U.S. policy toward Iran right now is overly disjointed and unnecessarily ad hoc, a casualty of President Obama’s election-year, prevent-defense approach to foreign affairs. Almost all of the discourse on Iran has focused on the utility of a military strike on its nuclear facilities and the effectiveness of the economic sanctions currently in place. While this debate is surely important, it has the effect of narrowing the range of options for dealing with Iran to tangible actions that can be taken directly against the country. There is zero talk of direct, quid pro quo engagement with Iran (although the fact that this option has not entered the public discourse does not preclude the possibility that it is being pursued through backchannels). Briefly, I would like to highlight some of the other levers that the U.S. possesses to deal with Iran, and the potential benefits of employing them into a single, unified “Iran policy.”
For starters, Iran has interests across the Middle East that the U.S. ought to be, and in some cases is, diametrically opposed to. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is a longtime ally of Iran and has been propped up by Iranian arms shipments and expertise, delivered on civilian flights from Tehran to Damascus (Another consequence of leaving Iraq without an air force is that, in the words of a US official, “Maliki couldn’t enforce a ban on Iranian overflights in Iraqi airspace even if he really wanted to [. . .] because Iraq doesn’t have an air force and U.S. air assets have all left the country.” –Foreign Policy). There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that Tehran views Assad’s Alawite regime as a key ally in the region and a gateway to its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. The battle in Syria is quickly shaping up to be a regional struggle for influence between Iran and Turkey as well as the Arab States. However, discussions about whether to take more direct involvement in Syria have largely focused on the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) civilians from crimes committed by their own government. Proposals to establish safe zones for the various rebel groups that constitute the Free Syrian Army, or to arm these groups directly, have been evaluated only in the context of the struggle for Syria and not in the broader strategic environment of making life more difficult for Iran.
Iraq is another country whose struggles are largely viewed in isolation when, in fact, they have broader regional security implications. Iran has ingratiated itself with a number of Iraq’s Shi’a politicians and although it does not exercise direct control over them, Tehran’s interests often guide Iraqi decision-making. Iran would love for its Iraqi neighbor to remain a weak, dysfunctional, Shi’a-dominated state with tattered oil infrastructure and widespread national disunity. It has opposed any government that threatens this status quo, such as a governing coalition led by Ayad Allawi’s secular Iraqiya bloc, or one led by the more technocratic Shi’a politician Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s ISCI party. However, in Iraq as well the United States has not challenged Iranian influence, and has indeed acquiesced to it. President Obama now looks set to appoint Brett McGurk, a former NSC official with close ties to Maliki, as the new Ambassador to Iraq. This is just the latest of a number of occasions that the United States has chosen the path of least resistance against Iran in Iraq: for years, it failed to confront Iranian-backed Shi’a militias; when it finally did, many high-level operators used their political connections and nominal diplomatic status to escape jail. Then, in 2010, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition lost the parliamentary elections to Allawi’s Iraqiya, but through extraconstitutional maneuvering was able to form a larger bloc to perpetuate its rule. The US looked the other way the whole time and did not seriously commit itself to enforcing the rule of law, let alone supporting another candidate. Finally, the withdrawal of American troops after 2011 and the lack of a serious push to keep a residual force in Iraq played right into Iran’s hands. Although the full story has yet to be told, during this time American decisionmakers divorced Iraq from the larger regional picture.
Although the US has been less involved in these final two arenas, Iran also has serious interests in Bahrain, where it is stoking an uprising of the island’s majority-Shi’a population against its Sunni rulers; and Lebanon, where its proxy Hezbollah stands ready to retaliate against Israel should Netanyahu decide to launch a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Its Quds Force agents have also popped up in Yemen, a disconcerting fact given that Yemen is quickly replacing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia as a lawless haven for al-Qaeda.
In considering how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, however, these regional interests have rarely been treated as the opportunities for leverage which they clearly are. From Iran’s perspective, all of these interests are intimately connected to the Khameni regime’s fundamental goal of achieving Iranian national security. More importantly, they highlight the fact that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is only one part of that larger goal. In order to determine whether Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon can be stopped by nonmilitary means, it seems logical to conduct negotiations with Iran that encompass all of Iran’s national security interests rather than discrete, individual ones. If the U.S. were to engage in a strategic dialogue with Iran, either publicly or through backchannels [FN: This is not a ridiculous proposal, given that Qassam Suleimani, the spymaster in charge of Iran's elite Quds Force, reached out to General David Petraeus seeking such a dialogue in 2008] it could begin to understand each side’s priorities and perhaps even engage in some horse-trading. Mutual diplomatic assurances, backed up with some form of verification — for example, that the U.S. would not intervene in Syria or Iraq if Iran agrees to inspections and does not weaponize its nuclear program — could become the norm for doing business with Iran.
But this can only be achieved by putting the many disparate strands of Iran’s national security apparatus on the negotiating table. Tehran will not give up something for nothing, but if it can retain a certain amount of retaliatory capacity, deterrence power, and therefore assured security, it may be more flexible regarding what form that capacity takes. Given the current Administration’s positions — Obama seems indifferent to Iranian attempts to spread its tentacles across the Middle East at will, provided that it doesn’t open a Pandora’s Box by going nuclear — it is certainly worth seeing whether Iran would also be comfortable with that accommodation/understanding/grand bargain before we make any game-changing decisions.
Such an approach would strike many as cynical — if the US treats Iran’s interests in the region as bargaining chips, it will almost certainly come down on the “wrong side” of some issues, particularly those such as Syria where there are profound humanitarian concerns. For others, the approach is off-putting because its very premise suggests American impotence — in other words, the idea that we must make some compromises because we cannot confront Iran at all corners of the globe is repugnant to many. These are both valid criticisms. But the current approach — increasingly militarized confrontation with Iran, across disparate areas of interest and without consideration for Iran’s overall security needs — entails risks of its own. Chief among them is that it raises the (in)security dilemma and increases the chances that one provocation or miscalculation will set off a destructive regional war that leaves both sides worse-off. A secondary risk is that the American position will not effectively deter Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, which could spark a regional race to obtain nuclear weapons as well (although Zachary Keck has argued persuasively that further proliferation is hardly guaranteed should the Iranians get the bomb). If President Obama wants to assure that the Middle East does not literally or metaphorically blow up during the 2012 election campaign, pursuing a strategic dialogue with Iran may be the least bad path to achieving that goal. Of course, the unfortunate irony is that electoral politics may be the exact reason why he chooses not to.