Ghosts of the Recent Past

The recent international disagreements over Iran’s nuclear advances and related economic sanctions signal an all-time low in Iran’s relationship with the West. There is currently widespread support in Israel and in some more conservative sectors of the U.S. policy-making community for an air strike to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program and it would not be entirely surprising (though very short-sighted of the Israeli authorities) if an attack occurs before this article comes into print. As the U.S. government decides how to address this high-tension scenario, there seems to be little room or will in Washington to approach the Iranian issue in the constructive manner outlined by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett in their “Grand Bargain” proposalThe United States must acknowledge that increasingly coercive sanctions and preemptive strike rhetoric towards Iran represent a poorly developed contingency plan to rectify the American-Israeli failure to “manage” Iran in the aftermath of the Iraq War. The demise of the Hussein regime and the U.S. handing over of power to Shia factions profoundly altered the regional balance of power, propelling Iran to the status of regional power, a position it had not been able to assume under Saddam Hussein’s watch. The invasion of Iraq unwittingly weakened America’s power and reputation in the Middle East, strengthened Iran’s regional influence and intensified Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In order to prevent the disintegration of Iraq into civil war and the horrific violence of a potential Israel-Iran conflict, the United States now must actively engage with Tehran with an aim of a normalized relationship.

The invasion of Iraq seriously damaged the United States’ ability to employ soft power in influencing the geopolitics of the Middle East. More specifically, involvement in Iraq distracted the United States from the Middle East peace process while further cementing a reputation for American militarism in the region. To many in the Middle East, the United States came to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq, parallel to Israel in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. U.S. Middle East analyst and negotiator Aaron David Miller succinctly illustrates the impact of the Iraq War on the U.S. mediation of the Arab-Israeli negotiations by highlighting the United States’ neglect of the 2003 Road Map: “With the focus now on Iraq, no one wanted any initiative that might drain time, energy, or political capital away from that enterprise….at no point did anyone…believe that advancing the Arab-Israeli issue might actually help in the president’s war on terror and his goals in Iraq.”[1] Looking at the broader context, it is also clear that the shift in U.S. priorities away from the peace process was detrimental to its involvement with the Arab world. By neglecting the peace process, the United States forfeited much of its leverage with Arab nations that could have been used to mend the power vacuum in Middle Eastern politics left by the Iraq invasion. In other words, as the Iraq invasion put a halt to any advances in the peace process, the perceived American neglect of the Palestinian plight only intensified the overall Arab discontent with the United States’ occupation of Iraq and its increased militarization of the region. Moreover, once the initial success of Operation Iraqi Freedom waned and the United States became stuck in a quagmire of increasing sectarian violence and suicide terrorist actions, it essentially lost its status as an unchallenged superpower and with that its ability to act as a mediator in the region. As per Miller’s argument, “the second Iraq campaign has left America weakened in a region that respects power, strength, and above all success,” as it demoted the United States from a superpower with “unique capabilities” to one of many small states embroiled “in the passions, hatreds, and humiliations” of Middle Eastern politics.[2]

The Iraq War’s most debilitating and direct impact on U.S. strategic standing in the Middle East was the disruption of the pre-war regional balance of power. The removal of Saddam Hussein from power redefined the region’s political and security order. With Hussein in power, Iraq was a key player in Middle Eastern politics, providing a check, alongside Saudi Arabia, to the hegemonic aspirations of the Shi’a-majority Iran. With the overthrow of the Ba’athists in Iraq and the creation of a democratic government under Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, “the Bush administration eliminated two of the Iranian regime’s most deadly enemies (the Taliban and Saddam Hussein),” leaving Iran at ease to pursue its anti-U.S. agenda and seek to influence the rise of friendly regimes in the two fledgling democracies.[3] Additionally, the regional power vacuum left by Hussein’s overthrow prompted the emergence of a Shi’a-Sunni anti-U.S. partnership between Syria and Iran. Despite high levels of mutual distrust, the two nations saw their policies converge in key areas such as opposition to Western intervention and support for terrorist groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. While this latest development plays down the sectarian divide, it is harmful to U.S. policies in the region, as it strengthens Iran’s political clout, and increases the operation capacity of the terrorist groups the United States seeks to eradicate. These trends have pushed Iran to a higher position in the struggle for regional hegemony, radically changing the balance of power in the Middle East. The responses of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to Iran’s rising influence has, in turn, increased the region’s sectarian competition.

The political reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan offered the United States a potential opportunity for constructive engagement with Iran, as the geopolitical situation provided incentives for U.S. and Iranian officials to work together. Though an analogy with the U.S.-U.S.S.R. negotiations over the future of post-War Germany might be misleading, the two cases are analogous in terms of their importance to the future political and security stability of their respective regions. The historic rivalry between Iran and Iraq means that any successful state building project in Iraq requires at least Iran’s implicit consent. Given Iraq’s historic disregard and opposition to Iran’s national interests and territorial integrity, Iran will work to ensure that a Shi’a, pro-Iranian regime remains in power. It would be naïve of the United States to expect that Iran would act any differently. Just as the U.S. has actively interfered in the domestic politics of its southern neighbor, Mexico, over the last two centuries, Iran would like to exert influence on the politics of its Western neighbor, Iraq. Iran’s foreign policy toward Iraq may be “antithetical to U.S. interests, but the two countries do share common objectives.”[4] Cooperation between the two countries after the deposition of the Taliban in 2002 and the talks on the future of Iraq in 2007 have created a precedent for regional cooperation. As per Flynt and Hillary M. Leverett’s overarching “Grand Bargain” argument, if the Obama administration is serious about Middle Eastern diplomatic engagement, the Iraq War may have created the potential for the one policy that might help restore some of the U.S. strategic standing in the Arab world despite all of its previous blunders: reengaging Tehran in the rebuilding of a perhaps not fully democratic, but certainly more peaceful Middle East.[5]

However, instead of the potential path of constructive cooperation outlined above, the past two years have only witnessed further deterioration in relations between the United States and Iran. In response to being categorized as part of the “Axis of Evil” and having seen the United States’ invade two of its neighbors, Iran has continued to strengthen its nuclear program. Iran’s drive to achieve independence in uranium enrichment production can be viewed as a logical move by Iranian authorities to articulate the country’s drive for regional assertion in a post-Saddam Hussein Middle East. Similarly, Iran’s recent threats to block the Strait of Hormuz represent an expression of its strengthened regional influence. The strong diplomatic actions taken by the U.S. and is allies seem to be self-defeating attempts to place Iran back in check. Constructive negotiations over the Iran’s nuclear program require United States officials to adapt to the new shift in the balance of power in the Middle East and to interpret the outcome of the Iraq War in a manner that few in Washington are willing to accept.

Recognizing this shift in the balance of power and the way it impinges on the future of Iraq and Afghanistan offers a possible way to begin constructive engagement with Tehran. The 2007 talks between the United States and Iran over Iraq’s political stability show that, the United States can engage Tehran responsibly and constructively by acknowledging Iran’s regional importance. In fact, the talks opened the way for improvements in the Iraqi security situation: Iranian-sponsored militias such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s were ready to initiate cooperation talks with the Iraqi Government and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and Iran seemed keen on contributing its share to Iraqi stability by joining the U.S. and the Iraqi Government in a “trilateral security mechanism.”[6] In this context, it was the failure on the part of the US to disentangle the Iraq stability talks from the Iranian nuclear impasse that lead to a breakdown in cooperation between the two countries.

Perhaps the best way forward would be to attempt once again to bring Iran to the negotiating table on Iraqi and Afghan stability. Iran has demonstrated its desire to participate in the Afghan future by recently meeting with the Pakistani and Afghan authorities in Islamabad, so it may be the time for the United States to take Tehran up on its promises.[7] Unless the United States agrees to serious engagement with the Islamic Republic, the relationship will remain lacking. Especially as the situation in Iraq seems to be improving, it is essential that Iran be urged and incentivized to help ensure that after the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, the country will not disintegrate into a new sectarian bloodbath. For U.S. policy-makers, approaching Tehran constructively also means making an effort to assess the state of political power play within the Iranian regime. The nuclear stalemate will need to be frozen and sidelined for enough time to allow for positive contact between Iran and the U.S. on the future of Afghanistan and Iraq. Ultimately, If Flynt and Hillary Leverett rightly believe that restructuring the Iran-U.S. relationship requires a “Grand Bargain,” insuring the Middle East against a calamitous open-ended conflict may only require a modestly sized deal.


[1] A. D. Miller, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (New York: Bantam Dell, 2008), 350.
[2] Miller, The Much Too Promised Land, 366.
[3] R. Khalidi, Sowing Crisis: the Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 229. ; R. Spencer, “Anger as Iran Tries to Broker Shia Coalition to Rule Iraq, The Daily Telegraph, April 1, 2012, accessed May 3, 2011, LexisNexis Academic, 22.
[4] M. M. Milani, “Iran’s Policy Towards Afghanistan,” The Middle East Journal60:2 (2006): 255, accessed May 7, 2011, JSTOR database.
[5] F. Leverett, & H. M. Leverett, “The Grand Bargain” Washington Monthly, October 1, 2008, accessed May 3, 2011, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2008/0808.leverett.html.
[6]“Iran, US Talk on Iraq: Now What?, ” The Christian Science Monitor, accessed February 23, 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0529/p08s01-comv.html.
[7] Richard Leiby, “At Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan Summit, a Show of Unity.” Washington Post, February 17, 2012, accessed February 22, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/at-pakistan-afghan-iran-summit-a-show-of-unity/2012/02/17/gIQA8I4eJR_story.html.

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