New Deal, New Strategy

The Iran Deal Heralds a Grand Strategic Decision


Martin Skold is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of St. Andrews, with a dissertation focused on the strategy of long-term security competition between states.


This past week saw the announcement of a putatively historic diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and Iran over the dismantling of the latter’s nuclear program. More precisely, the deal is a framework for a more comprehensive settlement, which will require U.S. Congressional approval (and which will provoke a storm of questions and debate, following the Senate Republicans’ well-publicized letter regarding their constitutional role).

In principle, however, the deal offers a face-saving exit from a more-than-decade-long confrontation between the U.S. and Iran over nuclear enrichment: Iran will eliminate a large portion of its stockpile of enriched uranium, dismantle most of its enrichment centrifuges, and suspend most of its enrichment program for 15 years, a verification regime (to be determined) will ensure that this takes place, and the U.S. will preside over the lifting of sanctions, theoretically subject to Iranian compliance.

The hostages disembark Freedom One, an Air Force Boeing C-137 Stratoliner aircraft, upon their arrival at the base

Many experts — including non-Democrats — have touted the deal as a way out of the morass of Middle Eastern political rivalry in which the U.S. has been entangled since the first Gulf War. George Friedman, president of the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, has argued in a recent book that the U.S. should seek a long-term rapprochement with Iran, rather as it did when President Nixon reopened relations with China, since their larger interests (including containing Sunni jihadism) overlap. This was echoed by (now former) Stratfor chief geopolitical analyst and prolific author Robert Kaplan, who argued recently that not only are the U.S. and Iran on the same side against ISIS, but that the U.S. needs a new relationship with Iran if it is to complete its “strategic pivot” to the Pacific.

If it were only that simple

However, the deal has drawn criticism, and not only from partisan quarters. In addition to opposition from Republicans, moderate voices have also pointed out serious flaws in the arrangement. The always-thoughtful John Schindler has summed up the objections quite nicely: the arrangement is unverifiable, the lifting of sanctions is permanent while Iranian compliance is temporary, and Iran has few incentives not to seek any opportunity to build a working nuclear weapon, along with ample political and ideological reasons for doing so. As a reader who responded to Kaplan’s arguments in a letter to the editor of The Atlantic noted (see Dave Esrig’s comment in the middle of the page), those hoping for a “Nixon in China” moment with Iran may have been doomed to disappointment, since Iran, compared to China during the 1970’s, does not appear as eager for an end to its conflict with the U.S. Even Iran expert Kenneth Pollack, a proponent of a nuclear deal with Iran, has noted recently that an agreement preventing an Iranian nuclear test may be the best that the U.S. can do, since Iran might prefer to stop short of such a test and settle for a “breakout window.” (Full disclosure: I studied under Kenneth Pollack at Georgetown some years ago. He will not necessarily endorse what I write here.) In other words, to quote Schindler’s article again, the U.S. “just gave Iran exactly what they wanted.” Or, more precisely, it gave it what it was probably going to take anyway.

Iran is perhaps the only state in the region (apart from Israel) that has the money, manpower, and will to fight that is needed to keep ISIS in check.

These criticisms are undeniably valid. As Pollack himself noted last year, the experience of three decades of undeclared war has depleted trust between the U.S. and Iran to the point where a deal is difficult to take at face value. Moreover, the rise of ISIS since the November 2013 temporary nuclear agreement has altered the political environment in ways that are not often remarked upon. Put simply, Iran is perhaps the only state in the region (apart from Israel) that has the money, manpower, and will to fight that is needed to keep ISIS in check. Being Shi’ite (as well as non-Arab), Iran must oppose the Sunni fundamentalist ISIS: although it is often noted that Iran keeps in touch with Sunni jihadists and sometimes uses them for its purposes, it cannot provide more than token political or material support to the larger Sunni jihadist movement, since fundamentally, they are on opposite sides of a sectarian war. No other regional state except Israel is in this position; no other regional state at all has the resources and regional influence to backstop the militias that are fighting ISIS from Iraqi Kurdistan to Baghdad to Syria to Lebanon. This is the case despite (indeed, because of) Iran’s longstanding policy of fighting against U.S. forces in Iraq, which created a triangular war in which Iran, the U.S., and Sunni jihadists are all opposed to each other — insofar as Iran wants the U.S. permanently out of Iraq, it has to take the lead in both backing its own side and ensuring that the Sunni jihadists do not make too much progress. Because of Iran’s role in containing ISIS, as long as preventing ISIS from attacking the U.S. or achieving its political goal of uniting a major chunk of the Islamic world under its rule remains the U.S.’ top regional priority, the U.S. cannot attack Iran, nor can it weaken Iran substantively; indeed, anything that in any way ties Iran’s hands works against the U.S.’ regional strategy at the moment. Until ISIS is defeated, this will not change.

Iran has warned that its armies are ready to face ISIS should they come close to their borders [file photo of Iranian Revolutionary Guards]

The effects on U.S. negotiations with Iran are predictable. In part because it is difficult to imagine a more damaging sanctions regime than the one already in place, and in part because of the nature of the U.S.-Iran relationship to begin with, the only meaningful leverage the U.S. can apply to Iran at the negotiating table is the threat of force majeure — either a U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or a broader war in which the U.S. would seek the overthrow of the Iranian regime altogether. Offering to pay Iran to suspend its nuclear program, as with the infamous North Korean Agreed Framework, can be presumed to be a dead letter — there would be little incentive for Iran not to pocket the goods and clandestinely proceed apace. Sticks must accompany carrots if negotiating is not to turn into begging. In the wake of the Iraq War, U.S. threats of major war against Iran rang hollow for years, but they retained a kind of surface plausibility: absent a deal, the U.S. might just be insane or desperate enough to do whatever it takes to solve the problem. Now that the U.S. is working as hard as it can to contain ISIS within the heartland of the ancient Caliphate that the latter seeks to reestablish, it cannot afford to demolish ISIS’ main enemy. Iran therefore has little to fear from the U.S. and less incentive to abide by a deal. (Or even to make one. The fact that the U.S. has recently humiliated itself by setting a deadline for making a deal, while Iran felt no such pressure, speaks for itself.)

…the U.S. twin goals of counterterrorism and counterproliferation work against each other in the Middle East.

Unsolvable dilemmas

However, there is an insoluble policy dilemma at work. As I have written before, the U.S. twin goals of counterterrorism and counterproliferation work against each other in the Middle East. Counterterrorism — really, countering the global Sunni jihadist movement in any of its serial forms — requires the U.S. to adopt a number of policies. It must support and strengthen established states (which, ipso facto, cannot abide more than a minimum of internal violence from organizations dedicated to their overthrow), support ethnoreligious constituencies that are immune to co-option by the Sunni jihadist movement (particularly the region’s Iranian-backed Shi’a communities, but also other groups), and, where practicable, avoid putting its troops where jihadists can score easy victories by targeting them. All of the above require cooperation not only with Iran, but with a host of other regional actors, many of them malodorous. (This includes, as U.S. policy makers have recently discovered, Syria’s ‘Assad, since Syria’s Sunnis were vulnerable to cooption by ISIS in a way that its other ethnic groups are not.) It also, sooner or later, puts the U.S. in the position of, at minimum, having to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, whose founding religious ideology, Wahabism, is an extreme form of the Salafism that motivates Al Qaeda and ISIS, and which, since the rise of Al Qaeda, has benefited from foreign wars that can draw off Saudi extremists who might otherwise attack home soil.

Iraq, previously, provided this outlet; the war against ISIS is merely a continuation of that conflict. At maximum, countering Sunni jihadism requires politically opposing Saudi Arabia, ultimately by waging a proxy war against it. (Saudi Arabia is widely accused of supporting ISIS via “private” contributions to Islamic charities and aggressive proselytization of Wahabism.) Counterintuitively, countering Sunni jihadism even strains the U.S.-Israel relationship, since Israel has always feared states more than terrorists and since Israel’s primary adversary is Iran while its sometime partner against Iran is Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. is on the verge of batting zero for two where this dilemma is concerned….the U.S. must now make the best of what few options it has left. It is in light of all this that we must assess the Iranian nuclear deal.

Counterproliferation, on the other hand, requires just the opposite. Because, for those who seek them, nuclear weapons are the ultimate security guarantee, and because the dismantling of a nuclear program is so difficult to verify, it is very difficult to disincentivize their production once a state decides to have an arsenal. This necessitates that the U.S. be open to the policy of waging war against would-be proliferators (or threatening war, which amounts to the same thing), often with incomplete evidence of their own activity — witness the neverending controversy over whether it was worthwhile to oust Saddam Hussein, who had no nuclear program but appeared to, and who did possess raw uranium ore. Such wars are not only bloody and expensive, but also disruptive: as in Iraq, they create ungoverned spaces where Sunni jihadists can first take refuge and then take power. On the other hand, smashing would-be proliferators is in line with Israeli policy goals and therefore helps, rather than hinders, U.S.-Israeli cooperation. Such wars and threats of wars also work to the advantage of Saudi Arabia, in the same way that countering ISIS and its predecessors has worked against Saudi policy goals, and also because they (ideally) eliminate potential nuclear threat close by.

The U.S. is on the verge of batting zero for two where this dilemma is concerned. Having destroyed Iraq, it created a vacuum that is now controlled by ISIS and used as a staging area for attacks that will probably one day seek to destroy Jordan in preparation for assaults on Jerusalem and Mecca. On the other hand, having avoided going after Iran when it had the chance, the U.S. is now in no position to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear arsenal, and, in turn, creating the potential for a regional arms race. Almost all of this involves choices already made; the U.S. must now make the best of what few options it has left.

Uneasy ground to walk on

It is in light of all this that we must assess the Iranian nuclear deal. A few points now seem obvious, points that do not fit easily into the dominant narratives surrounding the issue.

…the U.S. must pick not only its policies, but its problems.

First, counterterrorism really does reign supreme. The U.S. has more to fear, for its purposes, from Sunni jihadists than it has from Iran, and for that reason it will need to abstain, at the very least, from getting in Iran’s way as it kills them off. This may or may not make a deal on Iran’s nuclear program desirable, but it does argue for tabling the issue one way or the other.

Secondly, for that reason, the critics who noted that an Iranian deal would herald the end of U.S. counterproliferation policy in the Middle East are right. The U.S. does not have the money, the troops, or the political will to continue enforcing the nonproliferation regime in the Middle East. It does not have the money because of its economic slowdown and demographic problem: if the U.S. is to avoid serious fiscal problems in the coming decade, it will have to adjust its domestic spending programs, and it is not possible for either party to take a serious position on this while pouring funds into a Middle Eastern war of choice. (To this day, a politically devastating but substantively irrelevant talking point against entitlement reform in the U.S. has been that the U.S. had a trillion dollars to throw away on Iraq, but cannot find the money to pay for Social Security and Medicare.) It does not have the troops because enemies are arising in other quarters. Not only will the U.S. sooner or later have to complete the “strategic pivot,” as Kaplan notes in the above-cited article, but the U.S. will also need troops to deter Russian aggression against vulnerable NATO members such as the Baltic states. It will also need to cease relying on Russia for logistical support to operations in near-inaccessible parts of the greater Middle East, for obvious reasons. Given all this, tying the U.S. down in a Middle Eastern land war should not be considered an option at this point. As for political will, the U.S.’ political polarization of late is well-known, and until it can be solved it will pay to adjust expectations accordingly. For all these reasons, the U.S. will have to take whatever deal it can get that will allow it to leave the Middle East to its own devices, and make do with the resulting consequences.

Thirdly, the U.S. is in the midst of a smaller policy pivot within the Persian Gulf. Assuming it does not deviate from its goal of rolling back ISIS in any way possible, and assuming it needs Iran’s help for these purposes, the U.S. will eventually back away from its relationship with Saudi Arabia even as it seeks a new relationship with Iran. The U.S., to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, does not have friends in the Middle East, only interests — and Saudi Arabia’s goals are no longer those of the U.S.

And fourth: the U.S. will have a different relationship with Iran from here on. Not only will the U.S. have to adjust its policy to deal with ISIS, but it will have to adjust its policy to deal with the wider geopolitical situation. With the U.S. once again in a confrontation with Russia, it will have to start treating Middle Eastern issues as relatively peripheral once again, and for that reason it will have to begin treating its Middle East goals as a means to a larger end rather than an end in itself. In the Cold War, the U.S. pursued relationships of convenience with Middle Eastern states to prevent them from falling completely into the Soviet Union’s orbit. The Iranian deal could be the first step toward something similar. Although Iran is seen as falling into Russia’s political orbit of late, this is in part due to U.S. opposition to it, while, conversely, and as noted, the U.S. has increasingly little to gain from rigid adherence to the regional partners it does have. Separating Iran from Russia — not by making it an ally, but by making it unaligned — should be a U.S. policy goal at this point. The model is Nasser’s Egypt during the Cold War, which was emphatically not pro-U.S. but was kept from being unambiguously pro-Soviet. An Iranian nuclear deal will open up opportunities in this area. U.S. expectations should be modest: Iran will not necessarily do what the U.S. wants, but the U.S. can prevent it from becoming too much of a thorn in the U.S.’ side as it confronts Russia.

Finally, there will be more to do on broader policy questions. Partnering with Iran against ISIS will only work if the U.S. is willing to put considerable political and military muscle behind that effort, even allowing for a prohibition on introducing U.S. ground forces. Attempting to separate Iran from Russia will only be worthwhile if the U.S. deems protecting its NATO allies to be important and does what it takes to do so. There will be regional political fallout in the Gulf which the U.S. will have to manage, often aggressively. In other words, this is only the beginning.

However, the U.S. must pick not only its policies, but its problems. The U.S. has an opportunity to walk away from a resource-sapping Middle East counterproliferation policy, and it is advisable to take it. There does not seem to be much of an alternative.


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