Thursday, July 16, 2015

Detente With Iran and the Possibility of a More Coherent Middle East Policy

by Michael Dorf

Politics will play a large role in shaping the pending debate in Congress over whether to pass a resolution rejecting the executive agreement with Iran. Even before they had an opportunity to review the agreement, hawkish and otherwise merely anti-Obama Republicans were busy denouncing it as a bad deal or even as appeasement with Obama cast as Chamberlain and Iran cast as Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, those pro-Israel Democrats who (mistakenly) think that Jewish American voters take their cue from PM Netanyahu and AIPAC are at best lukewarm, not wanting to appear soft on Iran but also not wanting to undercut a Democratic president.

As a substantive matter, the coming debate will likely focus on nitty-gritty issues, such as whether the inspections regime will be effective. Those issues are important and, subject matter aside, I am sympathetic to the notion that Congress should play a role in approving or disapproving major international agreements. But I want to suggest here that the real issues have little to do with the precise details of the agreement. Instead, the real promise of the nuclear deal is the hope it may offer for a more coherent U.S. policy regarding the Middle East and ultimately, towards peace.

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, U.S. foreign policy regarding Iran has been at best schizoid. On the one hand, Iran is viewed as an implacable foe for its admittedly awful conduct: hostage-taking; sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas (despite their Sunni roots) in Palestine and Israel; support for the Assad regime in Syria; and domestic persecution of its own people based on religion, sex, sexual orientation, and political viewpoint. Meanwhile, however, the U.S. and Iran have found themselves as awkward allies in fighting the common enemy of Sunni extremists, including: the Taliban in Afghanistan; al Q'aeda; and of late ISIS. In addition, various U.S. interventions--especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq--have had the foreseeable (and foreseen) consequence of strengthening Iran's influence in the region.

Various commentators have noted the delicacy of U.S. air power being used against ISIS in parallel but not exactly in coordination with Syrian, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-backed forces on the ground. Yet this is nothing new. For all of its faults--and there are many--the Iranian regime is generally rational. In many respects it is more responsive to domestic public opinion than are the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships that the U.S. regards as allies (except when we don't). It's true that elected moderates in Iran do not hold ultimate power in what is ultimately a theocracy. But the elected officials do exercise some power and they generally push for policies that are consistent with U.S. interests. Accordingly, coordination with the Iranians is sometimes rightly seen as the lesser evil.

My hope for the nuclear agreement is that it opens up a new possibility for American foreign policy in the Middle East. The tendency of Republican hawks to view the region and the world in Manichean terms will not go away in a presidential election season, although past Republican presidents (including both Bushes) have sometimes been more pragmatic. Democrats tend to prefer diplomacy to force but even they have tended to view Middle Eastern politics on a kind of affinity scale that goes roughly like this:

Israel: BFF
Saudi Arabia, Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Jordan: Friends
Palestinian Authority/PLO: Frenemy
Iran and Iranian-backed regimes and groups (other than Iraq): Enemy
al Q'aeda, ISIS, and other Sunni extremists: The Devil

Under this approach, in any conflict, U.S. policy is to support the side that is higher up on the affinity scale. Thus, we oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria even though doing so means coordinating with Iran, but we support the Saudi-backed Sunni forces against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, at least for now. If al Q'aeda or ISIS fills the opening created by the chaos, then we might start bombing them instead.

There is a certain rationality to this approach, I suppose, but it strikes me as myopic. In the short term, force used against the side we dislike more in any particular local conflict may degrade that side, but in the long run, the policy tends to widen the broader conflicts and cause immense suffering.

By signing the nuclear deal with Iran even over the objections of bff Israel and some of the Sunni friends, the U.S. could be signaling a new approach, in which the goal is not simply to support whichever side we like better or dislike less but to support negotiated resolution of conflicts. To be sure, that has long been a goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, both with respect to the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Sunni/Shia conflict, but our direct and indirect miltary actions have tended to undermine the efficacy of negotiations.

Of course it remains possible that Netanyahu and Obama's U.S. critics are right--that Iran will use the resources generated by the lifting of sanctions to continue its harmful policies and find ways to circumvent the nuclear restrictions. But many of the details of the agreement appear designed to make the latter difficult and, as so often happens in negotiations, Secretaries Kerry and Zarif have forged a working relationship that opens the possibility of addressing other issues.


Shag from Brookline said...

Those who peruse the Originalism Blog are aware that Michael ("I'm not Rappaport") Ramsey thinks the deal is "probably" unconstitutional. I'm not suggesting that this thread should address this but this may serve as a line/talking point for " ... hawkish and otherwise merely anti-Obama Republicans ... " especially with the 2016 presidential campaigns. Considering the wars that followed WWII, shouldn't diplomacy be given a chance with the Greater Middle East tinder box? It should be kept in mind that England, France, Germany, Russia and China are part of this deal. This is international diplomacy. Nuclear will not go away. Here's an opportunity to manage, control the nuclear future, perhaps even at some point assisting in resolving some climate issues.

David Ricardo said...

Like almost every other issue in America today politics has consumed rational discussion on this issue, as noted by Mr. Dorf that the criticism commenced in advance of knowledge of the specifics of the agreement.

But the most notable thing that is not noted by any of the national media or most reporters and commentators is the total and complete lack of any proposed alternative by the critics of the arrangement. Supposedly the Chaney's and their ilk would have the U. S. invade Iran but such a proposal is so unrealistic in terms of both politics and likelihood of success that even the warhawks cannot mention it.

Joe said...

affinity scale ... that's great ... not sure about the PLO status, but ... kudos

Joseph said...

I would be infinitely more convinced if nuclear weapons were not in the mix. I'm of the persuasion that nuclear proliferation needs to be a non-starter. And the impression is that that is not the position taken by the White House. Obviously the administration would prefer Iran not to have nuclear weapons but reporting indicates the real goal of the negotiations is what you spell out here (which, again, absent nuclear weapons would be both fine and dandy). However, if our victory entails little more than a show of support for negotiated resolution of conflicts, that may not be worth any more than the paper its printed on. Yet, as you say, that has long been a goal of our foreign policy anyway. Reasonable minds differ on whether "our direct and indirect miltary actions have tended to undermine the efficacy of negotiations" although I don't think military actions would be helpful in dealing with Iran.

Unknown said...

Could someone explain to me why U.S. politicians suck up to Israel? I'm genuinely curious.

Shag from Brookline said...

So, Joseph S., can we put you in the ranks of " ... the total and complete lack of any proposed alternative by the critics of the arrangement"?

Joe said...

"Could someone explain to me why U.S. politicians suck up to Israel? I'm genuinely curious."

Religious beliefs in this country is a significant issue there. It also is in various ways "European" in nature, so there is a cultural connection too.

Also, Israel is however flawed a U.S. ally in a region of some importance which has few of them. Who else would the U.S. throw in with? We suck up to the Saudis for oil and their leadership leaves even less to be desired (e.g., sucking up to 9/11 terrorists).

Unknown said...

Jews were 2% of the US electorate in 2012, yet politicians seen to fall all over themselves to suck up to Israel, Jewish people, Jewish lobbying groups, etc. Why is this so?

Unknown said...

Seem. Not seen

Joseph said...


The criticism that critics of a proposed policy/law/agreement must have a detailed alternative plan is too often used to silence people rather than engage in honest discussion. It is entirely reasonable for critics to criticize those in power even if they lack the expertise, let alone position of authority, to offer a counter-proposal.

I've expressed the position I would use and hope to see in negotiations that does not appear to be the position adopted by the Administration. Maybe my hard-line position on nuclear proliferation is unrealistic (and perhaps we're simply destined to have nuclear weapons used again), but I still think we push in that direction as hard as possible which I don't see happening.

There is the matter of economic sanctions and I don't know their usefulness has been already exhausted. Again, for me it's about going all-out (short of war) to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons.

I can only speak in the broadest terms - just as Prof Dorf is limited - and I can't speak to an entire negotiation strategy with a flowchart of how I would deal with every situation that arose in the course of me running the negotiations. I also do not think there is anything noble or enlightened in accepting what those in power are doing simply because one lacks the expertise or authority to contradict. I am speaking from my humble position with only the same bits of news that you also are privy to. Also note that I am responding primarily to Prof. Dorf's reasoning to support the deal rather than the agreement itself.

Joe said...

The fact Israel is "European" in various ways (e.g., having a parliamentary government familiar to us and twenty percent emigrants from the Americas and Europe) was cited as well as its importance as a regional ally.

And, "religious beliefs" includes Christians that are sympathetic since there is an affinity between Judeo-Christian groups and some segment that understand Israel as important for the "end of days" (certain fundamentalist Christians).

If "genuinely interested," can Luke Smith tell me how the 2% number changes things there?

Unknown said...

I look at it more from an electoral perspective. Sure, some people sympathize with Israel, and it's an ally. But shouldn't politicians, self serving as they are, be sucking up to larger parts of the electorate?

Unknown said...

I just don't think many people vote based on how much politicians suck up to Israel.

Shag from Brookline said...

Joseph S., I thought that you were addressing your criticism of the deal rather than perhaps only questioning Prof. Dorf's reasoning in support of the deal. I have read and reread your two comments, noting doubts on your part. We all have doubts, especially with nuclear concerns going back to 1945 with the A-Bomb test and then dropping two of them in Japan. I doubt that we can go back to pre-nuclear days other than via a nuclear holocaust, leaving few behind. Those nations with the nukes are needed to minimize proliferation without actually using them. My first vote was in 1952. I've had a lot of doubts with all the wars since WWII under both Democrat and Republican Administrations. Government does not always work well as demonstrated by some if not all of these wars. There will be debates in Congress and public discussions. That's good. But then there's the political dysfunction that continues in a world that seems to get more complex. This deal was not pulled together overnight and involved other nations as I noted in an earlier comment. Opposition to it has been automatic partisanship to a great extent. Will the deal, if not undone, work out as set forth? That takes time as with past major deals like those referenced by Pre. Obama in his announcement. For political reasons some may not want it to work well (in the manner of Obamacare criticilsms) as that might be beneficial to Obama's legacy and his party's future. (Recall the criticisms of Social Security, etc, for half a century for the very reason that the Democratic Party benefitted therefrom.) Reasonable minds may differ. Alternatives have to be considered. I'm not in a position of knowledge, training and experience to weigh the deal and various alternatives to it. That's what we have representative government for. But I don't have to have expertise to know that the Greater Middle East is a tinder box. Add to this the 2016 presidential campaigns and watch out for the sparks.

Joe said...

"electoral perspective"

The reasons I offered makes Israel attractive from that angle too.

For instance, Christian conservatives is a key base of the Republican Party.

They are "sucking" up (you like that word I see) to various groups. The religious, cultural, ally in a major region where esp. since 9/11 that is a major concern in this country etc. reasons all make it disproportionately something for politicians to be concerned about.

I'm unsure why it's so complicated. You seem to be confused because there are so few Jews in this country, as if that alone settles things.

Unknown said...

That clears up some of it for me. One last question: The U.S. does things for Israel, but do we get a return on that investment? Does Israel help us in exchange for the aid we provide to them?

Shag from Brookline said...

I'm confident that Joe will respond to Luke's :

"Does Israel help us in exchange for the aid we provide to them?"

I would suggest looking at this on a comparative basis as America has provided aid over the years to many nations, some - perhaps too many - that are undemocratic. [Saudi Arabia comes to mind with its links to Osama Bin Laden and special treatment for Saudis in America following 9/11.]

Joe said...

"Does Israel help us in exchange for the aid we provide to them?"

The "help" here would be depend on what we are talking about. It is an ally and does "help us" in this regard. It's a mixed bag and one can easily argue that we "suck up" too much. But, again, it isn't surprising that pols do.

Shag from Brookline said...

I earlier this afternoon 97/17/15) watched a re-run "Charlie Rose" program from last night. A segment featured Sen Tim Kaine (D-VA) on the deal and the process of review by Congress, in particular the Senate where he serves on the Comm. on Foreign policy. Kaine was one of the prime movers in the legislation that provides for this review. The episode is available via the Internet by Googling. The 60-day review period by Congress should be interesting with the testimony of witnesses both pro and con.