The talks between Iran and the Western powers have ended but have not failed. They will reconvene next week. That in itself is a dramatic change from the past, when such talks invariably began in failure. In my book The Next Decade, I argued that the United States and Iran would move toward strategic alignment, and I think that is what we are seeing take shape. Of course, there is no guarantee that the talks will yield a settlement or that they will evolve into anything more meaningful. But the mere possibility requires us to consider three questions: Why is this happening now, what would a settlement look like, and how will it affect the region if it happens?
It is important to recognize that despite all of the other actors on the stage, this negotiation is between the United States and Iran. It is also important to understand that while this phase of the discussion is entirely focused on Iran’s nuclear development and sanctions, an eventual settlement would address U.S. and Iranian relations and how those relations affect the region. If the nuclear issue were resolved and the sanctions removed, then matters such as controlling Sunni extremists, investment in Iran and maintaining the regional balance of power would all be on the table. In solving these two outstanding problems, the prospect of a new U.S.-Iranian relationship would have to be taken seriously.
But first, there are great obstacles to overcome. One is ideology. Iran regards the United States as the Great Satan. The United States regards Iran as part of the Axis of Evil. For the Iranians, memories of a U.S.-sponsored coup in 1953 and Washington’s support for the Shah are vivid. Americans above the age of 35 cannot forget the Iranian hostage crisis, when Iranians seized some 50 U.S. Embassy employees. Iran believes the United States has violated its sovereignty; the United States believes Iran has violated basic norms of international law. Each views the other as barbaric. Add to this that the ideology of radical Islamism regards the United States as corrupt and evil, and the ideology of the United States sees Iran as brutal and repressive, and it would seem that resolution is impossible.
From the American side, there is precedent for reconciling national differences: China. When the United States reached out to China in the 1970s, Beijing was supplying weapons to the North Vietnamese, who used them against American troops. China’s rhetoric about U.S. imperialism, replete with “running dogs,” portrayed the United States as monstrous. The United States saw China, a nuclear power, as a greater threat for nuclear war than the Soviet Union, since Mao had openly stated — and seemed to mean it — that communists ought to welcome nuclear war rather than fear it. Given the extremism and brutality of the Cultural Revolution, the ideological bar seemed insurmountable.
But the strategic interests of both countries superseded ideology. They did not recognize each other, but they did need each other. The relative power of the Soviet Union had risen. There had been heavy fighting between China and the Soviet Union along the Ussuri River in 1969, and Soviet troops were heavily deployed along China’s border. The United States had begun to redeploy troops from Europe to Southeast Asia when it became clear it was losing the Vietnam War.
Each side was concerned that if the Soviet Union chose to attack China or NATO separately, it could defeat them. However, if China and the United States collaborated, no Soviet attack would be possible, lest Moscow start a two-front war it couldn’t win. It was not necessary to sign a treaty of military alliance or even mention this possibility. Simply meeting, talking and establishing diplomatic relations with China would force the Soviet Union to consider the possibility that Washington and Beijing had a tacit understanding — or that even without an understanding, an attack on one of them would trigger a response by the other. After all, if NATO or China were defeated, the Soviets would be able to overpower the other at its discretion. Therefore, by moving the relationship from total hostility to minimal accommodation, the strategic balance changed.
In looking at Iran, the most important thing to note is the difference between its rhetoric and its actions. If you listened to Iranian government officials in the past, you would think they were preparing for the global apocalypse. In truth, Iranian foreign policy has been extremely measured. Its one major war, which it fought against Iraq in the 1980s, was not initiated by Iran. It has supported third parties such as Hezbollah and Syria, sending supplies and advisers, but it has been extremely cautious in the use of its own overt power. In the early days of the Islamic republic, whenever Tehran was confronted with American interests, it would pull closer to the Soviet Union, an atheistic country making war in neighboring Afghanistan. It needed a counterweight to the United States and put ideology aside, even in its earliest, most radical days.
New Strategic Interests
Ideology is not trivial, but ultimately it is not the arbiter of foreign relations. Like all countries, the United States and Iran have strategic issues that influence their actions. Iran attempted to create an arc of influence from western Afghanistan to Beirut, the key to which was preserving and dominating the Syrian regime. The Iranians failed in Syria, where the regime exists but no longer governs much of the country. The blowback from this failure has been an upsurge in Sunni militant activity against the Shiite-dominated regime.
But the arc of influence was interrupted elsewhere, particularly Iraq, which has proved to be the major national security challenge facing Iran. Coupled with the failures in Syria, the degradation of Iraq has put Iran on the defensive when, just one year earlier, it was poised to change the balance of power in its favor.
At the same time, Iran found that its nuclear program had prompted a seriously detrimental sanctions regime. Stratfor has long argued that the Iranian nuclear program was primarily a bargaining chip to be traded for guarantees on its security and recognition of its regional power. It was meant to appear threatening, not to be threatening. This is why, for years, Iran was “only months” away from a weapon. The problem was that despite its growing power, Iran could no longer withstand the economic repercussions of the sanctions regime. In light of Syria and Iraq, the nuclear program was a serious miscalculation that produced an economic crisis. The failures in foreign policy and the subsequent economic crisis discredited the policies of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, changed the thinking of the supreme leader and ultimately led to the electoral victory of President Hassan Rouhani. The ideology may not have changed, but the strategic reality had. Rouhani for years had been worried about the stability of the regime and was thus critical of Ahmadinejad’s policies. He knew that Iran had to redefine its foreign policy.
The United States has also been changing its strategy. During the 2000s, it tried to deal with Sunni radicals through the direct use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States could not continue to commit its main force in the Islamic world when that very commitment gave other nations, such as Russia, the opportunity to maneuver without concern for U.S. military force. The United States did have a problem with al Qaeda, but it needed a new strategy for dealing with it. Syria provided a model. The United States declined to intervene unilaterally against the al Assad regime because it did not want to empower a radical Sunni government. It preferred to allow Syria’s factions to counterbalance each other such that neither side was in control.
This balance-of-power approach was the alternative to direct military commitment. The United States was not the only country concerned about Sunni radicalism. Iran, a Shiite power ultimately hostile to Sunnis, was equally concerned about jihadists. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, at times opposed Islamist radicals (in Saudi Arabia) and supported them elsewhere (in Syria or Iraq). The American relationship with Saudi Arabia, resting heavily on oil, had changed. The United States had plenty of oil now and the Saudis’ complex strategies simply no longer matched American interests. On the broadest level, a stronger Iran, aligned with the United States, would counter Sunni ambitions. It would not address the question of North Africa or other smaller issues, but it would force Saudi Arabia to reshape its policies.
The Arab Spring also was a consideration. A mainstay of Washington’s Iran policy was that at some point there would be an uprising that would overthrow the regime. The 2009 uprising, never really a threat to the regime, was seen as a rehearsal. If there was likely to be an uprising, there was no need to deal with Iran. Then the Arab Spring occurred. Many in the Obama administration misread the Arab Spring, expecting it to yield more liberal regimes. That didn’t happen. Egypt has not evolved, Syria has devolved into civil war, Bahrain has seen Saudi Arabia repress its uprising, and Libya has found itself on the brink of chaos. Not a single liberal democratic regime emerged. It became clear that there would be no uprising in Iran, and even if there were, the results would not likely benefit the United States.
A strategy of encouraging uprisings no longer worked. A strategy of large-scale intervention was unsustainable. The idea of attacking Iran was unpalatable. Even if the administration agreed with Israel and thought that the nuclear program was intended to produce a nuclear weapon, it was not clear that the program could be destroyed from the air.
Therefore, in the particular case of Iran’s nuclear program, the United States could only employ sanctions. On the broader issue of managing American interests in the Middle East, the United States had to find more options. It could not rely entirely on Saudi Arabia, which has dramatically different regional interests. It could not rely entirely on Israel, which by itself could not solve the Iranian problem militarily. These realities forced the United States to recalibrate its relationship with Iran at a time when Iran had to recalibrate its relationship with the United States.
All Things Possible
The first U.S.-Iranian discussions would obviously be on the immediate issue — the nuclear program and sanctions. There are many technical issues involved there, the most important of which is that both sides must show that they don’t need a settlement. No one negotiating anything will simply accept the first offer, not when they expect the negotiations to move on to more serious issues. Walking away from the table for 10 days gives both sides some credibility.
The real negotiations will come after the nuclear and sanctions issues are addressed. They will pertain to U.S.-Iranian relations more broadly. Each side will use the other to its advantage. The Iranians will use the United States to repair its economy, and the Americans will use the Iranians to create a balance of power with Sunni states. This will create indirect benefits for both sides. Iran’s financial woes will be an opportunity for American companies to invest. The Americans’ need for a balance of power will give Iran weight against its own enemies, even after the collapse of its strategy.
The region will of course look different but not dramatically so. The balance of power idea does not mean a rupture with Saudi Arabia or Israel. The balance of power only works if the United States maintains strong relationships on all sides. The Saudis and Israelis will not like American rebalancing. Their choices in the matter are limited, but they can take comfort from the fact that a strictly pro-Iranian policy is impossible for the United States. The American strategy with China in the 1970s was to try to become the power that balanced the Soviet Union and China. After meeting with the Chinese, Henry Kissinger went to Moscow. Thus, in terms of bilateral relationships, U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Israeli relations can stay the same. But it now creates another relationship and option for the United States. In the end, Iran is still a secondary power and the United States is the primary power. Iran will take advantage of the relationship, and the United States will manage it.
It is hard to imagine this evolution, considering what the United States and Iran have said about each other for the past 34 years. But relations among nations are not about sentiment; they are about interest. If Roosevelt could ally with Stalin, and Nixon with Mao, then it is clear that all things are possible in U.S. foreign policy. For their part, the Persians have endured for millennia, espousing many ideologies but doing what was necessary to survive and prosper. All of this may well fall apart, but there is a compelling logic to believe that it will not, and it will not be as modest a negotiation as it appears now.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article is republished with permission of Stratfor.