Reality Check: America Needs Iran

"Washington needs positive relations with Tehran not only to fight common foes like the Islamic State, but also to promote genuine regional security."

Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was announced last week, the Obama administration—echoing previous pledges that nuclear talks with Tehran do not presage a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain”—has assiduously reaffirmed that progress on the nuclear issue does not signal a wider diplomatic opening.  

Such a posture ignores an overwhelming strategic reality:  America’s position in the Middle East is in free fall, and the only way out is to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Washington must do this as purposefully as it realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, when it struggled to extricate America from the self-inflicted debacle of the Vietnam War and to renew its diplomatic options, for the Cold War’s last phase and beyond.  By not using nuclear diplomacy as a catalyst for broader, “Nixon to China” rapprochement with Iran, Obama and his team ensure further erosion of America’s standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally.       

U.S. engagement in the Middle East over the past quarter century is a textbook example of what Paul Kennedy famously described as “imperial overstretch”—a great power’s expansion of strategic ambitions and commitments beyond its capacity to sustain them.

In the U.S. case, trying to remake and, ultimately, subordinate the Middle East through military campaigns and other forms of coercive intervention has not just failed; it has been profoundly self-damaging to America’s strategic position.  By seeking to dominate the region—and in the process imposing missions on U.S. armed forces that not even the world’s most powerful military could accomplish, squandering vast human and material resources on a scale that not even the world’s largest economy could sustain, and eviscerating the perceived legitimacy of U.S. purposes for the vast majority of Middle Easterners—America has made itself weaker.       

To recover, Washington must embrace a new Middle East strategy—one aimed not at coercive dominance but at a reasonably stable balance of power in which major regional states check one another’s reckless impulses.  

Such a strategy requires two things.  

First, Washington needs to engage—positively and comprehensively—with all important regional actors.  Second, Washington needs to recalibrate relations with America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies—most notably, Israel and Saudi Arabia.  A robust diplomatic opening to Iran is essential to both these tasks.          

Whether American elites like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable power in today’s Middle East.  The Islamic Republic’s influence is due to its revolutionary commitment to independence and its participatory Islamist order (not despite these things).  Its influence is, therefore, rising in arenas across the region—and will continue to do so when and as Middle Eastern Muslims gain greater access to participatory politics.    

This prompts increasingly alarmist warnings from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their mouthpieces that Iranian “proxies” are “gobbling up the Middle East.”  In fact, Tehran has grown its influence by supporting unavoidable constituencies marginalized by unrepresentative power structures.  

Iran did not create Shi’a majorities in Iraq and Bahrain, or Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality; it did not invent Yemen’s Zaidi community (the Houthis’ base) or occupied Palestinians.  But Tehran has helped these constituencies organize to press their legitimate grievances—so that virtually any expansion of political participation in these venues empowers Iranian allies.    

This approach makes it impossible to circumscribe Iranian influence over time.  America must recognize that influence as an indispensable factor in regional politics. Washington needs positive relations with Tehran not only to fight common foes like the Islamic State, but also to promote genuine regional security.

To these same ends, Washington should look soberly at its allies’ regional impact.  Today, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia truly represents most of those it governs; neither can endorse more participatory politics in the region.