Iran Deal Was About More Than Nukes

Will we ever see the day when opponents of the Iran nuclear deal are right about their take on what the diplomatic breakthrough means for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? They came pretty close with their most recent contention—based on a New York Times Magazine profile of Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Benjamin Rhodes–that the American people were bamboozled by the Obama administration’s case for the JCPOA. President Obama’s object all along in landing the deal, according to them, wasn’t to keep Iran from nukes but to reconcile with Iran so we could become their ally and then dump our traditional Middle Eastern allies so the U.S. could, as David Samuels writes, “create the space” for Obama’s long-sought plan for “disengagement from the Middle East.” There was nothing in Samuels’s piece to substantiate such an outlandish claim of a realignment of alliances but he and the other anti-deal critics are nonetheless partially correct.

This agreement was indeed a smokescreen for rapprochement with Iran as there never was a threat of Iran getting nukes since the international community could have forcefully pushed a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone on the Middle East at any time–a move which Iran would happen to welcome as a long-time advocate of that proposed policy. In that case, it is doubtful Iran would violate the NWFZ but if, for whatever reason, it did a massive multilateral coalition (Russia and China included) could have been mustered to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran could have had its nuclear ambitions kept in check very effectively without this deal so—yes—the overriding goal was to normalize relations with Iran.

That’s still a far cry from becoming allies with the Islamic Republic and throwing our other regional allies overboard. Nothing of the sort happened when President Richard Nixon brought China in from the cold and when a future U.S. President reaches détente with Iran they will similarly improve ties without alienating allies. Iran will become a frenemy of the U.S. like Russia and China are today. As Reza Marashi describes it, the two nations would “shift from enemies to competitors” where they will “continue to challenge one another’s power, but with diplomats rather than bombs or bullets.”

The deal opponents are also off-base about the nature of disengagement from the Middle East. For the Obama administration and others who think the pivot to Asia to be the U.S.’s highest foreign policy priority, this “re-balancing” was never intended to be a total abandonment of the Middle East. This dialogue between Richard Haass and Jane Harman addresses the strategic thinking behind the pivot and why the necessities of the American empire mean we’ll always have to be involved in the Middle East:

Richard Haass: Strategically I think there’s a powerful argument for adjusting American foreign policy in two ways. Less in the Middle East. I’m not saying disengage. I’m not saying ignore it. I’m saying less in the Middle East–let’s talk about degrees–more in Asia, and more here at home. If you’re thinking about national security, to me, that is a far more sensible approach… Jane Harman: I don’t disagree with Richard that there are limited brain cells, and a lot more of them have to be put on Asia. However, if we don’t help get the Middle East right, I don’t think we’ll ever get out of there… Haass: When I look at the principle strategic threats facing the United States, and the opportunities, one is Asia, the Asian Pacific, the great powers, where history is beginning to come alive. We do not want 21st Century Asia to resemble 20th Century Europe. It’s that simple. When the tectonic plates are moving, political and military nationalism is beginning to get introduced, it’s not simply an economic arena, unless the United States is actively involved watch this space, watch the interplay between Chinese, Japanese, South Korean nationalism. If North Korea does not get rid of its nuclear weapons, watch what happens… Harman: You talk about the great power game, and I think it’s worth talking about: what are the other great powers out there? China, obviously, and Russia punches above its weight in kind of evil ways. But both of them have eyes on the Middle East. We have to understand that. We have strategic interests in the Middle East…But I’m still saying we have to keep our eye on the greater Middle East. We will be sucked back there because China and Russia will move into the vacuum if we leave…I just think we have to deploy our global brain cells across the world, and when we do that, the Middle East has to be a portion of those brain cells. We cannot move away from it.

Holding those Asian tectonic plates in place is part of the U.S.’s grand strategy of preventing major regional conflicts and World Wars. William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy identifies the key reason why:

The great majority of American leaders emerged from World War I fearing war as the midwife of international revolution and domestic unrest. A good many of them remained unconvinced even by 1939 that it was the greater part of wisdom to make war in order to make peace. Worried about “world-wide ruin,” and frightened of the political and social consequences of “another generation of misery,” such leaders opposed war as a “great destroyer and unsettler of their affairs.” Bernard Baruch, for example, thought that “the institutions of government, as we know them, [would] fall down…and that the whole moral attitude of the world would change…Others broadened the analysis, seeing American intervention [in WWII] as leading “to the end of capitalism all over the world” with a resulting “spread of communism, socialism, or fascism in Europe or even the United States.

Given this ever-present worry among Washington policy-makers of wars getting out of hand, the critics of Obama’s approach to the Middle East are, in private, actually glad that this deal has enabled the U.S. to devote more of its “global brain cells” to Asia and thereby decreasing the chances of a war there that’s so terrible that it inspires people everywhere to revolt against the state and capitalism.