US President Barack Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week in the first such conversation in the 34 years since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The phone call followed tweets and public statements on both sides indicating a willingness to talk. Though far from an accommodation between the two countries, there are reasons to take this opening seriously — not only because it is occurring at such a high level, but also because there is now a geopolitical logic to these moves. Many things could go wrong, and given that this is the Middle East, the odds of failure are high. But Iran is weak and the United States is avoiding conflict, and there are worse bases for a deal.
Though the Iranians are now in a weak strategic position, they had been on the offensive since 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. They welcomed the invasion; Saddam Hussein had been a mortal enemy of Iran ever since the 1980-1989 Iran-Iraq War. The destruction of his regime was satisfying in itself, but it also opened the door to a dramatic shift in Iran’s national security situation.
Iraq was Iran’s primary threat after the collapse of the Soviet Union because it was the only direction from which an attack might come. A pro-Iranian or even neutral Iraq would guarantee Iranian national security. The American invasion created a power vacuum in Iraq that the U.S. Army could not fill. The Iranians anticipated this, supporting pro-Iranian elements among the Shia prior to 2003 and shaping them into significant militias after 2003. With the United States engaged in a war against Sunni insurgents, the Shia, already a majority, moved to fill the void.
The United States came to realize that it was threatened from two directions, and it found itself battling both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. The purpose of the surge in 2007 was to extricate itself from the war with the Sunnis and to block the Shia. It succeeded with the former to a great extent, but it was too late in the game for the latter. As the United States was withdrawing from Iraq, only the Shia (not all of them Iranian surrogates) could fill the political vacuum. Iran thus came to have nothing to fear from Iraq, and could even dominate it. This was a tremendous strategic victory for Iran, which had been defeated by Iraq in 1989.
After the Iranians made the most of having the United States, focused on the Sunnis, open the door for Iran to dominate Iraq, a more ambitious vision emerged in Tehran. With Iraq contained and the United States withdrawing from the region, Saudi Arabia emerged as Iran’s major challenger. Tehran now had the pieces in place to challenge Riyadh.
Iran was allied with Syria and had a substantial pro-Iranian force in Lebanon — namely, Hezbollah. The possibility emerged in the late 2000s of an Iranian sphere of influence extending from western Afghanistan’s Shiite communities all the way to the Mediterranean. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had fairly realistic visions of Iranian power along Saudi Arabia’s northern border, completely changing the balance of power in the region.
But while Syrian President Bashar al Assad was prepared to align himself with Iran, he initially had no interest in his country’s becoming an Iranian satellite. In fact, he was concerned at the degree of power Iran was developing. The Arab Spring and the uprising against al Assad changed this equation. Before, Syria and Iran were relative equals. Now, al Assad desperately needed Iranian support. This strengthened Tehran’s hand, since if Iran saved al Assad, he would emerge weakened and frightened, and Iranian influence would surge.
The Russians also liked the prospect of a strengthened Iran. First, they were fighting Sunnis in the northern Caucasus. They feared the strengthening of radical Sunnis anywhere, but particularly in the larger Sunni-dominated republics in Russia. Second, an Iranian sphere of influence not only would threaten Saudi Arabia, it also would compel the United States to re-engage in the region to protect Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Russians had enjoyed a relatively free hand since 2001 while the Americans remained obsessed with the Islamic world. Creating a strategic crisis for the United States thus suited Moscow’s purposes. The Russians, buffered from Iran by the Caucasus states, were not frightened by the Iranians. They were therefore prepared to join Iran in supporting the al Assad regime.
The problem was that al Assad could not impose his will on Syria. He did not fall, but he also couldn’t win. A long-term civil war emerged, and while the Iranians had influence among the Alawites, the stalemate undermined any dream of an Iranian sphere of influence reaching the Mediterranean. This became doubly true when Sunni resistance to the Shia in Iraq grew. The Syrian maneuver required a decisive and rapid defeat of the Sunni insurgents in Syria. That didn’t happen, and the ability of the Shiite regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resist the Sunnis was no longer guaranteed.
Iranian Ambitions Decline
In 2009, it had appeared extremely likely that an Iran loosely aligned with Russia would enjoy a sphere of influence north of Saudi Arabia. By 2013, this vision was shattered, and with it the more grandiose strategic vision of Ahmadinejad and his allies in Iran. This led to a re-evaluation of Iran’s strategic status — and of the value of its nuclear program.
It was Stratfor’s view that Iran had less interest in actually acquiring a nuclear weapon than in having a program to achieve one. Possessing a handful of nuclear weapons would be a worst-case scenario for Iran, as it might compel massive attacks from Israel or the United States that Iran could not counter. But having a program to develop one, and making it credible, gave the Iranians a powerful bargaining chip and diverted U.S. and Israeli attention from the growing Iranian sphere of influence. Ahmadinejad’s hope, I think, was to secure this sphere of influence, have the basis for making demands on the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and trade the nuclear program for U.S. recognition and respect for the new regional balance. Indeed, while the United States and Israel were obsessed with the Iranian bomb, the Iranians were making major strides in developing more conventional power.
Iran’s regional strategy was in shambles, and the international sanctions its nuclear program triggered began to have some significant effect. I am unable to determine whether Iran’s economic crisis derived from the sanctions or whether it derived from a combination of the global economic crisis and Iran’s own economic weakness. But in the end, the perception that the sanctions had wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy turned the nuclear program, previously useful, into a liability.
Iran found itself in a very difficult position. Internally, opposition to any accommodation with the United States was strong. But so was the sense that Ahmadinejad had brought disaster on Iran strategically and economically. For Iran, the nuclear program became increasingly irrelevant. The country was not going to become a regional power. It now had to go on the defensive, stabilize Iraq and, more important, address its domestic situation.
The U.S. Challenge
There is profound domestic opposition in the United States to dealing with the Iranian regime. Just as the Iranians still genuinely resent the 1953 coup that placed the shah on the throne, the Americans have never forgotten the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and the subsequent yearlong hostage crisis. We must now wait and see what language Iran will craft regarding the hostage crisis to reciprocate the courtesy of Obama’s acknowledging the 1953 coup.
The United States is withdrawing from the Middle East to the extent it can. Certainly, it has no interest in another ground war. It has interests in the region, however, and chief among those are avoiding the emergence of a regional hegemon that might destabilize the Middle East. The United States also learned in Iraq that simultaneously fighting Sunnis and Shia pits the United States against forces it cannot defeat without major effort. It needs a way to manage the Islamic world without being in a constant state of war.
The classic solution to this is to maintain a balance of power with minimal force based on pre-existing tensions. A weakened Iran needs support in its fight with the Sunnis. The United States is interested in ensuring that neither the Sunni nor the Shia win — in other words, in the status quo of centuries. Having Iran crumble internally therefore is not in the American interest, since it would upset the internal balance. While sanctions were of value in blocking Iranian ascendancy, in the current situation stabilizing Iran is of greater interest.
The United States cannot proceed unless the nuclear program is abandoned. Rouhani understands that, but he must have and end to sanctions and a return of Western investment to Iran in exchange. These are doable under the current circumstances. The question of Iranian support for al Assad is not really an issue; the United States does not want to see a Syrian state dominated by radical Sunnis. Neither does Iran. Tehran would like a Syria dominated by al Assad, but Iran realizes that it has played that card and lost. The choices are partition, coalition or war — neither Iran nor the United States is deeply concerned with which.
Threats to a Resolution
There are two threats to a potential resolution. The primary threat is domestic. In both countries, even talking to each other seems treasonous to some. In Iran, economic problems and exhaustion with grandiosity opens a door. In the United States right now, war is out of the question. And that paves the way to deals unthinkable a few years ago.
A second threat is outside interference. Israel comes to mind, though for Israel, the removal of the nuclear program would give them something they were unable to achieve themselves. The Israelis argued that the Iranian bomb was an existential threat to Israel. But the Israelis lack the military power to deal with it themselves, and they could not force the Americans into action. This is the best deal they can get if they actually feared an Iranian bomb. Though Israel’s influence on this negotiation with Iran will face limits with the U.S. administration, Israel will make an effort to insert itself in the process and push its own demands on what constitutes an acceptable Iranian concession.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile will be appalled at a U.S.-Iranian deal. Hostility toward Iran locked the United States into place in support of the Saudis. But the United States is now flush with oil, and Saudi attempts to block reconciliation will not meet a warm reception. The influence of Saudi Arabia in Washington has waned considerably since the Iraq war.
The Russian position will be more interesting. On the surface, the Russians have been effective in Syria. But that’s only on the surface. The al Assad regime wasn’t bombed, but it remains crippled. And the Syrian crisis revealed a reality the Russians didn’t like: If Obama had decided to attack Syria, there was nothing the Russians could have done about it. They have taken a weak hand and played it as cleverly as possible. But it is still a weak hand. The Russians would have liked having the United States bogged down containing Iran’s influence, but that isn’t going to happen, and the Russians realize that ultimately they lack the weight to make it happen. Syria was a tactical victory for them; Iran would be a strategic defeat.
The Iranian and American realities argue for a settlement. The psyche of both countries is in the balance. There is clearly resistance in both, yet it does not seem strong enough or focused enough to block it. That would seem to indicate speed rather than caution. But of course, getting it done before anyone notices isn’t possible. And so much can go wrong here that all of this could become moot. But given how the Iranians and Americans see their positions, the odds are, that something will happen. In my book, The Next Decade, I argued that in the long run Iran and the United States have aligning interests and that an informal alliance is likely in the long run. This isn’t the long run yet, and the road will be bumpy, but the logic is there.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article has been republished with permission of Stratfor.