The U.S.-Iran Conflict That Never Happened

One upside of talking to enemies

An Iranian naval destroyer test-fires a missile in the Persian Gulf. (Ebrahim Noroozi / IIPA / Reuters)

We have just witnessed one of the most consequential weeks for U.S.-Iran relations since diplomatic ties were broken in 1980, amid the Iranian hostage crisis. Last week began as it ended: with the release of captives. U.S. sailors were seized and set free; international sanctions against Iran were lifted in recognition of Iran dismantling most of its nuclear program; and a prisoner exchange occurred. The events seemed to bridge some international divisions, but they also resurfaced a bitter divide in the United States over one key question: What’s the best way to deal with enemies?

This was the subtext of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s argument on Sunday that the prisoner swap “reflects a pattern we have seen in the Obama administration over and over again of negotiating with terrorists, and making deals and trades that endanger U.S. safety and security.”

And it was the subtext of President Barack Obama’s declaration that same day, regarding the very same events, that he’d been vindicated in deciding “that a strong, confident America could advance our national security by engaging directly with the Iranian government.”

The statements encapsulate two divergent philosophies about how to confront adversaries—two currents of thought that will continue to shape America’s Iran policy going forward. Here, I’ll focus on Obama’s.

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Cruz and many Republicans look at the news of the past week and see an enfeebled United States fecklessly pursuing rapprochement with an appeased and emboldened enemy. They see the Iranian military releasing humiliating photos and video of U.S. sailors apologizing for straying into Iranian waters and being apprehended at gunpoint while on their knees, only for the U.S. government to thank the Iranians for letting the sailors go, cheer the episode as the fruits of diplomatic outreach to Tehran, and then shower Iran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

Obama, in contrast, dwells in his public statements less on what happened in recent days than on what could have happened and what could yet happen. The start of nuclear talks with Iran in 2013 precipitated the highest-level dialogue between the Iranian and U.S. governments since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Obama claims this dialogue with America’s longtime enemy is yielding near-term benefits and long-term opportunities that decades of isolating Iran never did.

“Whereas Iran was steadily expanding its nuclear program, we have now cut off every single path that Iran could have used to build a bomb … without resorting to another war in the Middle East,” Obama asserted on Sunday. The detention of the sailors “could have sparked a major international incident.” Instead, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry quickly called up Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif; some 15 hours later, after a series of phone calls between the two men, the sailors were released unharmed, with all their gear and weaponry. Relative to stony silence, dialogue could also bring better relations with young Iranians, who constitute the Islamic Republic’s largest population bloc and whose restlessness and political activism arguably pose the greatest threat to the ruling theocracy. “Following the nuclear deal, you—especially young Iranians—have the opportunity to begin building new ties with the world,” Obama told the Iranian people, essentially placing a bet on the country’s future. After all, the nuclear deal with Iran is designed to last at least 15 years—a stretch of time that could change everything, or nothing at all.

U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in February 1972 (Wikimedia)

In the long term, Obama may be hoping that engagement transforms Iran from an enemy to a friend, though he’s not sure it will. But in the near term, he evidently hopes that engagement, deployed judiciously and in balance with isolation and coercion, will reduce the risks of serious showdowns with a very real foe. In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama elaborated on his thinking, which he has applied not just to Iran, but also to countries like Cuba:

I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach—condemnation without discussion—can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable—and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. … Ronald Reagan’s efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe.

The allusion to Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Mao Zedong’s China, which came after more than two decades of icy relations, is instructive in understanding Obama’s philosophy. In an Oval Office meeting shortly before the trip, Nixon, a staunch anti-communist, explained his rationale for reaching out to Beijing to administration officials and the Dutch prime minister, employing logic that in many ways prefigures Obama’s. Nixon wanted to get to know the Chinese not despite the “enormous differences” in ideology and interests between the capitalist and communist giants, but precisely because of them. The stakes were too damn high to choose righteous blindness over some degree of visibility into a key Cold War player:

What may come out of it will be … some method of communication in the future, some contact in the future, and perhaps reducing the chance in the immediate future of a confrontation between the United States and the [People’s Republic of China] in Asia, such as we had in Korea, and such as we had indirectly in Vietnam. And looking further in the future, when they become a superpower, a nuclear superpower, to be in a position that at that time, we will have such relations with them that we can discuss differences, and not inevitably have a clash. Now, also, no one can look at Asia, and take 750 million Chinese out of it and say you can have any policy in the Pacific that will succeed in preventing war without having the Chinese a part of it. It’s just as coldblooded as that.

Several months earlier, Nixon had justified his overtures to Mao more succinctly: He would pursue “a more normal relationship” with China “[b]ecause our interests require it. Not because we love them, but because they’re there.”

Iran too is there—at the center of many of the Middle East’s most momentous struggles.

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To get a sense of why Obama has declared victory in his recent dealings with Iran, consider the case of the U.S. sailors.

When one country trespasses on the sovereign space of an unfriendly nation, inadvertently or not, bad things tend to happen. When a Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace in November, it was shot down and one of its pilots was killed. When a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace in 2001, killing the Chinese pilot, the Chinese held the 24-member American crew for 11 days and scoured the U.S. aircraft for sensitive technology. The Bush administration ultimately said it was “very sorry” and paid China $34,000 for the hassle. When British marines allegedly entered Iranian waters in 2007, they were held for 13 days—and demeaning photo-ops were just the beginning. Solitary confinement and harsh interrogation produced coerced “confessions” on Iranian television; at one point, masked captors brandishing weapons blindfolded the marines and thrust them against a wall, creating the impression that a mass execution was imminent.

The new diplomatic channels between Iran and the United States, along with the trust and incentives for cooperation established by the nuclear deal, were “key to defusing” the sailor incident “in a very speedy manner,” according to David Crist, the author of The Twilight War, which chronicles America’s shadowy, three-decade conflict with Iran.

“If this had happened two or three years ago, there is no doubt that the Iranians would have held these guys [longer] for bargaining chips as well as just for the humiliation of the United States,” Crist told me. “And the U.S. would have been in a very, very difficult situation about deciding how we’re going to respond to it. … The ramifications of the conflict would have gone up pretty significantly.”

In 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen, then the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, articulated this danger. “Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union,” he said. “We are not talking to Iran so we don’t understand each other. If something happens it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

Crist, a Pentagon historian who’s now at the National Defense University, knows these hazards firsthand. As a U.S. Marine in 2003, he found himself on the wrong end of an Iranian rocket launcher in a waterway between Iran and Iraq, with his captain only able to communicate with the Iranians through a commercial radio channel (Crist’s superiors eventually ordered his crew to retreat). He noted that while near-firefights between Iranian and American military vessels in the Persian Gulf are quite common, the sailor incident was rather unprecedented in that Iran actually took possession of U.S. personnel.

Before the Iran nuclear talks, Crist added, there were three main ways for U.S. officials to send messages to their Iranian counterparts, all ill-suited to resolving fast-moving conflict situations: You could reach out to the Swiss government (a process that often involved a fax machine), communicate with Iran’s UN mission in New York (officials there would then have to coordinate with colleagues in Tehran), or go through intermediaries such as the Omanis and Iraqis (who might filter or manipulate the message to advance their own interests).

“The longer these crises happen, the harder it is for both sides to back down,” Crist observed. “It kind of takes a life of its own.”

He mentioned one other reason he sees the sailor episode as a largely good-news story: It pitted Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which detained the American sailors, against the more pragmatic Foreign Ministry, which helped resolve the impasse. These two entities are clashing over the degree to which Iran should open up to the West as part of the nuclear accord (a political tussle that in some ways mirrors the one taking place in the U.S.). And Foreign Minister Zarif appears to have won this round of the debate with the support of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The IRGC would be touting, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to really humiliate the Americans, we can show their weakness to the region, we can use it perhaps to [extract] some other concessions out of the United States, maybe on sanctions relief against our ballistic-missile program,’” Crist explained. “All that was scuttled within a very, very short time frame. And that’s pretty telling about how important sanctions relief is to the Iranians.”

One downside to the story, Crist noted, is that “other than Zarif and Kerry, we still don’t have formal diplomatic relations [between the U.S. and Iran], the militaries in the Gulf don’t talk, really,” he said. “So there’s always the potential for miscalculation with the Iranians.”

Even this rudimentary system could be reversed when new administrations come to power in Iran and the United States—perhaps, say, by a President Cruz.