By: Adam Stromme
While militant insurgencies in Iraq and Syria have been consistently stealing the headlines of American foreign policy discussions, far more impactful developments for the Middle East are arguably developing far away from these battlefields. With the closing of the the first week of June, US negotiators are down to three weeks to hammer out an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, an agreement that could very well rewrite the dynamics of the Middle East in the coming decades. As the old saying goes, the pen is indeed very much mightier than the sword.
The agreement comes at an uncomfortable time for the United States. Having performed poorly in the post Iraq and Afghanistan war reconstruction effort, Americans are suffering from an intense bout of Vietnam syndrome. Correspondingly, the deal is seen as an opportunity for the United States to draw down tensions in the region and even reach out to the Iranians, ending hostilities that stretch all the back to the infamous Mossadegh Coup of 1953. Such a move is a constructive approach, but largely undertaken for the wrong reasons. Tired of the Middle East, the United States now looks to a “Pivot to Asia” for its future in the global community, and it rightly believes that it cannot do this without a deal.
But a deal with Iran is just as likely to increase the demand for American involvement in the region as decrease it. A detente between Iran and the West threatens to free up Iran’s resources in a way which threatens America’s traditional allies: Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia. As Foreign Policy CEO and chief editor David Rothkopf expertly explained in March: “in making a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons its No. 1 national security priority, the Obama administration may be overlooking or exacerbating other problems that will haunt America and the Middle East for years to come.” While America’s allies all have a vested interest in a non-nuclear Iran, they also have a vested interest in a weak and isolated one, and the Lausanne agreement is paving the way for Iran to return to its traditional place as a powerful regional player.
This links to the other problem pertaining to the power dynamics of the Middle East should a deal emerge from the Lausanne framework: How will the United States contain Iranian influence, or otherwise reassure its allies that a deal is in their best interest?
A deal with Iran is just as likely to increase the demand for American involvement in the region as decrease it
Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the United States has relied upon the Sunni minority government in Iraq under Saddam Hussein in order to combat Iranian influence and avoid more direct involvement in the region. By backing Iraq, which has historically been much weaker than Iran, the United States could both form another friendly Sunni block with which the GCC could cooperate, and create an ally that was dependent upon continual U.S. support. It is a quintessential example of using the balance of powers towards American ends. For America and its allies it was a win win, turning two formidable military powers into opposite ends of a Newton’s cradle, sometimes tragically.
But America cannibalized what was arguably its most efficient counterweight to Iran when it decided to invade Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses. With the Iraqi government in shambles from the anti-Baathist purges, and those soldiers purged now forming the backbone of the IS insurgency running rampant throughout the region, Iran has been given given an unprecedented opportunity to expand its power within and beyond the region. An unprecedented opportunity, that is, if they can wrest themselves free from Western sanctions.
For America and its allies it was a win win, turning two formidable military powers into opposite ends of a Newton’s cradle
The radical power shifts waiting for the United States in the Middle East in the face of a detente with Iran are increasingly obvious. Even absent nuclear weapons, the potential for an arms race between Iran and a bullish regime is very real. America cannot live under the illusion that a deal with Iran will serve as a silver bullet for the tensions wracking the region, especially since its path towards disarmament requires the leverage afforded by removing sanctions. Having summarily executed the old regime, America now abandons it at its peril.
This self spun web will entangle American aspirations of reducing its presence in the Middle East in the short term. Although the form of American diplomacy can certainly take multiple forms, the region is as volatile as ever, and primed for substantial change in the coming decades. Iraq, freed of its repressive minority government, could turn towards Iran. Saudi Arabia, fearing the clout of a new Shia coalition to its north, could vamp up its support for radical Wahhabi Islamic groups. And Israel, also fearful of a growing hostile block to its east capable of aiding its domestic insurgent movements, could follow suit with threats of escalation, very much like those parroted by Benjamin Netanyahu now.
The risks are manifold.
The Middle East is riven with difficulties, and the last thing it needs is the most stable country in the region squaring up against the world’s strongest. The post Iraq world we are seeing is a textbook example of blowback from a militaristic approach to the Middle East. The ultimate priority is and should remain making the deal. After an agreement is reached, America should find a way to accommodate Iran and its invaluable geostrategic assets rather than confront it. It should encourage its allies to cooperate on common issues, such as the IS insurgency, as much as possible as well. America cannot run away from its demons after Iraq.
But what is needed now is American leadership, not American arms.