If Iran gains security even as it becomes cut off from the Levant, wise diplomacy by Iran’s adversaries could promote Iran to shift course toward foreign policy moderation. The key lies in the ability of Washington policy-makers to adopt a low-keyed, non-confrontational perspective and play for the long term.
Two motivations lies at the center of state policy: security and opportunity. Israeli repression of Palestinians and the common practice on all sides of manipulating Lebanon have offered Iran endless opportunities for access to the Levant. The natural tendency of Iranian policy-makers to take advantage of those opportunities to play a larger role on the world political stage was accentuated by Washington’s visceral lust for revenge after the hostage crisis aggravated by the warmongering manipulations of the Israeli expansionist faction which was determined to destroy every regional regime, of which Iran is essentially the last man standing, that stood in the way of its imperial aspirations. Through a combination of short-sighted intent and strategic confusion, Washington allowed the Israeli expansionist faction to confuse the issue of Iran’s desire for military independence with its nuclear policy, with the minimal result of this confusion of two distinct issues being the aggravation of Iranian feelings of insecurity. Thus, for a generation, the normal state goals of security and the pursuit of opportunity have worked together to draw Iran into a provocative foreign policy stance which in turn further aggravated its relations with the West.
Now, the possibility, albeit by no means certain, exists of shifting Iran’s international environment into one in which opportunities for striding the world stage will be diminished while security will be enhanced. Each of these developments, crucially, is occurring simultaneously, and it is the joint development of these two shifts that raises the possibility of Iran changing course. The closing off of opportunities is spelled “Syria;” the enhancement of security is spelled “Iraq and Afghanistan.” Both shifts are obvious; the implications of their simultaneous occurrence far less so.
For Iran to involve itself as a major player in the Levant, Iran needs physical access. If Syria turns away, it is hard to see how Iran will retain such access. Over time, unless Lebanon again experiences Israeli aggression, this is likely to convince Hezbollah to reassess its strategic calculus and continue its long-term evolution from national liberation force toward conventional political party. Tehran’s calculus, in turn, is likely to evolve as well once it sees the door to the Levant shutting.
By itself, this shutting of the door of Levantine opportunity for Tehran might well push Tehran further down the road of desperate risk-taking and commitment to a policy of nuclear militarization, rather than nuclear ambiguity, come what may. But any arguments among Iranian policy-makers for a riskier foreign policy will be undercut to the degree that Iranian security is enhanced, and here is where Iraq and Afghanistan play crucial roles. The impact on Iran of shifts in U.S. Afghan policy remain a very big question: Washington’s plans for its extensive archipelago of military bases in Afghanistan remain ambiguous. Should Washington retain its major bases capable of supporting offensive action and continue its aggressive drone policy, Tehran is unlikely to be impressed by the withdrawal of ground forces. However, assuming that Iran retains influence with Iraq sufficient so that it perceives no threat from that corner and in the context of a genuine rather than sham U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran’s security concerns will lessen.
This dynamic promoting Iranian moderation can of course be blocked by a counter-dynamic undermining Iranian security. Israeli or U.S. support for anti-regime terrorism from Baluchistan would once again heighten Iranian security concerns and thus empower radicals advocating nuclear militarization and asynchronous warfare against Israel. Continued demands from Washington that Tehran bow down and accept nuclear discrimination despite Israeli nuclear threats against it would certainly heighten Iranian security concerns.
But, the door is now opening to a new reinforcing feedback loop composed of multiple independent but linked and mutually reinforcing dynamics encouraging a foreign policy reassessment in Tehran. In a context of security on its border with Iraq, loss of access to Syria and Lebanon, and the evaporation of much of the U.S. ring of military bases along its borders with both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian policy-makers will presumably begin to reassess their strategic calculus. The likelihood of such a reassessment leading to a shift in policy would only rise were the murdering of Iranian nuclear scientists to stop, the U.S. economic embargo to end, Iranian uranium refinement up to medical grade to be accepted, and U.S. efforts to marginalize Iran diplomatically to be replaced by positive inducements for cooperative Iranian behavior (e.g., pacifying Afghanistan, completing the hydrocarbon pipeline Pakistan so desperately needs).
Given creative U.S. diplomacy that raises no obstacle, the new Mideast dynamics resulting from a pro-Iran regime in Iraq, the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the much anticipated collapse of the Syrian regime will naturally push Iran in a new foreign policy direction. It so happens that Iran’s borders are becoming more secure while the cost of pursuing adventures in the Levant is rising. Tehran in this situation is less actor than object, watching regional power shifts that it did not cause and cannot prevent. For Washington, in contrast, a door of opportunity is opening, though it is by no means clear that Washington policy-makers can see the light in the doorway through the fog of prejudice in their own eyes. The question is thus whether or not Washington policy-makers will have the creativity and vision to facilitate a reorientation of Iranian policy that the U.S. has sought for decades.