Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cautioned the U.S. against teaming up with Iran over confronting ISIS, fearing it could translate to Washington granting Iran concessions on its nuclear program. Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, seconded Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, telling Bloomberg News, “An American-Iranian alliance against ISIL, as long as Iran pursues nuclear weapons, is perceived as far more dangerous” than the jihadist offensive. Technically we could ally with the Iranians then since they have no inclination to make nukes (they just want to, like Japan, have the steps in place for a geopolitical worse case scenario—i.e. breakout capability) but throwing our hat in the Iraq ring is very problematic. The U.S. can’t be seen as being the Shi’ite’s airforce as former General David Petraeus put it and the U.S. would surely face blowback from striking ISIS. Luckily for us we don’t have to intervene at all in Iraq’s disaster.

For Barry Posen, MIT professor and advocate of a U.S. foreign policy of restraint, there’s no need to take the fight to ISIS and he recommends Washington “wait for the Sunni population’s alliance of convenience with the jihadis to fall apart.” The defenses of Shi’ite Iraq can be shored up before then to repel any ISIS invasion but nothing more. We need only bide our time until ISIS unavoidably alieniates its populace and is supplanted by the Ba’athist remnant and other moderate Sunnis. Once that happens, the U.S. can convene with Iraq’s neighbors and Iraqi leaders to find out if this Humpty Dumpty can be reassembled or if the Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds would be happier in their three independent pieces. Apart from such helpful arbitration, there is little else the U.S. can contribute. It is mainly the local actors who will be putting the lid on ISIS and repairing Iraq. The Obama administration is already hip to this reality but likely has mixed feelings about it.

As happy as the administration is not to become entangled in another bloody Middle Eastern misadventure, letting the affected countries handle the crisis comes at the cost of being able to keep the region dependent on U.S. stewardship. President Obama is committed to reviving the Nixon doctrine where our allies shoulder their portion of the security burden but doing so is risky. It might give them ideas that they can take care of their own affairs and one day boot us from the region, which would be great because the U.S. should pull out anyway. Not to mention, Netanyahu’s concern about the U.S. cooperating with Iran resulting in nuclear concessions applies equally to the Arab Gulf nations. An Iran that’s on friendlier terms with its neighbors will face no pressure from them to check its uranium enrichment. This means the whole campaign against Iran collapses and the U.S. has to contend with Tehran sprinting towards BRICS status instead of an American controlled ascent.

Between defeating ISIS and calming the regional waters enough for the U.S. to pivot to the balmy Pacific, Washington has no choice but to permit Iran to gain more geopolitical sway. But there’s a silver lining for the empire. Just because Iran becomes buddies with its neighbors doesn’t mean the U.S. must. As it so happens, the US can still support a final deal because a strengthened Iran would be a bonanza for the Military Industrial Complex. We’d still have sufficient differences with Iran where we could continue to paint it as a Big Bad (and one on the nuclear threshold at that) to justify Washington’s annual sky-high military spending. This is the reason why it’s unlikely that the U.S. and Iran will build on the good will generated by a final deal and fully reconcile. Although it could easily go the way of restored diplomatic ties, there is historical precedence for the U.S. government taking the low road.

Sheldon Richman explains the motivation of the George H.W. Bush administration for shunning rapprochement, which he found by reading Gareth Porter’s Manufactured Crisis:

“But Porter also provides ample evidence that the main reason for the about-face was fear at the CIA and Pentagon that their budgets and staffs would be slashed with the end of the Cold War. The “CIA had a very large institutional interest at stake in treating Iran as a new, high-priority threat to US interests…” Porter writes. “The CIA leadership had begun the search for substitutes for the Soviet threat as early as 1988.”

The two nations were so close too. Bush had promised in his inaugural address that if Iran helped free U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon, it would ‘be long remembered” and “goodwill begets goodwill.” Iran kept its end of the bargain and America’s goodwill gave birth to… nothing. Then the politics of empire happened. A prime opportunity for leaving America with one less enemy was sunk because of the insatiable appetite of the defense establishment for gobbling up U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Keeping the Middle East House Divided Against Itself

With a month to go until the deadline, Iran and P5+1 have started to draft the comprehensive agreement. They should have begun drawing it up last month but was held up by both sides telling the other to get real. “We hadn’t seen enough realism, quite frankly, on the table,” was State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s explanation when no progress was made at the previous round. She’s right about realism being in short supply but the fault for that lies with us. Here’s Alireza Nader summing up what currently passes for realism in Washington:

“The Iranian negotiators may be presenting their maximalist demands while hoping to achieve something below that threshold—if not 9,000 centrifuges, then perhaps 4,500. But if this is not their intention, then they better get real… Washington will strive to achieve the best deal for U.S. and allied interests. Iran may not like that; after all, Khamenei may want to preserve most of Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. But his regime is simply in no position to make such maximalist demands. Iran has to lower its expectations if it wants a deal.”

Actually Tehran is in such a position to demand that it be able to operate all of its centrifuges (and increase their number) because nothing that Iran has ever done in the nuclear field is in contravention of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett explain, the NPT “does not prohibit signatories from studying nuclear weapons designs, or researching neutron initiators, or even conducting experiments on high-explosives of the sort that could be used in a bomb.” “Iranian efforts to develop a “nuclear weapons capability”, they continue, “may make American and Israeli elites uncomfortable. But it is not a violation of the NPT or any other legal obligation that the Islamic Republic has undertaken.” Further, the Leveretts remind us that former IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei thinks it is “kosher” for NPT signatories to possess a nuclear weapons capability.

So if Iran hasn’t breached any of its international commitments why are these negotiations going on at all? Knowing this, Washington isn’t just being unrealistic; it’s being downright delusional in pretending that they have cause to curb Iran’s enrichment potential. But although Iran can therefore dispense with diplomacy, it is willing to indulge the U.S. because they prefer collaborating with the established nuclear fuel producers to provision their expanded future program. On that note, Daryl Kimball has a much, much better realist proposal:

“The comprehensive agreement could allow for appropriate increases in Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity in the late stages of the deal. Such adjustments could be conditioned on Iran providing sufficient information to the IAEA to show that any past experiments with possible military dimensions have been discontinued and demonstrating that it cannot obtain foreign nuclear fuel supplies for the new nuclear power reactors that it builds. As researchers from Princeton University propose in a forthcoming article, it would be in Iran’s interest to replace its less efficient IR-1 machines with a smaller number of more-efficient IR-2M centrifuges, holding total operating SWU capacity constant, and to continue research and development and even stockpile components for more advanced centrifuges but not assemble them until there is a demonstrable need for commercial-scale enrichment. This would increase the time it would take Iran to operate the machines, providing added insurance against rapid breakout scenarios. As part of the final agreement, the P5+1, particularly Russia, should also make clearer fuel supply guarantees to Iran to reduce its rationale for greater enrichment capacity by 2022.”

The US wants to manage Iran’s nuclear program to prevent Iran’s ascension to global power status. There is already evidence that there may soon be another ‘I’ in the BRICS. China has mentioned that Iran could join itself and Russia to form a security alliance to balance the U.S.’s Asia pivot. Aside from objecting to Iran possibly becoming a member of a group that threatens U.S. global dominance as a whole there is also the burning worry that an Iran on the nuclear threshold would spell the end of Washington’s Mideast hegemony. Michael Singh thinks if our Middle East clients “deem a deal too lenient, these allies could respond both by confronting and accommodating Iran, perhaps simultaneously. They could ramp up sectarian activities or pursue their own nuclear capabilities, even as they cut side deals with Tehran inimical to US desires” Iran and the Arab states are even now making motions towards becoming friendlier, ominously confirming the apprehensions of Singh and others—like former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Cheney bemoans Washington’s standing in the Middle East, saying it’s “worse than at any time in my lifetime.” With the most alarming part about our diminished eminence being that “It’s reached the point where Israel and Egypt, [the United Arab] Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan are closer to one another—imagine that!—than any of them is to us.” Imagine that, indeed! What an astonishing concept that neighboring countries might actually form bonds with one another and work regional affairs out for themselves. But such independence won’t fly for the exponents of empire. If the Middle East suddenly stops being the notoriously rough neighborhood we always hear that it is, then there goes America’s justification for being the top cop on the beat and keeping everyone else—friend and foe alike–in line. That’s why the U.S. needs to maintain the concocted drama over Iran’s nuclear program—to stoke fears and keep the region divided so it can continue ruling the roost.