Appreciation: I am honored to again be invited by my Iranian colleagues in New York, Professors Reza Ghorashi, Hamidah Zangeneh and Hamid Sedghi, to join this panel and discuss the geopolitics of US-Iranian relations. And, my thanks to Prof. Sedghi for reading my paper as I am teaching in Berlin and cannot be with you today. I only ask that those who dislike my message, kindly refrain from shooting the messenger.
The US-Iran nuclear confrontation finally appears close to resolution. This is because both Presidents Obama and Rouhani desire a diplomatic solution, and both countries need to move on. With such an agreement, it is possible that relations will slowly become normalized.
Of particular note—as a direct consequence—are the recent secret negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia towards a rapprochement. These were initially facilitated by Oman (e.g. see reports here, here, and here). Until very recently the Saudis had remained fiercely opposed to any US deal with Iran. However, the Saudi’s are realists, and know when it is time to adapt. Figure 1. is a photo of kisses exchanged on 22 April between ex-President Rafsanjani of Iran and King Abdullah’s ambassador to Iran, which caused quite a stir in the region. Agreements reached in these recently revealed negotiations have already significantly affected the presidential-succession crisis in Lebanon, sectarian conflicts in Iraq, and the conflict in Yemen. Next the two sides are expected to negotiate regarding their interests in the Syrian conflict.
In addition, the nature of the US-Saudi relationship is changing, transferring much more responsibility on the Kingdom and its Gulf partners for their own defense–albeit strongly supported with US weapons and logistics. This is part of the US disengagement from direct regional interventions, which will be significantly furthered by a successful US-Iran agreement (e.g., see here and here, and this report on Saudi defense buildup from Balfour at Harvard).
How are these new developments to be understood?As I have said at this panel in past years: the crux of the conflict between Washington and Tehran has never been Iran’s nuclear program per se. Let us first consider the interests of the US and then of Iran.
The USA’s Interests
For the USA, a key pillar of its global status–and its legitimacy–is its role as guarantor of international oil security. In today’s global, market-centered oil system, oil produced anywhere flows into the global oil market where it is sold, without prejudice, to whomsoever pays the going price. This market, then, is the basis of collective, oil-supply security for all countries.
However, a major vulnerability is that over half of the world’s reserves of oil are concentrated in five states around the Persian Gulf. It is easy to see that, if any outside Power dominated, or any one of these five local states controlled the production of one or more neighbors, the global oil market would be susceptible to manipulation, restrictions on access, or interruption by that state. Hence, the doctrine enunciated following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, by President Jimmy Carter states:
Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
At that time, the aim was to warn the USSR against moving south through Afghanistan into an Iran then in the throes of revolution, a move which both Tsarist Russia and the USSR had made in previous times. But, this Carter Doctrine also explains the later USA containment and eventual removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime after he attempted to annex oil-rich Kuwait. And, it also explains US opposition to Iran projecting power in the region—not to mention to a nuclear-armed Iran—and especially an Iran whose leaders long declared their hostility to the USA and Saudi Arabia.
I would stress here that, whether or not one agrees with or finds moral the underlying interests of the USA and/or Iran, that from the perspective of geopolitics, it is important to see that the interests of both are rational. While the USA has other interests in the region, its “core interests” there are in preserving global oil-market security. What, then, are the rational interests of Iran in this confrontation?
The aims of the Islamic Republic have evolved over the years since the Islamic Revolution. What remains, for any Iranian state, is an interest in projecting power in its immediate neighborhood and being a major actor across the Middle East generally. Indeed, in modern times Iran has had had an existential war with Iraq, major rivalries with Saudi Arabia, with Israel and, it is not inconceivable others might arise, such as with Turkey.
So, it is easy to imagine how these Iranian regional interests might collide with US global oil-security interests.
The USA-Iran “Nuclear” Confrontation
Under the Bush administration, negotiations went badly. As I have said previously at the Left Forum, the neo-cons were right-wing adventurists who got the USA into trouble over and above that required to simply protect the global oil market. This included excessive demands in negotiations with Iran—although, indeed, the Islamic Republic leadership too was often irresponsible and duplicitous in negotiations.
In 2003-04, faced with Bush’s intransigence and lacking leverage in negotiations, the Mullah’s took the Shah’s old nuclear program and supercharged it precisely to provoke the USA and its ally, Israel. At first this was a gambit, a chip to be bargained away. However, as negotiations dragged on, the program advanced and the possibility of actually producing nuclear weapons arose, and the crisis intensified.
Meanwhile, in 2006-07, US setbacks in Iraq led to the Iraq Study Group and rethinking US policy. Ever since, a bi-partisan consensus has supported disengagement from direct regional interventions, freeing up US forces needed elsewhere.
The Obana-Rouhani Era
Therefore, President Barak Obama focused his administration on negotiating with Iran to avoid another war, and disengage from the region—without compromising USA “core interests” in oil-market security.
His approach differs significantly from the Bush administration. For example, there was no need to demand that Tehran cannot enrich uranium in lower-purity quantities and cannot build nuclear power plants, like any other country, so long as it verifiably gives up any weapon-applicable activities.
As this one key point is coming to resolution in negotiations, the Obama administration is moving on to negotiate the fundamental issues that were driving this confrontation long before it had become “nuclearized.” That is, it has begun to negotiate assurances that any regional projections of power by Tehran should not threaten regional stability in a way that threatens global oil market stability.
Obama, in contrast to Bush, has maintained a laser focus on simply what is necessary for Washington to accomplish. In this Mr. Obama has been, in my estimation, a practitioner of a rather cold and calculating realpolitik in the Region.
The New Middle East
Washington and the EU appear close to a nuclear accord with Tehran. In itself that is a good thing. By avoiding war with Iran and, by having withdrawn from Iraq and next year from Afghanistan, Obama is also ending engagement of US forces in the region.
But, what have been the side effects of President Obama’s single-minded focus on accomplishing these two ends?
Side Effects: Consider Syria
When Arab Spring demonstrations began in Syria, Assad’s brutal repression of the democracy movement sparked a civil war. And, Obama studiously avoided assisting democratic forces, which allowed outside jihadist forces to more easily enter. To understand the choice Mr. Obama made, note that Assad’s main foreign ally is the Islamic Republic. Tehran has supplied Assad and gives military advice and assistance on the ground. Most importantly, they facilitated thousands of their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah fighters, to come, turning the tide for Assad. In all this, Obama did nothing of any significance to assist democratic forces, but, rather, kept on track with the nuclear negotiations.
Why is this?
To have become involved in Syria, supplying the rebels or otherwise, would have brought the USA into conflict with Iranian forces operating on the ground. This would have very likely made it impossible for President Rouhani to have overcome the opposition of his own right-wing elements inside Iran and proceeded with the nuclear talks as he has since coming to office. Quite simply, US assistance to Syrian democratic forces would have very likely torpedoed the nuclear negotiations. The choice, as Mr. Obama saw it, was that he had to choose between US interests in human rights and in democracy as versus US “core interests” in making a deal with Tehran to insure the free flow of oil from the region to the global market.
Similar realpolitik choices have been made regarding the new military dictatorship in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, the democracy movement in Bahrain and elsewhere. Of course, democracy in Syria and all these other states could not have been guaranteed or dictated by the USA. But the triumph of reaction has been purposefully allowed to proceed by the realpolitik Obama in the interest of what, in his view, are the USA’s “core interests”.
If you doubt my assessment, listen to his speech at the UN General Assembly in September, explaining the USA’s “core interests” in the Middle East:
1. “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.”
2. “We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.”
3. “We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends upon the region’s energy supply, and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.”
4. “We will dismantle terrorist networks … .”
5. “And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction ….”
Indeed this focus has not allowed issues of democracy and human rights in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Turkey or elsewhere to get in the way. At least President Obama is honest about his priorities. He went on to explain:
“Now, to say these are America’s core interests is not to say these are our only interests. We deeply believe it is in our interest to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous; and will continue to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity,” (ibid, Obama at UN)
Hence, “democracy” and “human rights” are “interests,” but not “core interests.”
And, so, as a US-Iran nuclear agreement and other understandings advance, USA core interests are being secured, while the anti-democratic, medieval regimes of the mullahs in Tehran and the Royals in Riyadh have begun collaborating to decide the rest.
(Note: This speech is being read today at the panel on Iran, “Is the Optimism Justified” at the 2014 Left Forum in NYC. We have organized similar panels on Iran at this conference for several years now, which have been quite popular. As for Venezuelan issues, I have not participated in any panels at the Left Forum on this topic as they have been routinely given over to Venezuelan government supporters with little or no diversity in opinion. However, on Iran, a more democratic policy has prevailed, with serious and critical scholars of Iran able to organize this panel. Tom O’D.)
On Syria, I think there’s a convergence of interests for Obama. I believe he’s completely okay with having Bashar in power (for now) because the collapse of the Syrian state will only serve to embolden the ISIS and other jihadist fighters.