Iran and the United States: a new deal?
In Europe and the United States there was a tradition of pragmatic and often severely realistic political art. It dated back at least as far as the 5th century BC Greek historian Thucydides. must. Its purpose was to dispel any illusion that the world is a benign place.
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli, trained in the murderous politics of Italian city-states, wrote what would become the manual for anyone who wanted to prosper, succeed or just stay alive in a time of mutual suspicion and endemic violence – “Il Principe” (The Prince). A century and a half later, the Englishman Thomas Hobbes described in his masterpiece “Leviathan” how only a powerful central political authority can support the legal order which in turn guarantees the security necessary for any prosperous society. or community of nations.
All of these writers were moralists. But none of them harbored any illusions about human nature or the exercise of power. They had experienced too many civil wars and violent international conflicts. They individually valued peace, harmony and brotherly love. But they knew from experience that neither hope nor wishful thinking was enough. In different ways, their followers included Oliver Cromwell, Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Palmerston, Otto von Bismarck, Charles de Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Winston Churchill.
A few days ago, during the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Robert Malley, the US special envoy to Iran who is leading the Biden administration’s efforts to renegotiate a successor to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018, reportedly pointed out that many of the region’s dysfunctions were due to Iran’s exclusion from regional political and security structures. This echoes comments made by officials in the Obama administration, in which Malley also served, about the need to accommodate Iran, persuade Saudi Arabia to “learn to share the region” with Tehran and to reach some kind of agreement on Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. When coercive power had a legitimate role, the Obama administration refused to use it, especially over Syria in 2014.
And the position that Malley and others of the Barack Obama years (many of whom are also back in senior political positions) have described is reflected to them by some prominent figures in the wider political community. One need only read the many reports on Iran published, for example, by the International Crisis Group, which Malley headed before joining the government, or the European Council on Foreign Relations, which never misses an opportunity to suggest that ‘Being kinder to everyone – as bestial as it may be to you – is a workable policy. You also see it in the talking points regularly made by the Iranian lobby in Washington.
All of this illustrates one of the central mysteries of the contemporary world: how the United States and its allies, which built a very successful world order after 1945 based on the judicious but determined use of hard power against its enemies and incentives to their friends, turned into a collective kitty around 2004. I say 2004, but you could see hints of what was to come in the 1990s, with the ultimate failure of the Oslo process, the debacle in Somalia and the US initial reluctance – and the EU’s utter inability – to apply coercion to warring communities in the Balkans.
China, of course, is the biggest challenge currently facing not only the West, but all those who have benefited from the long post-war Pax Americana. But Iran has in many ways been the canary in the coal mine, the test case, the laboratory in which the gold of political realism has been transmuted into the base metal of accommodation.
The JCPOA was a very flawed agreement. It basically bought us time – about 15 years in total, albeit with different timelines for different elements – to allow us to see if Iran would change its mind about the value of developing nuclear weapons (and whatever Tehran and its apologists say, that was undoubtedly its goal). But time is a currency Iran likes to spend. He has unlimited supplies of them. We dont do. And yet, little thought has been given to what we would do collectively if Iran tried to use time to its advantage. And we had no way of judging whether Iran, which had been consistent in its ambitions for decades, would suddenly or even gradually experience its own conversion to the benefits of accommodation. Everything told us that it was wishful thinking.
Once the JCPOA was signed, Iran simply doubled its support for the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and Iran-aligned al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi militias in Iraq. It continued to work on improving the guidance systems of its ballistic missiles and exported them to Iraq and Lebanon. It further developed its already sophisticated cyber and drone capabilities. He attacked ships in international waters. And the regime continues to suppress its own people when it dares to show signs of wanting a future different from that which the supreme leader has decided as his lot.
The only thing that changed when Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA was that Iran took over (and was bragging about) some of the nuclear program activities that it was arguably reserving for a future anyway. later date: the renewed enrichment of uranium well beyond the limits of the JCPOA, the development of parts for advanced centrifuges, and possibly the construction of new factories. It also hampered all IAEA inspections by disabling cameras and denying legitimate access requests.
This was at least in part designed to increase the pressure on the incoming Biden administration. And it seems to have worked. Despite continued Iranian obstructionism in the six rounds of talks in Vienna so far – a seventh due to start on November 29 – a new hard-line negotiating team and wacky conditions (including immediate asset thaw, immediate asset relief, sanctions and an undeliverable decision binding future US administrations), the US still seems unwilling to play hard.
It’s true that US officials – including Malley – say there is a Plan B. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his audience in Manama that the US remains strongly engaged in the region. But what does this mean in concrete terms? The problem is not the number of soldiers. It is political will. And there is no sign that it exists except in a certain area of theory. The idea that an administration that has clearly expressed its willingness to exit Middle East conflicts will seek to put Iran back in its box is a fantasy. And Tehran knows it.
This is why, despite the economic disasters caused by Tehran’s mismanagement and ideological idiocy – with massive emigration, real incomes in Iran falling by around 30%, and a growing number of previously prosperous people in the sphere Iranian-influenced man living on less than $ 10 a day – he won’t back down. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his praetorian allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appreciate hard power. They extend and exercise this power through the spider web of militias, loyalists, crony businesses and ideologically fueled social institutions throughout the region, from Sanaa to Sidon and from Baghdad to Beirut. They loot, smuggle and corrupt, as they always have.
Despite numerous ceasefire offers, prolonged UN mediation, international conferences, peace overtures and massive troop losses, the Houthis show no sign of slackening in their assault on Marib. And they continue to launch missiles at sites in Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s worst Hashd militias, which lost steeply in the last election, challenged the results on completely spurious grounds, launching blood-curdling threats about what will happen if ignored. And they just exemplify their intention by trying to assassinate the current Prime Minister – escaping once again without scotch. Others have attacked US positions in Iraq and Syria with impunity.
The universe tends towards entropy. The world too. After 1945, law enforcement was the United States. Apparently not anymore. The EU is positioning itself but cannot control its own borders. A new era of disorder is upon us. Little wonder then that some states in the Middle East and North Africa have decided to take action to protect themselves. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also sought to test Iran’s willingness to compromise. It makes sense. But Iran shows few signs of seriousness. It would therefore be wise for anyone who feels threatened by Iran (a long list) to continue to strengthen their own societal stability, security capacities, external position and support networks. There is only strength that counts in this game.
The idea that an administration that has clearly expressed its willingness to exit Middle East conflicts will seek to put Iran back in its box is a fantasy.
Sir John Jenkins
The wild card in all of this, of course, is Israel. While officials in the Biden administration can say they’re ready to get tough on Tehran, it’s probably only Israel that actually thinks it. Tel Aviv has, for the past decade, sought to keep Iran at bay through attrition strikes on Iranian assets inside Syria and Lebanon, and intelligence-led operations in it. even inside Iran. It helped – as the Israelis themselves have said – to “cut the grass”. But the grass continues to grow, even when you mow it.
The recent protests against the regime in Isfahan show once again that a majority of Iranians probably want their country to take another direction. But the regime’s response shows once again that it will not tolerate a threat to the privileged position of the revolutionary elite. The Vienna negotiations are, in all fairness, evidence not of international resolve but of the absence of a serious policy designed to deal with the reality of Iran as a serial destabilizer of others and a state whose the idea of regional balance is hegemony.
I don’t believe the US (or the EU) has a plan B. I believe Israel has one: but I don’t think that’s the answer. Harsh and durable containment and deterrence has always been the only way forward. Washington would do much better to seek to build a regional system on this basis, rather than wait for Khamenei to weaken. Is the Biden administration up to the task? We’re about to find out.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. He was British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.
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