What was informed by pragmatic realist thinking, however, was the Obama administration’s policy towards Iran. Contrary to what many conservative critics call the “worst deal ever signed,” it was, in fact, an exercise in power-based pragmatic diplomacy.
The 1979 Revolution and the hostage crisis created a certain mindset on the perceived evil nature of the Iranians. In fact, Iran has become a myth. This is myth is both real and constructed and, most importantly, is bipartisan. This has caused successive U.S. administrations to be more driven by “regime change” than pragmatism. If coercive diplomacy succeeds in causing the target state to make concessions that meet stated national security requirements or foreign policy objectives, certain aspects of a strategy of compellence ought to be relaxed. A foreign policy that seeks to maintain sanctions as an end in themselves fails to establish stability.
Having largely divorced itself from ideological mindset, the Obama administration’s policy shift towards Iran was based on a “balance-of-threats” concept. It was in the U.S. national interest for Iran to be denied a nuclear weapon as well as even a breakout scenario in which Iran could acquire nuclear weapons because of a sufficient stockpile of HEU in a relatively short period of time. So, the Obama administration entered negotiations that were underwritten by coercive diplomacy in order for Iran to deny the continuation of an unchecked nuclear program and subject it to an intrusive inspections regime by the IAEA. A continuous policy of compellence and regime change rhetoric coupled with the preponderance of conventional U.S. military power demonstrated in Iraq would have achieved the opposite. Ultimately, pragmatism, combined with power-based diplomacy with Iran worked.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright supported the deal precisely for that reason: “By zeroing in on the nuclear issue, the Obama administration took on the most dangerous threat posed by the Iranian regime and brought together the international community around the issue that most united it in opposition to Tehran.” So, even though the Iranians created realities on the ground by increasing their stockpile and used that as leverage, for the first time the Islamic Republic tested U.S. offers and honored their own obligations.
The US-built house of cards in the Middle East is falling apart. It is time for the US to adopt a foreign policy toward the region that is more consistent with realist principles. A key component of this new policy is to embrace an offshore balancing approach such that a new stable Middle Eastern concert might emerge based on balance of power equilibrium and a commitment by regional and outside powers not to intervene in domestic affairs. Just like the Concert of Europe would not have been possible without post-Napoleonic France, a new Middle Eastern Concert must include Iran. More than just nuclear negotiations, engagement with Iran ought to include the entire geopolitical spectrum of Middle Eastern order. The United States and Iran may have drawn a line in Syria, but are supporting the government in Iraq. Precluding Iranian or Saudi hegemony requires a pragmatic Entente with the former and strategic reassurance with the latter. The United States ought to permit Iranian military involvement if it serves U.S. Middle East stability or use regional powers to balance against from afar it if does not.
Bernd Kaussler and Glenn Hastedt teach Political Science at James Madison University and are the authors of the forthcoming book US Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East: The Realpolitik of Deceit.
Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. Wikimedia Commons/Department of State