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.