For several years I’ve argued that the Middle Eastern power most likely to be able to impose semi-stability on the region is Iran. The United States has labored at this task for decades without success. Now President Donald Trump’s bungling in northern Syria and his public expression of a desire to leave the Middle East completely have destroyed whatever credibility and influence the U.S. might have employed in the past.
In other words, our capital in the Middle East is limited. Mostly it’s composed of two elements: the threat of raw military power and the “maximum pressure” sanctions that are currently crippling Iran’s economy.
As we’ve found, military power is extremely difficult to apply judiciously in the Middle East; war usually does more to create unintended consequences than it does to solve problems.
Thus it’s time to expend the last of our capital — the lifting of the sanctions — on a deal with Iran that establishes Middle Eastern stability on the strategic tension between the region’s two sectarian forces: Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia).
Such a deal would concede to Iran hegemony over a mostly Shia swath of the Middle East from Tehran to Damascus, a sort of modern “neo-caliphate” under the influence of mullahs in Tehran. This result may not be the most desirable that we could imagine, but since we’ve lost our ability to control events in the Middle East, it’s time to acknowledge the current reality.
On one hand, this arrangement would have the unfortunate effect of leaving in power the notorious war criminal Bashar Assad, but that battle has already been lost, anyway. On the other hand, Shia Iran would have little tolerance for mostly Sunni ISIS factions in the area, nor for the power vacuums in which ISIS thrives. The destruction of ISIS would be a concession that Iran would readily grant.
The security of Israel would have to be a non-negotiable feature of such a deal. But despite Iran’s occasional “Death to Israel” rhetoric, Israel’s protection would be a minor concession for Iran, given our nation’s certain willingness to use military force to protect Israel.
And what about Iraq? After the Bush/Cheney pretense for attacking Iraq in 2003 fell apart, it was replaced by the vision of a stable, democratic Iraq aligned with the U.S. that could serve as a bulwark against Iran. As recently as in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, researcher Linda Robinson argues that it is too soon to give up on what she calls “Bagdad’s Fragile Democracy.”
But Robinson notes that Trump’s policies aren’t helping keep Iraq on our side. And his recent abandonment of the Kurds and his public disavowal of interest in the Middle East must make leaders of mostly Shiite Iraq wonder if it wouldn’t be wiser to be on good terms with Tehran than with Washington.
The best we can bargain for is tolerance for the Sunnis and Kurds who live in Iraq and Syria. But that issue is part of the larger sectarian tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a conflict in which we have no business choosing sides.
A strong Iran may not be as desirable as it is inevitable. On the other hand, Iran has the region’s longest history of inclination toward democracy, a tradition unheard of in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Iran has a large post-revolutionary population with suppressed desires for moderation and modernity that can never be realized under the “maximum pressure” sanctions.
In any case, the battle for U.S. influence in the Middle East was largely lost when we invaded Iraq in 2003. The winner was Iran. Trump’s recent actions cemented the victory. This may not be the result that we wanted, but it’s the result that we have. We could do worse and, indeed, we have. It’s time to negotiate with Iran.