Nearly 50 years ago, Henry Kissinger made one of the most prolific observations of global affairs that changed the course of American foreign policy in the 20th century. During the years before becoming National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Kissinger was an astute advisor to Lyndon Johnson’s state department on Vietnam, and immersed in the secret negotiations with North Vietnam to end America’s longest war to that period. But Kissinger declared that no end to the Vietnam War could be sought through Hanoi, Moscow or distant European capitals, but through Beijing. His diplomatic instincts and the realist approach of Richard Nixon helped open a once enemy of the United States in the People’s Republic of China into a partner on issues crucial to peace in the Pacific regions. While South Vietnam ultimately fell, American foreign policy ultimately forestalled and prevented the spread of communism across the Pacific, and preserved American leadership in the region for the next 40 years.
Today, we continue to face an impossible situation of diplomatic brinksmanship in Syria, as the war drags on into its fifth year. Russia has intervened to protect the embattled Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia and its allies continue to supply their own local allies to break the Shia Crescent of Iran. The battlelines are drawn, with ISIS seemingly relegated to sit on the sidelines, leaving the Syrian war to potentially drag on long after ISIS is reduced to just another rebel group in Raqqa. As a county, the US is fixated solely on defeating ISIS, and is less concerned with the long-term stability of a region that would only grow more chaotic if we followed Ted Cruz’ suggestion to “make the sands glow” in Syria. But what if, like Kissinger, we think out of the box, and suggest that we are allied with the wrong side, and that the basis of peace in the Middle East is not in a partnership with the Arabs (leaving Egypt aside as a special case). Even after the 1979 revolution, Iran and the US are more compatible partners in global affairs than the Sultans on the Gulf. Our own intransigence, especially from the Cold War warriors, to such a rapprochement is similar to the McCarthy backlash for “losing China.”
The Mirror Image Of Each Other
Iranian and US foreign policy at face value may seem completely at odds with each other, allowing for an easy excuse, going back to the Embassy Hostage Crisis, to claim the two states have completely different visions of Middle East’s future. I would concur that Iranian foreign policy’s core is to export their revolutionary Islamic Republicanism to others around it, and support Shia-leaning regimes. However, there is a key reason why this should not be a deal breaker for a closer friendship between the two countries. Just as Iran seeks to export its own system of governance around the Islamic World, it is no different in application from the way the United States exports its own democratic-based system from country, sometimes by force if necessary. Both are natural leaders in their own right, each attempting to assert a vision of global order and values within respective spheres. This stage of international relations between the two is largely a cultural war of values rather than a strategic or military one. The Iranian Nuclear Deal, while not sealing away the traditional security aspects of our two nations’ relationship, has opened a door for dialogue directly between Washington and Tehran that has not existed since the Embassy Crisis.
The significant barrier to increased dialogue is the intense partisanship between the two ruling institutional parties. In Washington, Both parties have fought President Obama tit a tete for any ground in negotiating with Tehran in whether or not to open the door to a long closed off power in the region. Likewise, moderate factions in the Islamic Republic, largely elected by the Iranian people, have been open to dialogue with the United States, alongside some members of the Grand Ruling Council headed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Just like China, opponents on both sides feared what would happen if they gave ground or broke ideologically motivated promises to resume normalized diplomatic relations. We feel in part that it would violate the memories of the embassy hostages, or that give Iran a carte blanche to fund groups on our federal terrorist list. But diplomacy through confidence building could be more effective with a country whose strategic goals and intentions are more visible than many of the Gulf Kingdoms.
The Saudi Problem
I cannot discount the success of many of our joint ventures and partnerships with Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States. Qatar plays host to the US Fifth Fleet, and Saudi Arabia hosted our military during the Persian Gulf Crisis. However, just as we criticize Iran for supporting terrorism abroad, the Saudis have given weapons and money to fund Sunni-based terrorism abroad as well, including to groups in Afghanistan like the Haqqanni Network, Al-Qaeda, and rebels that can arguably be as dangerous as ISIS. As the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudis have led other Gulf States like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and its sponsored allies in Yemen to fund a bloc of rebels in Syria who are not accountable to any one state, including the GCC. Just as funding for the Mujahidin in Afghanistan (and the supporting network of Wahhabist religious schools) gave rise to today’s terrorists, so the funding of Yemeni and Syrian groups will be tomorrow’s new Al Qaeda.
On the issue of Gulf funding for terror and rebel groups, Michael Axworthy of the Guardian commented on the increasing gulf between Sunni and Shia groups as sectarian conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen escalate. Both sides are locked in proxy wars, stoking fears of increasing ideological conflicts that will persist long after arms are stowed in the Levant. In the past, the Gulf States have funded ideological groups to spread Wahhabist teachings, a hallmark of the political arrangement between the House of Saud and Saudi clerics. With the exception of Afghanistan, no power has presented a direct threat to any part of the Islamic World, leaving this policy unguided and globally disruptive. Iran by contrast carries out a policy of clear objectives: to avoid encirclement by the Saudis, and to support Islamist movements abroad to support its brand of Islam. There is a built in expectation with Iranian policy that is born from its own isolation, guided by an aging gerontocracy resisting a new generation of Iranians with no memory of Mossadegh, the Ajax Coup, and 1979 Revolution.
In contrast to the Saudi’s erratic foreign policy, Iran has followed a more traditional balance of power grand strategy, investing in foreign parties friendly to its interests in an effort to mold the Shia Crescent. In Syria, Iran’s contribution to the war supports known and capable state actors with records, while hardly friendly to US foreign policy interests, are known entities: President Assad’s government and Hezbollah. While the moral and political principles of American policy towards Syria has not changed markedly, the strategy has shifted to restore stability, and negotiations at this stage reflect the desire to restore the Syrian state and the removal of ISIS from its borders. Given the opaqueness of the Gulf Alliance’s rebel bloc or its aims, the Iranian bloc, consisting of the Revolutionary Guards, Quds Force, and Hezbollah, is a more attractive investment in our future long-term strategy in the region. Just as the door to Hanoi was through Beijing rather than Moscow, the route to achieving a peace with Assad is through Tehran.
Willful Ignorance Courts Disaster
Due to the destabilization of Iraq and diminished US presence in the region, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be the principal power dynamic affecting the region’s geopolitics. The entrance of Russia into the fray in October of 2015 and its continuing entreaties to Tehran will polarize the region as we remain steadfast behind Saudi Arabia. But is a deepening polarization of the region, especially as the Syrian Civil War enters its fifth year, in the best interests of US foreign policy? Washington’s aim in international leadership has been to affect global influence on events while maintaining a flexible response to threats and opportunities, a legacy of the Kennedy and Nixon years. Based on these assumptions, we need to reject the establishment’s argument that engaging with Iran is detrimental to our national security, and is driven by deep emotional fears imbedded in US policy thinking rather than the sound logic of diplomatic raison d’etat. We must move deliberately to avoid Iran drifting into Russia’s geopolitical orbit reducing our geopolitical options even further, and strengthening our adversaries influence in Eurasia and the Middle East.
A policy of disregarding conversations with your enemies is not smart foreign policy. To assert such a stance contradicts the necessity of conducting balanced diplomacy, ensuring your enemies have no recourse but to address their national interests in a more confrontational manner. While certainly Iran’s support of listed terror groups is against US national interest, forcing them into a Russo-Iranian axis, would hurt US policymakers on issues like Syria and the future of the post-Arab Spring Middle East. With Turkey becoming increasingly embroiled in its internal conflict with the Kurds and Egypt’s weak presence regionally, our alternative choices for friends is increasingly shrinking. We have to look beyond Syria, and beyond this Cold War Middle East that is disintegrating at the foundations. That future should include a more normalized relationship with Tehran, for which the seeds are already being planted. Letting those seeds die, we are risking “losing Iran” in an intense period of instability for US foreign policy.