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.