'Rolling' Iran

US President Barack Obama speaks to US troops at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, December 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO
US President Barack Obama speaks to US troops at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, December 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The investigative journalist and scholar Gareth Porter has painted a troubling picture of the Obama administration's line of thinking about the suspended nuclear negotiations with Iran. As he puts it, "the evidence indicates that the administration feels that it has no incentives to reach an agreement with Iran, because it is getting most of what it wants already under the status quo." He offers a persuasive argument for the proposition that the Obama administration will not make the minimal concessions needed to secure a nuclear accord with Iran. Porter's analysis leaves us with two questions. First, will the American strategy of "rolling over" the negotiations indefinitely work in terms of the administration's self-defined conception of America interests? Second, does "success" as measured by Washington conform to either the United States', or the region's, actual long-term interests?

As to the former, the unstated but crucial suppositions of the Obama people are that it will be able to maintain the current stringent sanctions regime in place indefinitely while the Iranians hold in suspension their nuclear activities. On close examination, both look dubious. The world is not a static field wherein Americans can experiment with strategies while everyone else remains fixed in position. That intellectual bias has long distorted American diplomacy. In this case, others parties are unlikely to observe the sanctions stipulations for years to come even as it becomes increasingly evident that it is American foot-dragging that is impeding a settlement of the issue. Heavy energy importers like China and India in particular will be disinclined to pay a price just to satisfy the requirements of an American grand strategy for the region with which they do not agree. The ice sheet that has frozen external support for the Iranian economy already has begun to break up; that is probably a unidirectional process.

Iran for its part cannot be expected to allow itself to be passively led down the primrose path by Uncle Sam from now until January 2017. Even leaving aside the dynamics of Tehran's internal politics, acceding to American manipulation will grate on Iranian pride. It could decide simply to leave the NPT and clear the path toward weapons development or resume programs it has suspended. More likely, it will do two other things: play upon the widening divisions in the international community on sanctions; and make itself disagreeable on other issues where it has influence.

Porter correctly points out that the Obama people are in the process of devaluing the importance of Iran's good behavior on these other issues, e.g. ISIL, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Sunni-Shi'ite fault line. Now that ISIL's momentum appears to have been broken, that view is gaining currency. This despite the political turbulence that still wracks the region, despite the continuing decline in American influence, despite the lack of progress in achieving any of the United States' stated objectives. So why Washington's complacency and self-satisfaction? After all, it still must struggle with intractable realities represented by the following: an ISIL that will be a formidable force as far ahead as the eye can see; the attendant growing menace of terrorist acts; a Baghdad government that may no longer be endangered but whose writ runs over only a segment of the country; unresolved Arab-Kurd tensions; an estranged Turkey which under an increasingly audacious Erdogan is working both sides of the street; Assad ensconced in Damascus at once enemy and ally vis a vis ISIL; the marginalization of pro-Western democratic forces throughout the region; a Yemen in chaos that is less pliable to American demands; and, of course, the spiraling downward of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Yet Washington somehow seems satisfied with all this and sees no incentive to reach an accommodation with Iran

How do we explain this odd logic? There are two underlying bases for it. The first is that no core American interests are at stake in the Middle East and never have been. In other words, perpetuation of the current disorder does not endanger American security and prosperity. ISIL or any other violent jihadist group has neither the means nor intention of striking the United States. That, of course, is the great myth that has fired the "war on terror" and which no one dare admit. A weak Iraq has no practical consequences for United States other than embarrassing the promoters and enablers of the invasion who seem quite able to surmount any embarrassment. A Syria in protracted civil war similarly is in itself no threat. Erdogan's dangerous game and grandiose ambitions are a more serious matter. Obama's people, though, seem to be coping with it by resorting to their habitual tactic of sublimation. In short, they are avoiding facing up to the harsh reality since they have not a clue as what to do about it. As to the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war within Islam, its intensity and potential implications never have been fully appreciated in Washington. Hence, they do not see how a nuclear accord with Iran could be a critical stepping stone toward easing these tensions.

The implications for thinking among the House of Saud are correspondingly slighted. The Saudi leaders' dedication to eliminating the clerical regime in Tehran is underestimated and the tangled worries in Riyadh about the external threat, the legitimacy of their own rule, and the challenge from the Salafists they cannot control are not the subject of any comprehensive American policy. We treat the Saudis on a piecemeal, issue-by-issue basis. That approach is now producing meager results on specific issues like ISIL; it may also put off a day of reckoning that could further shake the region.

How about oil as the compelling American interest in the Middle East? It certainly has been since the 1930s. That has begun to change, though. Official Washington is riding a wave of optimism as the foreseeable energy independence of the United States could give it a freer hand in the region. Unimpeded access to Gulf oil, in particular, would lose much of its cogency. The indirect economic effects of a supply disruption that produces recession in Japan, Europe and China is discounted. Obama's strategists haven't gotten that far.

The other explanation for Washington's insouciance about a Middle East in strife is Israel. From the vantage point of the Netanyahu government (and probably that of any successor), the status quo is satisfactory. Iran's nuclear potential is frozen -- and that is their main security concern. ISIL fighting Assad indefinitely suits them fine. An enfeebled Iraq also is welcome. Turkey's Ottoman ambitions are of no concern since they never will materialize and ISIL, despite Turkish aiding and abetting, is contained. And they can finish the job of burying Palestinian hopes for an independent state while Washington is busy chasing around the region trying to keep the lid on various simmering crises. Whither Jerusalem goes, so goeth Washington?

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