Without expending resources, over the past 15 years, Iran has transformed its strategic situation, a double lesson for states that take enormous risks, cause much damage, wreck their own economics, and distort their own societies in pursuit of international influence. But the lesson is, as one might expect, two-sided: both good news and bad for Iranians seeking a return to the prestige their society had in the world two millennia ago.
The bad news for Iranians is clear: without laying blame, the fact is that Iran today is under severe nuclear threat. Absolute nuclear transparency on the part of Iran combined with verbal restraint on the part of its leading politicians would serve to undermine those forces in the West most dedicated to attacking Iran. A willingness by the Iranian regime to give up the violent mistreatment of domestic political opponents would further weaken the Western war party. Failing these steps, Iranian national security will remain at risk. Iran’s nuclear ambiguity and the pugnacious verbal behavior of its leaders, both following the Israeli model of how to lose friends and influence people, do give it a degree of attention its leaders covet, but at what may suddenly become a very high price.
The good news for Iranians is less clear, at least to Westerners, but very real nonetheless and bears thinking about: without really doing very much at all, Iran has seen its strategic situation, aside from the threat of aggression by the U.S.-Israeli war party, dramatically improve over the last decade. This shift is highly unusual for a rising but still weak and marginalized state that loudly challenges the right of the dominant power to make international rules. Iran’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein, is long gone, replaced by an Iraqi regime that leans to Tehran’s side. Iran’s Sunni Taliban enemy has been weakened and seems to have rethought its former hostility toward Shi’i Iran. Syria may be an unpredictable mess rather than a reliable ally, but Iran’s Lebanese Hezbollah allies now sit comfortably in the Lebanese government, arguably as the major partner. Two moderate Islamic powers now stand tall in the Mideast—Turkey and Egypt, both willing to talk to any Iranian willing to meet them halfway. For Iranians, opportunities for regional diplomatic progress over the next decade seem likely to better than, perhaps, at any time since they last defeated the Roman Empire…provided that they can conjure up sufficient skill to dampen the U.S.-Israeli war party’s enthusiasm for regime change.
The bottom line of this curious combination of needlessly antagonizing Israel and the U.S. over nukes but also implementing a cautious regional policy puts Iran in a position to make a few low-cost steps that could leave it the hands-down winner of a disastrous decade that has greatly harmed virtually every other player. But the fact that Iran has progressed well so far does not mean that more of the same will continue to produce the same results.
Washington’s economic war against Iran is wrecking Iran’s economy and endangering its plans for modernization. Tehran needs to find a solution, not one dependent on winning over a permanently hostile war party—Iran’s Western enemies have an anti-Iran bias it can do nothing about–but one dependent on persuading the rest of the West that a positive-sum deal is both possible and less risky. Tehran could do much worse than to announce a “grand gesture for peace” by opening its nuclear infrastructure to free, permanent, public monitoring without caveats and then challenging Israel to do the same; Israel would immediately refuse, in response to which Iran could implement its offer anyway and gain many diplomatic points. Simultaneously, not beating up any peaceful ladies in the street would further help pave the way for general acceptance of Iran as a legitimate country by an American population that needs to get beyond the irritating U.S.-Iranian crisis in order to focus on its utterly dysfunctional domestic political situation and socially destructive financial system.
Both Iranian and U.S. policy-makers could benefit greatly from thinking through where Iran could be, strategically and diplomatically, a decade from now. A few points are quite predictable:
Overpopulated, impoverished, misgoverned Pakistan will desperately need economic partners who can provide energy;
Free of U.S. boots on the ground, the ruined land of Afghanistan will desperately need friendly neighbors;
Turkey, whose diplomatic ship of good neighborliness sank on the reef of Syrian chaos, will be looking for new ways to demonstrate its leadership;
No solution to the bleeding U.S. financial cancer is apparent without major cutbacks to the U.S. military budget, which will be difficult as long as two carrier task forces are looking for trouble in the Persian Gulf.
Major reasons why others will aspire to cutting deals with Iran abound. Tehran, ostracized by Washington for three decades in punishment for its having thumbed its nose at the global “Washington system,” has managed to get itself noticed. But rather than push this strategy too far, it should cash in its chips and shift course: Iran is now in position to gain greatly from a calm, low-keyed good neighbor policy. Creative thinking is probably all Tehran will need to establish itself, a decade from now, as a solidly situated regional power. Of course, Washington has the power to prevent this, but peaceful, creative Iranian diplomacy could make achievement of the U.S.-Israeli war party’s goals absurdly expensive—and could do so at very low cost to Iran while enhancing its security.
What, then, would “the rest of the West” (excluding the War Party) be likely to get from the resulting deal? Consider cutbacks in the flow of illegal narcotics from Afghanistan, military budget savings as Mideast tensions decline, time to put its domestic financial house in order, enhanced opportunities for finally pacifying and stabilizing Afghanistan (where Iran will have influence, retreating Washington’s only options being either ensuring Iran’s hostility or encouraging Iran’s cooperation), and movement toward a sane Mideast nuclear regime in which security is sought not through threats but through transparency. A little creative thinking on each side could make this a very good deal for both, but if Washington insists on cutting off its own nose to spite its face, Iran can still make dramatic economic, security, and political gains by focusing less on irritatinh the weakened superpower and more on enhancing its already growing network of regional ties.
The likelihood of this happening, however, is another question, given that Iran’s domestic politics are almost as short-sighted and dysfunctional as those of its superpower adversary.