What George W. Bush failed to achieve militarily, Barack Obama may now be achieving diplomatically. In recent weeks, American hawks have cited Saudi anxiety about a potential Iran deal as reason to be wary of one. But a big part of the reason the Saudis are worried is because they know that as U.S.-Iranian relations improve, their influence over the United States will diminish. That doesn’t mean the U.S.-Saudi alliance will disintegrate. Even if it frays somewhat, the United States still needs Saudi oil and Saudi Arabia still needs American protection. But the United States may soon have a better relationship with both Tehran and Riyadh than either has with the other, which was exactly what Richard Nixon orchestrated in the three-way dynamic between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing in the 1970s. And today, as then, that increases America’s leverage over both countries.
Over the long term, Iran may also prove a more reliable U.S. ally than Saudi Arabia. Iranians are better educated and more pro-American than their neighbors across the Persian Gulf, and unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran has some history of democracy. One of the biggest problems with America’s Mideast policy in recent years has been that, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to Egypt, the governments the United States supports preside over populations that hate the U.S. Thursday’s nuclear deal, by contrast, may pave the way for a positive relationship with the Iranian state that is actually undergirded by a positive relationship with the Iranian people.
Which brings us to the second benefit of ending America’s cold war with Iran: It could empower the Iranian people vis-à-vis their repressive state. American hawks, addled by the mythology they have created around Ronald Reagan, seem to think that the more hostile America’s relationship with Iran’s regime becomes, the better the United States can promote Iranian democracy. But the truth is closer to the reverse. The best thing Reagan ever did for the people of Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. was to embrace Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1987, American hawks bitterly attacked Reagan for signing the INF agreement, the most sweeping arms-reduction treaty of the Cold War. But the tougher it became for Soviet hardliners to portray the United States as menacing, the tougher it became for them to justify their repression at home. And the easier it became for Gorbachev to pursue the policies of glasnost and perestroika that ultimately led to the liberation of Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the U.S.S.R.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, like Gorbachev, wants to end his country’s cold war with the United States because it is destroying his country’s economy. And like Gorbachev, he is battling elites who depend on that cold war for their political power and economic privilege. As Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick recently noted, Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guards “thrive on hostile relations with the U.S., and benefit hugely from sanctions, which allow them to control smuggling.” But “if the sanctions are lifted, foreign companies come back in, [and] the natural entrepreneurialism of Iranians is unleashed.” Thus “if you want regime change in Iran, meaning changing the way the regime operates, this kind of agreement is the best way to achieve that goal.”