Editor's note: In the first part of this essay, Edward P. Joseph described the competing schools of thought on Washington's current policies on Iran. He then dissected some of the contradictions that challenge the case for a radical reversal of policy. He continues in part two.
- ‘Iran does not pose a serious threat to the United States’ and ‘Iran can play an active role in the Middle East’
A pillar in the case for wholesale engagement is that Iran does not pose a serious threat to the United States. Despite its missile advances, its proxies and its facility with asymmetrical warfare, it is argued that the regime’s conventional forces are antiquated compared to those of the United States and its allies in the region. Engagement advocates also maintain that Iran is no longer much of a terrorist concern, particularly compared to the hydra-like, decentralized Sunni jihadist threat, which gets inspiration from a host of Gulf actors, notably Saudi Arabia.
Not only does Iran lack the tools to threaten the United States, say advocates for engagement, but its regional activities are grounded in the understandable aim of “maximizing Iran’s security interests in a deeply hostile environment.” For example, Iran’s trans-shipment of missiles to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, whose arsenal now bristles with tens of thousands of missiles, is said to be “Iran’s main strategic deterrent against Israel.”
Beyond opening up useful military and political channels with Iran, engagement advocates now envision a wholesale reorientation of U.S. policy. Instead of trying to contain Iran, advocates say the United States should embrace “a new regional order” that recognizes Iran’s “legitimate interests in developments in the Arab world.” The principles of this new order should be “non-aggression” and “non-interference” in one another’s internal affairs. Advocates cite proposals by Rouhani for the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, among other initiatives.
This revisionist appeal comes at the very moment when Iran’s regional agenda is drawing increased criticism at home and defiant protests abroad. Among other examples, Iraqi protesters, most of them Shiites, burned down the Iranian consulates in Basra and Najaf. The instincts of the protesters, who are furious about Iranian meddling in Iraq, are correct. They stand as a rebuke to the Orwellian use of the terms “non-aggression” and “non-interference” by the Iranian regime. Iran’s regional policy is manifestly a parade of aggressive interference, driven by Tehran’s bid to project offensive power in the region. In short, Iran is the chief source of its own supposed security threats.
The proof lies in comparison with Turkey. Virtually identical in population, Turkey and Iran are both non-Arab, Islamic countries grounded in cultures, languages and civilizations that date back millennia. Their relations with Riyadh are tense. Each rankles the Saudis (and allied Sunni states) with claims to leadership over and protection of significant portions of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Both Iran and Turkey vigorously back the Palestinian cause and volubly assail Israel. And while Turkey is a treaty ally of the United States, and Iran an American adversary, Turkey’s president does not hesitate to defy American wishes, as happened with the recent purchase of a Russian missile-defense system against the express demands of Washington.
Yet despite this host of similarities, only Iran perceives the need for a strategic deterrent against Israel. Despite all its similarities to Iran, and despite living in the same volatile neighborhood, Turkey does not mobilize against a possible Israeli strike. The reasons are obvious and go well beyond Turkey's membership in NATO: Turkey does not vow to annihilate Israel, it has no nuclear program, and it does not arm Hezbollah or Hamas with missiles. It follows that the only plausible reason that Tehran, alone, needs to “deter” the Israelis is because of the menace Iran poses to Israel, not vice-versa.
There is a similar, unmistakable contrast between Turkey and Iran’s relations with their shared nemesis, Saudi Arabia. To Riyadh’s irritation, Turkey ostentatiously joins with Qatar in backing the Muslim Brotherhood around the region. Doha and Ankara take opposite sides from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the escalating conflict in Libya. In 2018, Ankara exploited its possession of key evidence in the gruesome Khashoggi affair to inflict severe damage on Riyadh’s emerging leader, Mohammed bin Salman. Despite the bitter rivalry and open tensions, the notion of an assault by either Turkey or Saudi Arabia on the other is as remote as the Iranian threat to the Saudis is real.
Does Iran nevertheless face a serious military threat from Saudi Arabia? Last September, Iran devastated two Saudi oil installations with an audacious attack. Despite all the advanced weaponry the Saudis have received from the United States over the years, the Saudis cowered. Not only does Riyadh seem to lack the will to strike Iran, its efforts in Yemen suggest that it also lacks the capability. The Saudis have vastly outspent and outgunned the Iranians in the catastrophic proxy-civil war, to little avail.
It's true that the Saudis hold demeaning views towards Shiites. Riyadh continues to back the spread of Wahhabism, an Islamist strain linked to jihad. Bellicose remarks by Bin Salman preceded by one month a 2017 terrorist attack in Tehran by ISIS adherents that killed 17 Iranians. Saudi arrogance opened an unnecessary dispute with Qatar, aggravated the civil war in Yemen and resulted in the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister.
But there is little evidence that the bumbling Saudis represent a threat comparable to Iran. In Syria, Iran has provided the longest, most steadfast support to the regime of Bashar al Assad. Along with Russia, Tehran shares significant responsibility for the nearly half-million Syrians who have perished, and the 12 million more who are displaced.
The casualties that Iran has helped inflict in Syria dwarf that of any modern conflict in the Middle East, except for that between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. The claims that Saudi hostility creates legitimate fears for Iran in Iraq are equally implausible. It would be principally up to Baghdad, not Tehran, to raise such concerns. But unlike Tehran, Baghdad strives for peace with both capitals. As noted, Iraqi Shiites -- the very community that Tehran claims it is protecting -- have risen in protest. The intensity of these protests is all the more striking given the relatively tame anti-American protests in the wake of the Soleimani assassination, which also took out a revered Iraqi militia leader.
Finally, it is hard to conjure up how Iraq will again be a serious threat to Iran. Its arch-nemesis, Saddam Hussein, is long gone. Iraq today is safely under the control of Iraqi Shia, who are an absolute majority in the country. Under the American post-invasion architecture, Shiite political predominance in Iraq is virtually codified. The fact that following each election, Washington has tacitly agreed with Tehran as to which Shiite figure will occupy that position should have extinguished any residual anxiety in Tehran about its neighbor.
Washington should build on the Iraq experience, however tentative, to open channels of communication. Likewise, Washington should encourage, not discourage, countries like the United Arab Emirates, Oman and others to speak with Iran. Iran’s economic isolation does not depend on its political isolation, which can only make the regime more paranoid. The prospects for new negotiations -- the optimal outcome -- are enhanced with the regime’s regional and international contacts.
In short, containment and communication can proceed in tandem. There is no need to recklessly embrace Iran in a brave new regional order. First, there is no ‘regional order’ in the Middle East for Iran to be excluded from. The last decade has seen the region lurch from dictatorship to democratic revolution to conflict, caliphate and civil war.
Second, Iran offers no affirmative vision or political model to replace the current regional disorder. There is no need for pretentious terms like “revolutionary power” or “revisionist power” for Iran. It is not a power to begin with. It is a so-called resistance state that has defined itself in opposition to the United States. This was clear in Iran’s reaction to the Soleimani strike. Whereas most nationalist leaders would have proclaimed their determination to fulfill the national vision, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian leaders vowed to expel the United States from the Middle East.
Third, Iran is not a source of order. While the United States under the past two administrations has tried to reduce its involvement, willingly ceding influence to Russia, Iran has consistently sewn discord, contributing a positive role only in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. In crisis-addled Lebanon, Iran’s decades-long sponsorship of Hezbollah denies the fragile Lebanese government the monopoly on force – a sine qua non of a sovereign state.
Indeed, Lebanon offers Iran an opportunity to behave as a responsible actor. Last June, the International Criminal Court issued indictments of two senior Hezbollah commanders for culpability in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The two main figures, among four named in the indictment, have refused to cooperate. Iran could demonstrate its bona fides by using its influence over Hezbollah to have the indicted agree to face justice in the Hague.
Absent concrete steps like this, it is hard to see any grounds to embrace Iran as a responsible actor in the Middle East. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is often mocked for suggesting that the overall goal of Administration policy on Iran is for it “to become a normal state.” What makes the aspiration risible is precisely that it is so detached from today’s reality of a noxious, destabilizing, repressive regime in Tehran. However, there is at least an empirical record (under the Obama administration) showing that external pressure can modify Iranian behavior. The notion that pretending Iran is a normal country will eventually make it so is at least as unrealistic as trying to contain it, and certainly more dangerous.
- ‘The JCPOA was merely arms control’ and “Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program”’
Defending the JCPOA against the charge that it has done nothing to rein in Iranian behaviour, engagement advocates insist that the JCPOA was merely a form of “arms control.” Had the Trump administration not withdrawn from this arms-control deal, the argument goes, the parties would have built confidence over time, and the JCPOA would have been followed by agreements on regional activities and missiles.
The notion that the JCPOA is a form of traditional arms control is misleading and distorts the true challenge of controlling Iran’s nuclear ambitions. For starters, Iran continues to maintain that it has never sought a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA includes this assertion in the preface. As a matter of semantics, the nuclear deal cannot be “arms control” when one party does not acknowledge its intention of producing arms.
This leads to the larger, inescapable question: If Iran is nonetheless engaged in a good-faith arms-control endeavor, then why does it deny the obvious and maintain a provable falsehood about its intentions? Iran’s dissembling goes straight to the questions and concerns that Democrats and Republicans alike have raised about the nuclear deal since its inception -- and that persist despite Tehran’s general compliance with its terms. Does Iran intend to eventually give up its nuclear program or is it simply biding its time until key restrictions in the JCPOA expire? If its security agenda is benign, why does it need nuclear weapons at all?
The questions serve as their own rebuttal to the blithe assumption that the nuclear deal would be followed by subsidiary agreements on Iran’s regional activities and its missile program. These spheres are not severable, discrete areas of concern like trade; they are inextricably linked to the overarching pursuit of nuclear weapons. The primary purpose of Iran’s nuclear program is precisely to free up Tehran so that it can undertake malign activities in the region, without fear of reprisal. In short, to make Iran immune from conventional deterrence. (That’s one reason why it doesn’t acknowledge having such a program, to avoid having to explain its purpose.) Surrendering those activities would strip the nuclear program of its meaning. To suggest that Iran would discard the very activities that nuclear weapons would protect is contrary to everything we know about the regime.
It may be that the terms of the JCPOA were the best that could be reasonably obtained given the circumstances. But pretending that it resolved the nuclear question or paved the way for Iran to give up its problematic activities is heroically optimistic. Characterizing the deal as arms control is dangerous sophistry. Already in January 2016, Rouhani asserted that the JCPOA conferred unspecified nuclear rights on Iran.
The JCPOA was an interim measure to stop a rogue state from going nuclear. It did not turn Iran into the Soviet Union, Russia, China or any other nuclear state whose interests and prerogatives the United States must weigh and respect. Indeed, it was Iran’s rogue character -- manifested by its regional activities -- that made its nuclear program such an urgent priority.
In the face of maximum pressure, Iran has three broad nuclear options: rush to produce a nuclear weapon and thereby achieve conventional deterrence; continue to edge away from compliance with the JCPOA, shortening the time needed to produce a nuclear weapon; or enter into the negotiations that the administration has offered. As Zarif reiterated at the Munich Security Conference, Iran conditions multilateral talks on initial sanctions relief from the United States, while the administration wants bilateral talks without preconditions.
At the same time, why would any government re-enter negotiations related to an agreement it was respecting? Whatever the basis for its decision, the administration seems to forget that it was Washington, not Tehran, that unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA. Other than the example of the flimsy, failing deal with North Korea that Trump struck with Kim Jong Un, the administration has given Iran little assurance that this time it will respect the terms of a grand bargain.
The important question is not why Iran won’t come to the table, but why it doesn’t leave it altogether. Why does Tehran remain bound by the JCPOA at all? It is puzzling that an agreement that supposedly was unpopular among hardliners at the time, arduous to negotiate, and disappointing in the results it has delivered for Iran, would find such steadfast support. Clearly, the JCPOA satisfies some core aims of the regime, at least compared to the alternative. Identifying what those are would shed light on Tehran’s true intentions.
Edward Joseph is senior fellow and adjunct professor in Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has served in senior positions in US and international missions in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and in the Balkans. The views expressed are the author's own.