Iran will always want an independent foreign policy. Don’t we all? Iran tends to do things differently, which exposes old practices that have outlived their value (if they ever had any). Having Iran as an active participant in Mideast affairs offers great benefits to the U.S., offering alternatives to narrow Sunni and Israeli sectarian interests. We should relish the prospect.
Mideast expert Juan Cole has neatly captured the Mideast context at the moment:
Precisely because a breakout option has deterrent effects, regional hegemons such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are alarmed by Iran’s new capability. It is not because they think Iran will make a bomb (nuclear weapons have since 1946 had only a defensive capacity in any case, because of Mutual Assured Destruction among nuclear states). It is because they know the regime cannot any longer be attacked and overthrown, and that the long counterrevolution against Iran they have pursued is over. [Juan Cole in The Nation.]
Given this concise summation as the starting point, how should Americans view the emergence of Iran, assuming maintenance of the new nuclear accord, as a rising Mideast power?
First, the Syrian civil war cannot be settled without Tehran’s participation. With Iran effectively allied with the U.S. against the Islamic State and Iraq’s defender, Iran will have influence in Syria. The question is for all sides to agree on how much.
Second, Iran must benefit economically from the nuclear accord, else it will A) have been cheated and B) will know it has been cheated. If the goal for Americans is to take a major foreign policy crisis off the radar, that would be a strange way to reach the goal. But deciding to assist Iran economically and figuring out a way to do it are two very different things. The obvious way (thus empowering moderation in Tehran) would be providing access to Western economies, which means Iranian hydrocarbon pipelines, some of which logically should go through Syria. Thus, maintaining the nuclear agreement, promoting moderate behavior by Iran, and solving the Syrian crisis all fit nicely together: these goals constitute a rather tight little basket of mutually dependency.
Third is the vague long-term goal of creating the conditions for Mideast stability and growth to replace endless invasions, terror, sectarian warfare, and general aggression by everyone who can against everyone else in a mindless cycle of destruction radicalizing the population and leading to more destruction. A general lowering of tensions will make all the other problems far easier to resolve. For one example, the Yemen crisis would probably never have turned into an international war in the absence of Riyadh’s obsession with Iran; instead the world (i.e., the U.S.) now has a new failed state to prop up. The new post-U.S. invasion Iraqi regime would probably not have so grievously alienated its Sunni population had Iran not been under the threats of Israeli/U.S. aggression: in a benign regional political environment, Tehran might well have urged Baghdad to avoid sectarian repression, which would effectively have undercut the ISIS terror campaign right from the start and left the post-occupation Iraq as a functioning state.
Fourth is what Cole referred to as the “long [Israeli/Saudi] counterrevolution against Iran.” This counterrevolution impassions and complicates everything else in Mideast affairs; more, it ties U.S. diplomats in a foreign straightjacket, preventing them from protecting U.S. national interests because of the pressures on Washington from so-called friends and allies who use “the Shi’i menace” to interfere in U.S. internal affairs and manipulate Washington. It is not just Iran that justifiably wants an independent foreign policy; the U.S. too would benefit enormously from having one.
U.S. decision-makers have many serious Mideast issues on their plate: the return of Egyptian military dictatorship and decline of Egyptian stability; the potential collapse of the Saudi plutocratic state, perhaps as the result of a jihadi attack on its homeland; and rising Israeli extremism in a grossly over-militarized garrison state that feeds off every crisis within a thousand miles of its borders. An endless crisis with Iran is not in U.S. national interests.
The Mideast would in many important ways be a far better place with Iran an accepted and active diplomatic and economic participant standing independent, involved, and creative. The burden on U.S. decision-makers would be far lighter if Washington and Tehran put into place a normal process of diplomatic interaction, explaining things to each other when they disagreed and keeping eyes open for opportunities to cooperate.