Foreign policy is about necessity, not desire. And multiple necessities have been driving the United States and Iran toward a détente of sorts. Indeed, the American-Iranian estrangement, which has gone on a decade longer than America’s estrangement from “Red China” did, is anomalous in international relations, given how many amoral geopolitical interests the two nations share. The idea that the interests of Israel, even with Saudi Arabia alongside it, can indefinitely or even permanently override some degree of reconciliation between the United States and Iran—the ancient world’s first superpower—is problematic. Yes, Israel’s domestic lobbying machine is formidable, and yes, Israel’s prime minister is by some accounts a determined schemer, but they may not ultimately be able to prevent the American executive branch from seizing the kind of diplomatic opportunity that comes along only a few times a century. Whatever the eventual outcome of the long-running negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli interests cannot impede a warming of relations between Iran and the United States in the coming years, under either this president or the next.
The Obama administration’s reported hostility toward Israel is merely a reflection of the emerging geopolitics of the early 21st century, with its vast and changing undercurrents of culture, geography, economics, natural-resource supply chains, and military acquisitions. As globalization shrinks the world map and each portion of it becomes more ferociously contested, talking about the Middle East without taking Asia into account becomes impossible. So let me start there, because the administration’s intended “pivot” to Asia and the opening to Iran are inherently connected.
Despite its slowdown in growth, the Indo-Pacific region remains the heartland of the world economy, home to the most important sea lines of communication and many economic powerhouses, some of which (like Japan and South Korea) are treaty allies of the United States, and others of which (like Vietnam and Malaysia) are consequential de facto allies. Since Obama’s first term, his administration has rightly been determined to focus more on Asia, in order to both defend U.S. allies against Chinese naval expansion and protect global trade. Of course, turmoil in the Middle East has interfered. But the increasingly tense military standoff in maritime Asia demands that the United States find a way, at least over time, to reduce its granular involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East.
There is no more efficient way to do this than to enter into a strategic understanding with Iran. Like the understanding that the United States forged with China in 1972, this would be less a matter of treaty language than of mutual respect and of expectations quietly agreed to by leaders on both sides.
The United States needs Shia Iran to fight the extremist Sunnis of the Islamic State, and at the same time to pressure the Shia government in Baghdad to moderate its posture toward the Sunnis, in the name of internal stability in Iraq. Should the unhelpful Islamic government in Turkey grow more intractable, Iran could also prove helpful in balancing against it. (After all, Iran and Turkey have uneasily coexisted and offset each other since the Safavid-Ottoman War of the early 17th century.) In addition, Iran and the United States could potentially work in tandem in Syria to preserve the political power of the country’s ruling Alawites—the Alawite sect being an offshoot of Shia Islam—even as they work together to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power. Furthermore, Iran could help steady neighboring Afghanistan in the wake of an American troop withdrawal, by serving as a buffer against pro-Taliban Pakistani and Saudi elements. The American military has already quietly encouraged Iranian involvement there.
All of this would be in Iran’s interests, and in America’s too. And while Iran might do some of these things on its own, doing them in coordination with America would measurably help stabilize the greater Middle East.
The practical approach to Islamist terrorism is not always to fight terrorists everywhere, but to play Shiites against Sunnis and vice versa, depending upon the circumstances. By warming up to Iran, we would not be siding with the Shiites against the Sunnis per se, but rather manipulating both sides more effectively than we have in the past. Nor should ending our belligerence toward Shia Iran mean deserting our Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere. We must go to great lengths to reassure them, in fact. I am not endorsing a flip-flop—an exchange of one alliance for another. Handled properly, a détente with Iran need not jeopardize our relationships with Sunni nations. It could, however, motivate them to be more honest allies than before. For decades, the Sunni dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia took their military alliances with the United States for granted, even as they fostered the hateful climate that produced the 9/11 terrorists. As for the Sunni jihadists themselves, they are already our committed enemies. We must continue to deal with them through a combination of military strikes, support for Sunni moderates (where they can be found), and creative diplomacy (of the sort that might be exemplified by a rapprochement with Iran).
The Levant will likely be in a state of violent and chaotic conflict for decades, much as Afghanistan has been since the late 1970s. The more the United States and Iran coordinate with each other, the less chance there is that America will have to put additional boots on the ground in the Middle East. If the United States is serious about the pivot to Asia, its objective should be to get regional powers, including Iran, to carry the burden of stabilizing Syria and Iraq.
There is more. A future, relatively congenial Iran might be less inclined to make trouble through its Hezbollah and Hamas allies in southern Lebanon and Gaza. It might help secure al-Qaeda-infected Yemen, via Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen (the Houthi are Zaidi Shiites who have been overrunning Yemeni territory). It could even counteract future Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf: Already, Iran and India have joined forces to develop the Arabian Sea port of Chabahar in Iranian Baluchistan. This port could one day compete against the nearby port of Gwadar, which China and Pakistan are working jointly to further develop. An American-Iranian understanding could also ensure the overall security of the Gulf sheikhdoms—an Iran in dialogue with America is an Iran less likely to be militarily aggressive toward its neighbors. And a more friendly Iran might conceivably help balance against Russia’s influence in the Transcaucasus, where Vladimir Putin has made a satellite out of Armenia, put troops near a weakened Georgia, and pressured energy-rich Azerbaijan into a closer relationship.
While the United States could use Iran for all of the above, Iran could use the United States, ironically, to give its regime legitimacy, thereby opening the floodgates of foreign investment and rescuing the Iranian economy. The mullahs’ deepest fear is that they will end up like the shah—toppled by a popular upheaval that is, in the main, economically driven. Of course, such an economic opening runs the risk of further emboldening hard-line elements in Iran, but over time it is more likely to move the country in a liberal direction.
Finally, an American-Iranian détente has all the force of culture behind it. Anti-Americanism has been in retreat in Iran for decades. Shia Iran is partially democratic and far more sophisticated, enlightened, and Westernized than benighted, culturally sterile Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Americans would feel much more comfortable in Tehran than in Riyadh.
Iran is not an artificial construct like Saudi Arabia: a strong Persian state has existed on the Iranian plateau for thousands of years. If indeed the Levant has entered a decades-long period of violent upheaval, the chances of Saudi Arabia weakening or crumbling are far greater than the chances of Iran doing so.
The Israelis must understand much of this. They themselves had a useful relationship with Iran up until the Iranian revolution, and they know the country well. Whatever Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might tell journalists, I don’t think he actually believes that he can permanently prevent some degree of American-Iranian rapprochement. He may, however, be demanding a bribe for his eventual acquiescence: All right, you will have a deal with Iran. Now, what are you going to give me in return? More West Bank settlements, more and cheaper armaments, more intelligence-sharing? And the Obama administration, if it is smart, will give him at least some of what he asks for.
The last thing you do when you reconcile with an enemy is throw your friend overboard—that would only make your former enemy (and all your adversaries, in fact) think that you are weak and unprincipled. As the United States and Iran try to narrow the diplomatic gap between them, Iran must be made to understand that a better relationship with America does not come cheap. Therefore, the White House needs to be seen reaching out to Israel and Saudi Arabia. If, in 2015 or 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry were to make a historic visit to Tehran, he would be wise to stop in Jerusalem and Riyadh on the way home. Détente is a major adjustment of policy, not a complete negation of it. The reconciliation with China brokered by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not stop them from also reaching a landmark strategic arms pact with China’s nemesis, the Soviet Union.
In short, ending the American-Israeli special relationship would be imprudent in the extreme. The relationship has been a feature of U.S. policy for decades, and thus has all the legitimacy of American treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, and so forth. A proud and powerful nation does not drop such an ally, no matter how inconvenient that ally’s behavior may be at times. Our allegiance to Israel is a matter not only of its being a democracy but also of its being a valuable chess piece—a pro-American military dynamo in the heart of the Middle East. Nixon was a most dependable friend of Israel in the White House precisely because he saw Israel in strategic as well as moral terms.
If any future rapprochement with Iran is to pay off, we must defend Israel as a means of keeping Iran honest. And yet, at the same time, we must continue to try to coerce Israel on its West Bank settlements in order to relieve some of the pressure on the United States in the Muslim world. As the communications revolution has helped to create, on one level at least, a single, globalized Muslim community, the Palestinian cause has acquired totemic significance for Muslims from North Africa to Indonesia. So even if peace prospects remain dim, America must always seem to be actively engaged in arm-twisting the Israeli government regarding its settlement activities in the West Bank.
If the Obama administration is wise, it will recognize that the opportunities of a historic shift in Middle East policy are far too great to be hindered by a who-insulted-whom soap opera between Obama and Netanyahu. It must disregard both the Israel lobby and Israel’s most determined critics. The mechanical verities of geopolitics matter much more. The United States will never be free of Middle East chaos, but if it can employ a new relationship with Iran to add a measure of regional stability, it can over time shift more of its attention eastward.