How the Iran deal might change the Middle East

What the calculations are behind the nuclear pact and where it could lead.

Ali Shayegan, Fars News/REUTERS
An Iranian Tondar missile is launched during a test at an unknown location in central Iran September 27, 2009.
  • Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, 'America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,' will appear next year.

The nuclear deal that the United States and five other world powers signed with Iran is a means to an end, not the end in itself. In that regard, the pact, scheduled for formal adoption on Oct. 19, necessarily rates as a high-risk proposition. If the agreement succeeds, it may mark a first step toward restoring some semblance of stability to the Greater Middle East, thereby allowing the US to lower its profile there. If it fails, the current disorder may in retrospect seem tame.

When he inherited the Oval Office, Barack Obama inherited that disorder. However naively, many Americans – and many others across the globe – expected this charismatic new president to make short work of such untidiness. My personal collection of Obama-era memorabilia includes a special issue of Newsweek from December 2008 featuring a cover story on “How to Fix the World: A Guide for the Next President.” As a foreign-policy novice, Mr. Obama himself seemed to entertain such exalted expectations, for example, promising a “new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world.” As Obama prepares to retire from office, now considerably grayer than he appeared on that Newsweek cover, no such new beginning has occurred and the world as a whole remains stubbornly unfixed.

That said, Obama may yet leave a foreign-policy legacy of real consequence. Whether that legacy is positive or negative may take years to determine, however. Ultimately, his reputation as a statesman is likely to hinge on how the Iran nuclear pact plays out.

Partisan attacks on the deal – comparing Iran to Nazi Germany, likening Obama to Neville Chamberlain, and foreseeing compliant Israelis marched off to death camps – have been predictable and absurd. Even while failing to derail the agreement, those attacks have inadvertently obscured its larger strategic context, thereby hiding from view both its actual risks and its potential benefits.

Indeed, shorthand references to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is formally known, as a nuclear deal serve to mask its larger implications. Nominally, the agreement lifts economic sanctions imposed on Iran in exchange for that country accepting limits on its nuclear program. Implicitly, however, it represents an invitation for Iran to come in from the cold. How Iranians respond to that invitation is the question on which Obama’s reputation as a statesman is likely to turn.

•     •     •

Obama was a teenager when the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and ensuing hostage crisis turned Iran into an international pariah, excluded from playing a meaningful role in regional politics. Yet excluding the troublemaker served mostly to incite more trouble.

During the 1980s, the US saw Iran as a threat to stability. US policy sought to contain the Islamic Republic, a presumed imperative that found the US aligning itself with Saddam Hussein in the brutal Iran-Iraq War that Mr. Hussein himself had recklessly initiated. In the 1990s, with Iraq now joining Iran on Washington’s enemies list, the US adopted a strategy of “dual containment.” Necessitating a substantial US military presence in the region, this approach incited blowback that ultimately found expression in the 9/11 attacks. Abandoning containment, the George W. Bush administration responded by embracing preventive war. Under the banner of its “freedom agenda,” it set out to remake the region, starting with Iraq but with expectations of soon moving on to neighboring countries, including Iran. The application of US military power in a big way was going to yield very large benefits.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. The American military project in Iraq miscarried and the “freedom agenda” went nowhere. Worse, even with all the thousands of lives lost or shattered, all the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, US military efforts have actually made conditions in the Greater Middle East markedly worse. An enterprise intended to foster stability, spread democracy, and further the cause of human rights has instead produced something akin to chaos, while fueling violent radicalism.

By invading Iraq, the Bush administration seemingly affirmed Osama bin Laden’s charges of US imperialism and antipathy toward Islam. In Baghdad, meanwhile, the political order resulting from several years of American “nation-building” manifests a combination of ineptitude and sectarian bias that has left Iraq virtually ungovernable. For radical Islamists generally, American intervention in Iraq has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Evidence? Look no further than Islamic State, the successor to Al Qaeda that has declared itself the basis of a new caliphate while carving up large swaths of Iraq and Syria and winning adherents further afield. However loath Americans may be to acknowledge their collective paternity, Islamic State is the bastard child of ill-advised US military interventionism.

No longer the foreign-policy neophyte, Obama today seems to grasp (even if not saying so outright) that US military involvement in the Greater Middle East, dating as far back as the abortive peacekeeping mission in Lebanon during the early 1980s, has been counterproductive. Whether in Iraq or Libya, Somalia or Afghanistan, it has never produced the results promised or expected.

Obama’s acceptance of the risks inherent in the JCPOA constitutes a de facto admission that the attempt to impose order on this region through the application of hard power has failed. Period. Full stop.

Simply trying harder – more bombs or more boots on the ground – won’t produce a more favorable outcome. In effect, the verdict is in: The militarization of US policy in the Islamic world has reached a dead end.

•     •     •

So without fully exposing his hand, Obama is opting for something different. With his Iran initiative, he is attempting to reverse course. In this sense, the JCPOA represents merely a preliminary step in a complex undertaking fraught with hazards.

The ultimate objective of that undertaking is twofold: first, to extricate the US military from what has become a war without end; second, to hand off responsibility for maintaining regional stability to those with the most to lose if the ongoing meltdown continues – the nations inhabiting the neighborhood.

Inherent in this gambit is a heretical proposition to which few politicians – certainly none of the declared presidential candidates – will openly subscribe: that there are certain tasks that exceed the capabilities of even the world’s sole superpower and that should therefore be left to others. Managing the Greater Middle East is one of those things.

Prominent among those “others” who share an interest in preventing further regional disintegration are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq (if it ever manages to get its act together). While the regimes controlling these several nations disagree about many things, they are all fundamentally committed to the status quo. That is, unlike Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or any of their offshoots, they are committed to preserving rather than destroying the existing system of nation-states within (more or less) their existing borders.

Obama is betting that Iran also qualifies as a status quo nation – or, if it is not presently, that it can be coaxed into becoming one. The impetus behind the bet is quite clear. Only by restoring Iran to its rightful place among regional heavyweights – as a player, not simply as a spoiler – will it be possible for a stable equilibrium of power to emerge. Putting it another way, to persist in excluding Iran is to guarantee continuing upheaval, with the US therefore unable to escape from the quagmire in which it now finds itself.  

Those persuaded that only the concerted exercise of US military might will restore order to this part of the world – neoconservatives and hawkish right-wingers, for example – might welcome such a prospect. Sensible Americans will not. 

Yet sensible Americans would do well to appreciate the uncertainties involved. Iran today remains a theocracy in which some top leaders identify the US as the Great Satan. Longstanding Iranian support for organizations on the US terrorist list such as Hezbollah is well documented. Prior to 9/11, Iran may have had a hand in terrorist attacks against US servicemen in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. During the US occupation of Iraq, Iran certainly provided Iraqi militants with weaponry employed to kill American soldiers. Its seniormost authorities eagerly look forward to the day when Israel will cease to exist. In no respect whatsoever does Iran qualify as a “friend” of the US.

On the other hand, US behavior toward Iran over the years has not exactly invited friendship. Even setting aside the 1953 Anglo-American coup that overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected government – an event that the US treats as ancient history – there remain other episodes with which Iranians might reasonably take umbrage.

Washington’s support for Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War is one. The US Navy’s unprovoked shooting down of an Iranian Airbus transiting the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing 290 civilians, is a second. Washington’s inclusion of Iran in the so-called Axis of Evil, despite Tehran signaling a willingness to help after 9/11, is a third. More recently, US collaboration with Israel in unleashing the Stuxnet computer virus to disable an Iranian nuclear research facility – in effect, a state-sponsored cyberattack – offers another.

So Iran has no more reason to trust the US than the US has to trust Iran.

•     •     •

Yet the case to be made for the JCPOA relies on neither friendship nor trust. Instead, it posits a convergence of interests. In an immediate sense, that convergence translates into a concrete and specific quid pro quo: Iran gets escape from economic strangulation; the US gets a suspension of putative Iranian attempts to acquire the bomb. More broadly and more speculatively, the JCPOA may – there are no guarantees – lay the basis for a collaboration against the antistatist violent radicalism threatening to envelop much of the Islamic world.

Obama’s critics dismiss the possibility of such a collaboration as hooey. Those who govern Iran, they argue, are hate-filled crazies committed to a revolutionary agenda.

That’s one view. Another interprets Iranian hate speech, which is real, as akin to hate speech in American politics – intended chiefly for domestic consumption. To some observers, the chants of “death to America” heard in Tehran seem increasingly pro forma, of no more real significance than the Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rants routinely heard on Fox News.

More significantly, the charge of irrationality just doesn’t stick – nothing in their recent behavior suggests that Iran’s rulers have a death wish or are willing to trade Tehran for Tel Aviv. Ruthless and calculating they may be, but not suicidal. As for the Islamic Revolution itself, it appears in many respects to be a spent force, retaining about as much fervor as the Bolshevik Revolution by the 1970s or the Cuban Revolution today.

Notably in evidence, however, is the undisguised fervor of younger Iranians not to overthrow secular modernity but to embrace it. Arguably, they, not the ayatollahs, represent the future of politics in Iran. Removing sanctions and reintegrating Iran into the global economy will further empower this rising generation of Iranians, who are avidly pro-American. Ayatollahs refusing to accommodate their demands for change will do so at their peril.

So, at least, the Obama administration has persuaded itself – an expectation that more than any other factor explains why the administration believes it is possible for the US and Iran on a selective basis to inch toward making common cause. In that regard, the current de facto US-Iranian collaboration against Islamic State may serve as a precursor of sorts. If not friends, the two nations may in time overcome the reflexive compulsion to be at each other’s throats.

Should the government of Israel sign on to Obama’s bet? Should the Saudi royal family or Sunni Arabs more generally?

Their reluctance to do so is understandable. Should that bet fail, they could well find themselves in the line of fire, facing an empowered Iran with grudges to settle. Among the unwelcome scenarios that could plausibly unfold are these: a region-wide nuclear arms race, an escalation of anti-
Zionism among nations competing to demonstrate their fealty to Islam, or preemptive military action by an Israel that perceives itself to be facing an existential threat. None of these can be dismissed out of hand.

For Israel and other US allies in the Middle East, therefore, the appeal of a Pax Americana – US troops permanently on station to keep order and police the recalcitrant in the region – is self-evident. The problem is that Washington’s efforts at policing the Greater Middle East have definitively and irrevocably gone off the rails. The Pax Americana may have worked elsewhere on other occasions, but in this instance it’s surely not working for the US. Persisting in this ill-advised effort will undermine rather than enhance US security and will further erode America’s standing in the world.

Sooner or later, circumstances will oblige even die-hard devotees of American exceptionalism to come to terms with the very real limits of US power. Sooner or later, US allies in the Greater Middle East, including Israel, will do likewise, which may yet open the door to a process, however halting and incremental, of mutual accommodation between Jews and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Persians.

Or it may not. In that case, the opposing sides in these several disputes may choose once more to take up their cudgels against one another even as the US opts out. At the end of the day, sovereign states will exercise their sovereignty.

If Obama’s bet pays off – and it may well take a decade or more to determine the outcome – what will it yield? Even in the best case, with Iran choosing to become a responsible stakeholder while abjuring terrorism and perpetuating its pledge not to develop nuclear weapons, don’t expect an epidemic of peace and harmony to break out. The causes of dysfunction roiling the Greater Middle East are too numerous and varied to be settled by any one diplomatic breakthrough, however welcome.

Yet it may just be that concentrating the minds of the parties involved will enable them to do a better job of fixing their part of the world than the US has managed. If nothing else, at least the pointless depletion of American power and influence will have been abated. We, too, must exercise our sovereignty.

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