The Illusion of Realignment in the Middle East
Hope springs eternal, and for analysts and diplomats working in the Middle East it runs especially deep. Just consider the illusions built up around the Arab Spring, the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, and numerous other long shots, lost causes, and assorted reveries.
The latest fantasy train to pull up at the station is the notion that the recently concluded Iran deal is going to lead the United States to some kind of strategic realignment or rebalance, with Iran now playing a more central role in Washington's relations with the region.
The chain of logic tying this latest conceit together goes something like this: Iran is a critically important country sitting at the nexus of just about every problem in the region; the nuclear deal shows you can do business with Tehran; the Iranian public is more pro-American than those of many of America's Arab friends; so let's use the Iran deal to begin to create a new relationship with Iran. After all, it is not healthy for the United States to be so dependent on its traditional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Move over Jerusalem and Riyadh - here come the mullahs.
In a galaxy far far away this kind of thinking might actually translate into something real. But right or wrong, it won't work here on Planet Earth. And here is why.
The President Doesn't Really Believe in it
U.S. President Barack Obama has sent decidedly mixed messages when it comes to the utility of engaging Iran. Yes, he believes in the power of diplomacy and the value of negotiating. Indeed, he has relentlessly and willfully pursued the agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue -- and in the view of his critics, to a fault. At the same time, almost everything he has said, before and after the deal, smacks of limited goals and of a transactional, not a transformational, approach. If he believes -- as with Cuba -- that he has started a process of engagement, it is one that he believes will pay its dividends only over time. As a self-styled Neibuhrian (find proximate solutions to insoluble problems), Obama has no illusions that Iran will change quickly, or perhaps even at all, as a result of the nuclear deal. And right now, selling the nuclear deal to a skeptical U.S. Congress demands that the president not appear naive about Iran's human rights violations, its holding of four Americans, and its behavior in the region. In the next 15 months he may well look to test Iran's readiness to cooperate on regional issues such as Syria and Iraq. But a combination of his own skepticism, the across-the-board opposition to Iran in Congress, and Iran's own need to remain aloof and detached from any putative American embrace, is likely to preclude any dramatic post-agreement moves toward Tehran.
And neither do the Mullahs
Even if the Obama administration were ready to test the realignment theory, Iran's own behavior rules it out. Whatever the motives of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in agreeing to this nuclear deal may have been, one of them was not to undermine the revolution and the hardline authoritarian nature of the state's control. On the contrary, the purpose of the nuclear deal was to consolidate the regime's position and to manage public expectations by creating a stronger economy and garnering more international legitimacy.
It is the cruelest of ironies that the very nuclear issue that has made Iran an outlier has now given the regime an opportunity to begin to end its international isolation. But there are other factors that limit how fast and far this process can go. The Supreme Leader, who has yet to endorse the agreement, has a need to placate hardliners and counter the rise of pro-negotiations elites such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The best way to do that is to keep at a distance from Washington, and perhaps even to demonstrate Iran's revolutionary credentials by toughening its image. Indeed, Iran is unlikely to accommodate U.S. interests by abandoning Syrian President Bashar al Assad, or by weakening its support for Hezbollah or for Shiite Iraqi militias. Countering the Islamic State does provide a tactical coincidence of interests with Washington. But given the Islamic State's recent setbacks in Syria, the threat from the group has yet to provide the basis for any kind of strategic alignment. Indeed, sanctions relief is likely to enable Iran to increase its support for its regional allies, not diminish it.
Buying off the Saudis and Israelis
In the Middle East, one man's floor is another's ceiling. Everything is closely related. The Iran deal has alienated America's traditional allies. But to compensate, Washington will do everything it can to reassure Israel and Saudi Arabia that it is taking their security concerns seriously. This is likely to create a chain reaction that will further minimize the odds of any kind of strategic alignment with Iran. On top of the billions of dollars in fancy military hardware the United States has already sold to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the Iran deal will generate more. The reality -- and certainly the perception -- will be that these post-agreement goodies are designed to counter Iran's growing influence. Tehran will need to react accordingly to this cordon sanitaire, and that will make it very difficult to open up the kind of political space that is the stuff of major rapprochements. Indeed, curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions might actually raise regional tensions, not lower them. Congress and all the presidential candidates will ensure that anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli rhetoric remains very high. And the administration will be under considerable pressure not to send signals that it is deserting its traditional allies as the price of the deal with Iran.
The bottom line seems clear. There is no doubt that the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement is a profound development. But its consequences are at best uncertain. To use an arms control agreement to significantly realign U.S. policy with a repressive state that has expansionist designs in a turbulent region is a very long shot. The Iranian deal is not a peace treaty that has produced an end state with a nation that plays by internationally accepted norms and conventions. There are no Iranian heroic actors in this drama, no Sadats, Rabins, or King Husseins capable of transforming U.S. political or public attitudes about the Iranian regime. Should Iran change -- should it start to show real flexibility on regional issues -- that might provide an opening for real change in the bilateral relationship. Releasing the Americans the regime is holding would be a start. Right now, I wouldn't count on it. The Middle East may be the a region of miracles, but don't expect one in the U.S.-Iranian relationship.