U.S.-Iranian relations emerge from a thirty-year cold war for the better.
Image taken by Flickr user United States Mission Geneva
By Peter Van Buren
By arrangement with
Don’t sweat the details of the July nuclear accord between the United States and Iran. What matters is that the calculus of power in the Middle East just changed in significant ways.
Washington and Tehran announced their nuclear agreement on July 14th and yes, some of the details are still classified. Of course the Obama administration negotiated alongside China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany, which means Iran and five other governments must approve the detailed 159-page “
Without a shot being fired, the United States and Iran have come to a turning point away from an era of outright hostility
If we’re not all yet insta-experts on centrifuges and enrichment ratios, the media will ensure that in the
There are two crucial points to take away from all the angry chatter to come: first, none of this matters and second, the devil is not in the details, though he may indeed appear on those Sunday talk shows.
Here’s what actually matters most: at a crucial moment and without a shot being fired, the United States and Iran have come to a turning point away from an era of outright hostility. The nuclear accord binds the two nations to years of engagement and leaves the door open to a far fuller relationship. Understanding how significant that is requires a look backward.
A Very Quick History of US-Iranian Relations
The short version: relations have been terrible for almost four decades. A slightly
In his place, Washington installed a puppet leader worthy of the sleaziest of banana republics, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The US assisted him in maintaining a particularly grim secret police force, the Savak, which he aimed directly at his political opponents, democratic and otherwise, including the ones who espoused a brand of Islamic fundamentalism unfamiliar to the West at the time. Washington lapped up the Shah’s oil and, in return, sold him the modern weapons he fetishized. Through the 1970s, the US also supplied nuclear fuel and reactor technology to Iran to
In 1979, following months of demonstrations and seeing his fate in the streets of Tehran, the Shah fled. Religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to take control of the nation in what became known as the Islamic Revolution. Iranian “students” channeled decades of anti-American rage over the Shah and his secret police into a takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. In an event that few Americans of a certain age are likely to forget, fifty-two American staffers were held hostage there for some fifteen months.
In retaliation, the US would, among other things, assist Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein (remember him?) in his war with Iran in the 1980s, and in 1988, an American guided missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf would shoot down a civilian Iran air flight, killing all 290 people on board. (Washington claimed it was an accident.) In 2003, when Iran reached out to Washington, following American military successes in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush declared that country part of the “Axis of Evil.”
Iran later funded, trained, and helped lead a Shiite insurgency against the United States in Iraq. In tit-for-tat fashion, US forces
In short, for the last thirty-six years, the US-Iranian relationship has been hostile, antagonistic, unproductive, and often just plain mean. Neither country seems to have benefited, even as both remained committed to the fight.
Despite the best efforts of the United States, Iran is now the co-dominant power in the Middle East. And rising. (Washington remains the other half of that “co.”)
And that only scratches the surface of the new Iranian ascendancy in the region. Despite the damage done by US-led economic sanctions, Iran’s real strength lies at home. It is probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically, religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under
Why Iran Won’t Have Nuclear Weapons
Now, about those nukes. It would take a blind man in the dark not to notice one obvious fact about the Greater Middle East: regimes the US opposes tend to find themselves blasted into chaos once they lose their nuclear programs. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s, from the air. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya went down the drain thanks to American/NATO-inspired regime change after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions. At the same time, no one in Tehran could miss how North Korea’s membership in the regime-change club wasn’t renewed once that country went nuclear. Consider those pretty good reasons for Iran to develop a robust nuclear weapons program—and not give it up entirely.
So call Iran’s nuclear program a game of chicken, but one in which all the players involved always knew who would blink first.
While, since 2002, Washington hasn’t taken a day off in its saber-rattling toward Iran, it isn’t the only country the clerics fear. They are quite convinced that Israel, with its unacknowledged but all too real nuclear arsenal, is capable and might someday be willing to deliver a strike via missile, aircraft, or
Now, here’s the added irony: American sabers and Israeli nukes also explain why Iran will always remain a nuclear threshold state—one that holds most or all of the technology and materials needed to make such a weapon, but chooses not to take the final steps. Just exactly how close a country is at any given moment to having a working nuclear weapon is called “breakout time.” If Iran were to get too close, with too short a breakout time, or actually went nuclear, a devastating attack by Israel and/or the United States would be a near inevitability. Iran is not a third world society. Its urban areas and infrastructure are exactly the kinds of things bombing campaigns are designed to blow away. So call Iran’s nuclear program a game of chicken, but one in which all the players involved always knew who would blink first.
The US-Iran Nuclear Accord
So if Iran was never going to be a true nuclear power and if the world has lived with Iran as a threshold state for some time now, does the July accord matter?
There are two answers to that question: it doesn’t and it does.
It doesn’t really matter because the deal changes so little on the ground. If the provisions of the accord are implemented as best we currently understand them, with no cheating, then Iran will slowly move from its current two-to-three-month
It does really matter because, for the first time in decades, the two major powers in the Middle East have opened the door to relations. Without the political cover of the accord, the White House could never envisage taking a second step forward.
It’s a breakthrough because through it the US and Iran acknowledge shared interests for the first time, even as they recognize their ongoing
The agreement was reached the old-school way, by sitting down at a table over many months and negotiating. Diplomats consulted experts. Men and women in suits, not in uniform, did most of the talking. The process, perhaps unfamiliar to a post-9/11 generation raised on the
It’s All About the Money
While diplomacy brought the United States and Iran to this point, cash is what will expand and sustain the relationship.
Iran, with the
Since November 2014, the Chinese, for example, have already
The Real Fears of the Israelis and the Saudis
Neither Israel nor the Saudis ever really expected to trade missile volleys with a nuclear-armed Iran, nor do their other primary objections to the accord hold much water. Critics have said the deal will only last
Similarly, any talk of the accord touching off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is long out of date. Israel has long had the bomb, with no arms race triggered. Latent fears that Iran will create “the Islamic Bomb” ignore the fact that Pakistan, with own hands dirty from abetting terror and plenty of Islamic extremists on hand, has been a nuclear power since at least
Real power in the twenty-first century, short of total war, rests with money.
No, what fundamentally worries the Israelis and the Saudis is that Iran will rejoin the community of nations as a diplomatic and trading partner of the United States, Asia, and Europe. Embarking on a
The July accord acknowledges the real-world power map of the Middle East. It does not make Iran and the United States friends. It does, however, open the door for the two biggest regional players to talk to each other and develop the kinds of financial and trade ties that will make conflict more impractical. After more than three decades of US-Iranian hostility in the world’s most volatile region, that is no small accomplishment.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in