Sorry, Obama: A Grand Bargain with Iran Was Never Going to Happen

Obama holding his Nobel Peace Prize, 2009.

Iran's strength is one of its biggest weaknesses. As long as that's true, it won't fit in with its neighbors.

“Negotiation with America is forbidden.” With those words, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threw cold water on the hope in some circles (and fear in others) that a broader opening in relations with the United States would follow July’s nuclear deal. Officially, the Obama administration has always been skeptical that the deal will lead to reduced regional tensions in other domains—Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and so forth. Yet some reports suggest that there is a current of thought within the administration that views the deal as a kind of master key—that a better U.S.-Iranian relationship will allow coordination in new areas, opening up solutions that may have been impossible. For example, writes the New York Times’ Gardiner Harris, “Administration officials say [Secretary of State John] Kerry is hopeful that once the nuclear accord is solidified, he will be able to begin talking with the Iranians about ending their support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.” At the same time, a more vibrant economy may bring changes within Iran that make it less inclined to conflict; more broadly, a new geopolitics may emerge in which the United States will not need to be so solicitous toward its Sunni allies in the Gulf because this more powerful, less nettlesome Iran will balance their influence. There’s a whiff of this on the Iranian side, too, with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pushing for a nuclear-weapons-elimination treaty and talks among Muslim nations on Syria and Yemen.

The grand-strategic benefits of such an arrangement purport to be great. A more stable Middle East would enable the United States to focus more of its strategic energies on East Asia. Iranian gas flowing into Europe would reduce dependency on Russia, perhaps forcing Moscow toward more pacific conduct and further enabling that American rebalance to Asia. Barack Obama’s name would be written in history next to Castlereagh, Metternich, Cornwallis, as an heir to a weakened and fading empire who, through astute diplomacy, renewed it for a generation. The Pax Americana would be back. Freed from the need for constant warfare, we’d enter a new golden age, busying ourselves with prosperity and dissipation.  

That would all be very nice. Yet it rests on a misreading of what the nuclear deal entails. If Iran were being reintegrated into its region, the optimists would have a good case. Iran’s standing in the Middle East has scarcely changed. Tehran is instead stabilizing its ties to the great powers. This does have benefits, but it does not “solve” the Middle East and thus does not enable the grander transformations described above. Indeed, with Iranian power usually manifesting outside institutional channels, against existing balances and in sectarianizing patterns, it is hard to see how an expanded role for Tehran would stabilize anything.   

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl lays out one of the challenges: Hezbollah in Lebanon is crucial to Iran’s power-projection into the Levant and the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and a friendly regime in Syria is crucial to Iran’s ability to keep Hezbollah supplied. A settlement in Syria will thus require the United States to defeat the regime or to effectively ratify the Hezbollah threat. The former is unlikely at current levels of effort and would risk empowering Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group; the latter keeps Israel under the gun and is likely to increase Hezbollah’s overall power.

It’s a similar damned if you do, damned if you don’t story in Iraq. Iran’s efforts there have been crucial to keeping the Islamic State group at bay in the wake of the Iraqi army’s collapse, and Iran certainly has enough influence to insist on its own presence at any meaningful negotiation. Yet that influence has a fundamentally sectarian character, one that all but ensures continuing tension between the government in Baghdad on one side and Sunni populations and regional actors on the other. Again, regional reintegration would require accepting Iranian dominance over much of a major state, with that dominance manifesting in ways that stoke trouble nearby.