September 10, 2007 Issue
Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative
The brewing confrontation with Iran isn’t just about nukes or neoconservative ambition. It’s about regional hegemony.
by Trita Parsi
The war drums have been beating for so long in Washington that the neocons’ sensationalist predictions about Iranian designs have become part of the background noise. Few raise their eyebrows when they hear of Vice President Cheney’s behind-the-scenes maneuverings to win approval for military strikes or of Senator Lieberman’s echoing of Israeli estimates of Tehran’s shrinking distance to the mythical nuclear point of no return, after which Iran’s ayatollahs will allegedly begin splitting atoms.
But as the calls for war have continued, the American public—and Beltway pundits—have grown increasingly numb to the continued risk of military confrontation.
The cry-wolf effect has created a false sense of security in which the likelihood of military action is erroneously judged to be decreasing due to America’s predicament in Iraq and the exodus of key neoconservatives from the administration. According to the conventional wisdom, for every neocon evicted from the White House—David Wurmser being the latest—the hand of the pro-war faction weakens and the risk for war fades. If the neoconservatives fail to drag the U.S. into war with Iran during the remainder of George W. Bush’s presidency, the reasoning goes, the next president—Republican or Democrat—will be able to address the Iranian challenge through more constructive, non-military means.
Though war with Iran is sure to make the Iraq War look like the cakewalk its advocates promised, the belief that the risk diminishes with time rests on the precarious assumption that the primary drivers are specific individuals in the neoconservative circle around this vice president.
Clearly, America would not be facing a debacle in the Middle East today had it not been for the misguided policies of these hawks. But as responsible as they are for the current situation and as dangerous as it is to underestimate their influence, there are several flaws with the assumption that the odds for confrontation with Iran will automatically diminish once the Bush presidency is over.
First, while the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates aren’t necessarily beholden to the strategic calculations of Bush’s Iraq policy, top contenders on both sides see Iran solely within a paradigm of enmity. While they may recognize that America’s interest will not be served by engaging Iran militarily, they still favor other confrontational policies that increase the risk of war. Their rhetoric indicates that they all subscribe to the narrative that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through Iran’s containment and defeat. Dialogue and negotiations are not seen as tools for finding a win-win solution. Rather, diplomacy is simply an alternative to war, with the aim of achieving the same end—the trouncing of Tehran.
None of the top contenders for their party’s nomination have spelled out a new vision for America’s involvement in the Middle East—one that creates an inclusive security architecture instead of engaging in a balance-of-power game to justify America’s military presence in the Persian Gulf on the grounds that the local giant must be balanced. On the Republican side, the top candidates echo the Bush administration’s foreign-policy thinking with regard to Iran. Rather than finding themselves out of work, many of the neocons influencing the Bush administration have been recruited by Republican presidential hopefuls to serve as foreign-policy advisers. Rudolph Giuliani has led this charge, hiring several hawks associated with the administration, including Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary and one of the most vocal proponents of American military action against Iran.
The Iran hawks are no less prominent among the Democratic hopefuls. The technocrats likely to follow any Democratic candidate into the next administration and into the bureaucracy may employ a far more sophisticated rhetoric, but would be no less confrontational. Many of them were avid supporters of the Iraq War, and some of them played a decisive role in promulgating the pre-Bush policy of sanctioning, containing, and confronting Iran.
This brings us to the second flaw. Iran and the U.S. did not suddenly get entangled in a confrontation after Sept. 11 or after President Bush included Iran on his Axis of Evil. They have slowly gravitated toward conflict since the end of the Cold War due to a brewing rivalry for pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf that existed even under the Shah. When the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971, the Iranian monarch—a staunch U.S. ally—sought to convince Washington that the security of the region should be left to regional powers who shared an interest in maintaining stability. This approach, the Shah argued, would leave the regional powers more content with American global leadership while creating a more sustainable foundation for regional security. Overextended in Vietnam, Washington had little choice but to accept the Shah’s advice.
Once the Persian Gulf was under his domination, the Shah’s primary objective was to sustain Pax Iranica by preventing the great powers from finding a pretext to re-enter the waters. Throughout the 1970s, Iran’s influence grew, as did the Shah’s ambitions. His “megalomania” was viewed with great irritation in Washington, but the annoyance never spilled over into open disagreement. After all, Iran was a critical bulwark against Soviet penetration into the Middle East. Within the context of the Cold War, Iran’s strategic utility against the Soviets far outweighed the irritation the Shah’s regional power games caused in Washington.
As the Cold War ended, however, Iran’s ambitions in the Persian Gulf ceased to be overshadowed by a larger strategic struggle. The Iranian revolution did not change Iran’s ambitions or interests in the Persian Gulf. Tehran viewed the first Gulf War as a means for the U.S. to re-establish itself in the region permanently. Throughout the 1990s, Iran repeatedly called for America’s withdrawal, using the argument put forward by the Shah—that the security of the region should be guaranteed by regional powers and not by foreign troops.
Today, America and Iran’s struggle is increasingly about pre-eminence in the Middle East rather than lofty ideas about freedom, democracy, or even stability. Ironically, the U.S. and Iran have a lot of common interest in the region. Both support the Maliki government in Baghdad and Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, for instance, whereas Washington’s Arab allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, speak of the Iraqi government as a puppet and have offered the Afghanis little help in rebuilding their country. Yet the U.S. and Iran differ on one crucial question that isn’t simply a whim of neoconservatives in Washington or radicals in Tehran: who calls the shots in the Middle East?
After more than a decade of intensely pursuing Iran’s isolation, beginning with President Clinton’s dual-containment policy, which sought to create a new order in the Middle East based on the exclusion of Iran and Iraq, the geopolitical contest for primacy in the Middle East today is significantly inhibiting the maneuverability of decision makers and rendering their ideological inclinations less consequential.
This competition is bound to climax as America’s position continues to decline and Iran continues to present itself as Washington’s chief contender. If the two countries continue on their current trajectories, particularly in the nuclear field, the face-off may occur within the next 12 months. The question is not so much if and when it will happen—but how. Historically, these shifts in power have rarely been peaceful, at least not when diplomatic activity has been virtually non-existent.
Unless a significant shift is made toward robust diplomacy—in which the two states negotiate an agreement for co-existence and a new order for the region—the clash is likely to be violent. In short, as geopolitical forces push the two toward a climax, there will either be comprehensive talks or a confrontation. Washington would be mistaken to think that containment and economic pressure can serve as a middle ground, evading both a costly military showdown and a potentially painful compromise with the mullahs.
These illusionary alternatives could potentially be pursued if the U.S.-Iranian clash was solely centered around the nuclear issue or Iranian involvement in Iraq. But in this larger strategic battle over pre-eminence in the Middle East, these policies are untenable, largely because time isn’t on America’s side. Sanctions can’t cripple Iran’s economy faster than Tehran marches toward nuclear capability, and perhaps more importantly, Washington can’t weaken Iran faster than it is being weakened in Iraq. As time passes, Iran’s position relative to the United States will likely strengthen. Indeed, Iranian leaders already refer to the U.S. as a “sunset” state and describe themselves as a “sunrise power.” Sooner or later, the containment policy will deteriorate into either talks or military action. More likely than not, the sanctions approach will increase the risk for a confrontation precisely because it renders a diplomatic opening less probable.
The recent U.S. move to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a global terrorist organization is a case in point. The decision has been presented as a step to ratchet up pressure on Iran, even though experts point out that the classification will at most have a marginal effect on the organization. The real impact of the terrorist listing—which is a tricky thing to undo—will be political, for further entrenching U.S.-Iran relations in an antagonistic framework will negatively impact future U.S. presidents’ ability to pursue diplomacy.
The U.S. and Iran face a situation not too different from the one European powers found themselves in right before the outbreak of World War I. Robust diplomacy has been all but discarded, just as it had been in 1914. Strategists subscribed to the view that the initiator of a conflict would be at such an advantage due to modern technology that mere mobilization should be considered an act of war. Historians have argued that this strategic outlook created an inherent mechanism for self-escalation toward armed conflict. By adhering to these doctrines, decision makers simply abdicated foreign policy to military strategy. Today, the U.S. has put the idea of pre-emption at the center of its National Security Directive to guide both its military decisions and its statecraft.
Add an already poisonous political atmosphere hovering over the two countries, and the dangers of accidentally slipping into war are palpable. But whereas the simplest mistake—or even inaction—can spark a conflict, diplomacy can only be achieved if deliberately and persistently pursued. Sadly, in spite of much rhetoric to the contrary, real diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran has not even been attempted yet.
The talks in Baghdad, while important, have failed to produce substantive results largely because they have mainly served as a platform to exchange insults and heighten the rhetoric. The fact of the matter is that the Baghdad channel—which is confined to Iraqi security alone and doesn’t even address the nuclear issue, Israel and Palestine, Lebanon, human rights in Iran, or the four American citizens of Iranian descent that Tehran has arrested on trumped-up charges—is too narrow and too confrontational to be successful. This limited attempt at negotiations is still taking place within the paradigm of enmity and doesn’t live up to the requirements of genuine diplomacy. In addition, designating one’s diplomatic counterpart as global terrorists in the middle of talks doesn’t enhance the chances of success.
A costly military confrontation can only be avoided by pursuing vigorous and broad diplomacy. The talks must be comprehensive not only in terms of the subjects they address but also in terms of the actors they involve. American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia have been quite apprehensive about a U.S.-Iran deal and have at times undercut such initiatives. Their fear is rooted in the notion that Washington would betray their interest in a U.S.-Iran dialogue. Israel in particular fears that all possible outcomes of a negotiation would be less optimal from its perspective than the status quo since a deal would likely involve a limited nuclear program on Iranian soil that theoretically could enable Tehran to go fully nuclear down the road.
Clearly, organizing such a summit would be a monumental task. Some of the states involved are not on speaking terms with the U.S., nor with each other. Mere attendance of such a summit would first require a significant modification of their official policies, a step that not all seem prepared to take.
But despite these difficulties, ensuring that the collapse of the current Middle East order doesn’t lead to major war is dependent on the pursuit of bold and patient diplomacy—not just on the retirement of Bush’s neocons and Ahmadinejad’s radicals. As difficult as it may be to conduct robust multilateral diplomacy in the Middle East, negotiations do have a chance of achieving a win-win for America and the region. Military confrontation, on the other hand, has only a certainty of creating a loss for all.
Trita Parsi is author of the forthcoming book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States..
September 10, 2007 Issue