Resolving Nuclear Issue Wouldn't End U.S.-Iran Tension

Even if Iran ended its nuclear program forever, the two sides disagree over so many issues that their conflict will almost certainly continue to be fought on the margins and in the shadows

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Iranian school girls stand in front of a satirized drawing of the Statue of Liberty, painted on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, as they hold posters of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei / AP
The alleged Iranian terror plot exposed last month served as a reminder of just how wide the gulf between the United States and Iran has become. While the ongoing conflict over its nuclear pursuits is generally the top Iranian priority of U.S. policy makers and analysts -- as the overwhelming attention on this week's International Atomic Energy Agency report on the Iranian nuclear program demonstrates -- the breadth of issues on which the United States and Iran are fundamentally at odds suggests that, even if the nuclear question were resolved tomorrow, U.S.-Iran ties would be unlikely to change for the better.

When he was campaigning in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama pledged to extend an unprecedented overture to the Islamic Republic. But events in Iran -- namely, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's apparent fraud in the 2009 election and the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters -- and the diplomatic logjam over the nuclear issue have so far blocked any progress in improving relations. On three occasions in as many years, U.S. diplomats have sat down with high-level Iranian officials to discuss confidence-building measures as part of the six-party body negotiating the nuclear issue. But each time, the talks produced no progress, leaving the Obama administration little other option but to pursue additional sanctions and pressure. Even on technical matters that garnered wide support among experts (such as the recent proposal floated by Ahmadinejad to give up 20 percent enrichment in return for nuclear fuel purchased on the open market) there has been insufficient political will within Washington to pursue direct talks.

Vali Nasr, a former senior advisor [with the State Department, described in a recent interview how the diplomatic push never really got off the ground. "We really didn't have an engagement effort with Iran," he said. Western capitals demand that Iran suspends its nuclear program, while Tehran demands as a precondition for any negotiations that the world acknowledge its right to enrich uranium. Getting beyond this seemingly simple impasse has taken up the bulk of Obama's first term.

When the Justice Department announced it had uncovered the Iranian terror plot, the major international incident that followed was only the latest downturn in the already sour U.S.-Iran relationship.  The points of conflict between the two sides are myriad: Iran's nuclear activities, support for global terrorism (including refuge to al Qaeda figures), domestic human rights violations, support for the Taliban, working against the U.S. in Iraq, aiding the crackdown in Syria, sponsoring Hezbollah and Hamas; the list goes on. Whenever one side has sought to address an issue, history has intervened to quash any possibility of reconciliation. It's no wonder analysts are fond of saying the U.S. and Iran never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Some writers in the U.S. advocate a grand bargain as the only way out of the three-decade deadlock. By recognizing and accommodating Iran's position as a leader in the region and scaling back U.S. commitments accordingly, they say, the two states can have peace. But precisely because the list of grievances is so long, a grand bargain would be very unlikely to work. Could the U.S. and Iran realistically expect a single deal to address nuclear enrichment, human rights, and their divergent interests in the many Middle Eastern states where both are involved? It's doubtful. The paradox of a grand bargain is that if you don't solve everything all at once, you can't solve anything.

In the absence of cooperation, Iran and the U.S. are locked in strategic conflict. This conflict is asymmetric; it utilizes cyber warfare, espionage, and proxy forces.  Western forces should expect more provocative acts from Iranian swift boats in the Persian Gulf, and Iranians should expect more computer viruses and more scientists targeted by assassins.  Iran is extending its navy to expand its global reach, and if the evidence behind the recent terror plot holds up, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps may be seeking to expand its operations into America's backyard.

If forced to, the U.S. could probably contain even a nuclear-capable Iran without difficulty. The U.S. rightly decided against an airstrike on IRGC bases in retaliation for the terror plot, as it has so far with any plans for a surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. It would be nearly impossible avoid escalation after such a strike, possibly to outright war.

For now, Iran's political leaders appear too internally divided to radically alter the trajectory of their foreign or nuclear policies. The bad news is that this makes it harder for the U.S. to alter those Iranian policies; the good news is that this makes it easier for the U.S. to anticipate Iran's future moves. Since neither side wants a head-to-head clash, the conflict will almost certainly continue to be fought on the margins and in the shadows.  This has been acceptable to the U.S. because it's exactly the kind of conflict we're so good at keeping up.

The most pressing challenge for the U.S. in its ongoing conflict with Iran is to avoid escalation.

As long as the two sides are unable to cooperate systematically on issues of concern, they should find ways to avoid a major provocation such as a U.S. attack or unintentionally inviting an Iranian decision to openly pursue nuclear weapons.

It may be tempting to call this a new Cold War, but there's at least one important difference: the U.S. has exceedingly superior capability on nearly every plane or area of potential conflict. Regardless of how unpopular the U.S. is in the region, Iran has a much harder time extending its influence beyond its borders in a way that might shift the regional balance of power in its favor. With the Arab Spring, its soft power in the region is trending downward.

This competition has its risks for the U.S. too. If Washington overreacts to provocations, overextends its commitments, or overestimates the threat it faces from Iran, then the U.S. can in fact lose. But if we recognize Iran not as an existential threat but rather a strategic competitor whose behavior can be constrained, then there is no reason this conflict cannot be managed effectively.