of the atomic age as technical capabilities are more widespread. Still, the enterprise is anything but facile. Saudi Arabia, for one, lacks both the technical expertise and industrial resources even to begin working on such a project. Almost all of their engineering projects of any kind rely on foreign expertise and means. They manufacture next to nothing. The talk about their following Iran down the nuclear path is just talk.
Is it not time for the White House to place all these factors in strategic perspective and to decide? It is up to President Obama. If he truly wants a deal, he will have to make the hard decision and then mobilize his abundant resources to stymie domestic enemies of an accord and to press the enemies of an accord abroad into line or simply override their objections. Renewed efforts should be made to explain to Israelis and to the House of Saud why their interests are served by a normalization of relations with Tehran – something we have not done because official Washington hasn’t convinced itself of that basic truth to date.
President Obama cannot mollify those critics inside as well as outside his administration who want unconditional surrender from the IRI and still expect to get an agreement. Humiliation is a dangerous and delicate business. Especially so when the party whom you intend to humiliate is a proud people and its leaders willful. That is why Prussia’s humiliation of France in 1870 led to the former’s own humiliation in 1919. Better to crush your avowed enemy than humiliate him and allow him to nurse vengeance; all the more so when you have scattered objects throughout the neighborhood on which he can wreak his revenge. Of course, all of this matters little if Washington believes it can dominate the region forevermore and smite the violators of its hegemony as it chooses. If it cannot, then our leaders have best wise up as to the psychology of dealing with rivals. If history is not their cup of tea, they might try the saga of the Corleone family.
A recommendation: Sign the nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Announce it with great fanfare. Declare that this opens a new era in relations between the two countries and holds out the prospect for achieving peace and stability across the region. By acting in this way, the United States would redraw the diplomatic map of the Middle East in ways that open opportunities for resolution of its internecine conflicts and for the establishment of a measure of stability.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.