“I found myself wondering why we cannot regard another country, in this case Iran, as…one more country which we would regard as neither friend or foe, with whom we are prepared to deal on a day-to-day basis, neither idealizing it nor running it down, keeping to ourselves…our views about domestic political institutions and practices, and interesting ourselves only in those aspects of its official behavior which touch our interests—maintaining, in other words, a relationship with it of mutual respect and courtesy, but distant.”
— George F. Kennan, March 8, 1998, The Kennan Diaries, Frank Costligiola (ed.), New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014, page 662
Last week’s nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran is the most transformative development in relations between the two nations in decades. But the diplomatic road ahead for the two countries remains uncertain, fraught with difficulties and potential pitfalls. Even triumphant readings of the recent nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran have ignored the elephant in the room. That elephant is the fact that, with or without the talks (and short of a catastrophic regional war or a highly unlikely diplomatic coming-together), Iran will eventually become a nuclear power—and that there is little the United States, Israel, or any other country on Earth can do about it. Instead of trying in vain to prevent a nuclear Iran, the United States and its allies must recognize that, in the case of Iran, national interest increasingly fails to justify further enmity—and that the costs of potential hostilities are simply too high. Sometimes the best way to deal with an enemy is to make a friend.
Deep down every specialist of the Middle East with a grounding in history knows that in dealing with Iran there are only a handful of options, and that all but one or two of them are likely to produce constructive results. The others are likely to produce little more than continued violence and instability in an already troubled region, and will do nothing to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear goals. It is therefore mystifying as to why the United States and Israel have used rhetoric that will be impossible to back up without catastrophic consequences, and which will inflame an already difficult situation. In terms of the United States’s general treatment of Iran, it would seem that the options are fourfold. First, the United States could keep up its economic sanctions in an attempt to generate Iranian compliance under threat of further destabilizing the nation's economy. The problem with this sort of approach—beyond the very real violence it does to civilians—is that it will do nothing to derail Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact signals the exact sort of hostility that continues to justify the desire for and pursuit of such weapons in Iranian eyes. Some Americans think that because sanctions worked in Libya (over a period of more than two decades and before a NATO air campaign), they will also work in Iran. But Gadaffi’s Libya and present-day Iran are two fundamentally different cases. Whereas Libya is a flat analog to Afghanistan, consisting of a number of mostly disunified tribes with a territorial boundary drawn around them, Iran—historical Persia—is a proud civilization with antecedents that date back to before the time of the Ancient Greeks and Israelites. Iran is more like pre-WWII Japan in the sense that its people are unlikely to knuckle under to the pressure of external sanctions and embargoes. Rather, it is quite possible that they will unify, radicalize, and eventually fight. At the very least, continued U.S. sanctions will push Iran closer to Russia. Iran’s relative social stability, its considerable natural resources, and its potential for strengthened economic ties with Russia and China will allow it to safely endure any sanctions imposed by the West.
A second option for the United States is to attack Iran outright. Over the past half-decade, some American and Israeli leaders have talked openly about pursuing this course of action. Doing so, however, would embroil the United States in a war with a nation with more than twice the population of Iraq, almost four times its land area, a far more varied and difficult terrain, and a much more capable military. Considering how its military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone to date, U.S. leadership should probably err on the side of nonmilitary options vis-à-vis Iran first. Attacking Iran directly would only destabilize the wider region in a way that could potentially spell the eventual end of Israel—and bankrupt the United States in the process.
The third option is for the United States to contrive some way to divide and/or isolate Iran, the world’s dominant Shiite Muslim nation, from the rest of the (mostly Sunni) Islamic world. However, such a divide and conquer component to a grand strategy primarily focused on economic sanctions would be completely obvious to the great majority of the world’s Muslims. Moreover, the very real and menacing conflict between Sunni and Shia in the greater Muslim world that threatens to escalate into a regional conflagration constitutes a further elephant in the room of U.S. strategic planning. Such a strategy would also run afoul of the inconvenient truth that Iranian-backed forces are currently shouldering a large portion of the ground war against ISIS in Western Iraq, and are proving to be valuable assets there. Divide and conquer strategies—using mutual hatreds to play enemies off each other—is a dirty and tricky game that can easily blow up in the faces of those who initiate them (see the civil war in Ukraine).
This leaves only the fourth and most realistically promising approach to the situation: the United States could try to find common ground with Iran and bury the hatchet. After all, it is in the national interest of the United States to be on good terms with regional powers and soon-to-be nuclear states, and there is a slight chance that positive relations may actually preclude the latter. Without overstating things, Iran is now thedominant regional power of Southwest Asia—and it was the United States’ removal of Iraq as a secular counterbalance that elevated Iran to this status, or at least helped cement its claim. Moreover, the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle when India, Israel, and Pakistan developed bombs of their own, and there is nothing the United States can do to reverse the process. Finally, in 2001, Iran allowed the United States passage through Iranian air space in order to launch the latter’s invasion of Afghanistan, and it is time we acknowledged this good faith accommodation with renewed talks about the general security of the region.
What, then, are the reasons for not relaxing tensions with Iran? Hysterical and propagandistic rhetoric about how Iran is simply waiting for an opportunity to attack Israel abounds, yet common sense dictates that an attack with nuclear weapons would be fatal to both nations. But in order to believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would even attempt to use an atomic bomb in a first strike against Israel, one has to assume that Iranian leadership is either stupid or suicidal—that an attack would bring no consequences or that a fatal retaliation would somehow be worth the cost.
To be sure, Iran is potentially dangerous, but its leadership isn’t stupid, insane, irrational, or suicidal. Quite the contrary: they are crafty and calculating masters in the arts of negotiation and deception. They regard nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against invasion, a lesson the United States’ overly interventionist policies taught them. The calculus is simple: if you possess or are close to possessing nuclear weapons, you get negotiations; if you don’t have them, you get invaded. The fact that diplomats from the United States are even talking to their Iranian counterparts underscores how close U.S. leadership believes Iran is to having a bomb and how little there is that can be done about it. From an Iranian perspective, the decision to develop a bomb is actually quite sensible—in the short term at least. It falls to U.S. diplomats, then, to convince them otherwise.
History should tell us that Iranian leadership is a master of the long-term regional chess game that requires thinking two, three, and even four moves ahead. At the same time, U.S. (and Israeli) leadership tends to overreact like amateurs to Iran’s individual moves and outward appearances that are designed to rattle us. Every time we overreact to provocative rhetoric, the domestic popularity of Iranian politicians goes up (for a while, even a tin-eared leader like Ahmadinejad was able to play the part of Iranian boogeyman to good political effect). It seems probable that every sane Iranian knows the Holocaust happened, and even more likely that they all know what would happen if Iran ever attacked Israel. And every Iranian leader certainly knows what would happen if they ever instigated an attack against Israel (Israel probably has upwards of 200 nuclear weapons, to say nothing of the United States’ own atomic arsenal).
If anything, the history of U.S. policy in the region since World War II strongly suggests that the more it has attempted to impose its will on the region, the worse the situation gets as its opponents become more radical and determined. The Islamic Revolution that began in Iran in 1979 was in part blowback from heavy-handed, short-sighted U.S. policies, as is the rise of the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, and now the revival of Iranian power. As with so many problems in the region, the best solution may actually be to pull back in an effort to ease tensions. Just as domestic discontent in the Eastern Bloc preceded the fall of the Soviet Union, change in Iran will have to come from the inside. The United States must be able to recognize it when it comes, however. Iranian President Rouhani may or may not be a Gorbachev-like conciliator, but we must take the chance that he is.
If justification for an Iranian bomb grows out of fear of invasion (and the strong yet vague element of national pride), then the solution may lie in the opposite direction. If the United States, Israel, and Pakistan have stronger leadership and clearer diplomatic vision, they should normalize relations with Iran and guarantee Iranian security, thereby alleviating the need for nuclear weapons.
Normalizing relations with Iran would allow for two possibilities. First, and at the very least, it would put the United States on better terms with a newly rising power in Southwest Asia, reducing the likelihood that hostilities will emerge due to misunderstandings even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons. Second, as a friend in good faith, the United States would be in a stronger position to persuade Iran not to develop the bomb in the first place. After all, friends acting as evenhanded brokers can talk friends out of a risky course of action more easily than enemies can. And in a relationship bounded by friendship, nuclear weapons would be unnecessary.To date, President Obama’s most notable foreign policy success has been the normalization of relations with Cuba. If we can bury the hatchet with the Castro brothers, we can certainly do so with Iran.
Of course even if Iran possessing nuclear weapons poses little danger to Israel (much less the United States), and even if relations with Iran were greatly improved, there would be a far greater danger that a nuclear Iran could trigger a regional atomic arms race. Simply put, if Iran gets the bomb, it is more likely that Sunni states like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will want bombs of their own. Although this could conceivably produce a more stable state of affairs—one could plausibly argue that the state of Mutual Assured Destruction during the Cold War helped to prevent a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union—such stability would be predicated on the assumption of cooler heads prevailing in the region, which hardly seems like a safe bet. The more fingers on the nuclear button, the greater the chance that someone will eventually push it.
In the 1980s, George F. Kennan came to regard nuclear weapons as a far greater enemy than any temporal human regime. That said, a weapon is oftentimes the most reliable insurance policy in a dangerous neighborhood. The way countries, regimes, and statesmen perceive nuclear weapons seems to depend on where they stand. It is encouraging to see an interim nuclear deal in place, President Obama reasserting national sovereignty in U.S. foreign policy despite the desires of the current Israeli administration, and a U.S. Senate majority that has demonstrated a desire to conduct a foreign policy of its own. But the nuclear genie isout of the bottle. Although this destructive technology can be managed through vigorous international efforts and—hopefully— controlled, it will never go away. Just as the use of Persian war elephants—a superweapon of their day—by Persian emperor Darius III against the armies of Alexander the Great at Gaugamela in 331 BCE, deep in Iran’s cultural past, changed the nature of war, the building of the atomic bomb cannot be undone. The challenge now becomes one of diplomacy, the difficulty figuring out how to live with each new nation that acquires nuclear weapons. If these obstacles are successfully negotiated, the current agreement will at the very least buy time to sustain the trajectory toward improving relations in a troubled region.
We can only hope our diplomatic wisdom is up to the challenge.