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The United States, Iran, and the Middle East’s New “Cold War”

The absence of US-Iranian rapprochement will perpetuate the new Middle Eastern Cold War, imposing costs on the United States, Iran and other regional and international players.  However, in strategic terms, the heaviest costs of continued US-Iranian estrangement are likely to be borne by the United States.  In particular, lack of productive relations with Tehran will contribute significantly to Washington’s failure to achieve important policy objectives in the Middle East, thereby conditioning further erosion of America’s regional standing and influence.

This is the most important, “bottom-line” conclusion of our most recent article, “The United States, Iran, and the Middle East’s New ‘Cold War’,” just published in The International Spectator.   The article argues that U.S.-Iranian relations “need to be analyzed and understood not only in terms of their bilateral dynamics, but also in their strategic context.”  More specifically, we argue that “the relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic both shapes and is shaped by the new Middle Eastern Cold War”:

As the new regional Cold War plays out, analysts suggest different scenarios for how the ongoing strategic competition between the United States and Iran will evolve.  Some, like former Germany Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, see this competition as a struggle for regional hegemony in the Middle East comparable to that in late nineteenth century Europe following German unification; from this perspective, Fischer warns that, without careful handling, tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic could ultimately erupt in a large-scale military confrontation.  Others, like Fareed Zakaria, believe that the United States and its regional and international partners will move inexorably toward a posture of containing and deterring the Islamic Republic and its allies, in a manner reminiscent of the West’s Cold War posture toward the Soviet Union.

Against the backdrop of these scenarios, we argue that the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran should transcend the prospects for hegemonial war of strategic standoff and seek a fundamental realignment of their relations, in a manner similar to the realignment in relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China during Richard Nixon’s tenure in the White House.   We further argue that such a fundamental realignment of US-Iranian relations can only be achieved through a comprehensive rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

On the Iranian side of the equation, we note that, “like the emergence of the Middle East’s new Cold War, the Islamic Republic’s rise has occurred during a still ongoing period of tectonic shifts in the region’s strategic environment”:

These shifts include the effective collapse of the traditional Arab-Israeli peace process, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas as political actors in their national and regional contexts, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and subsequent Israeli military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza, structural changes in global energy markets and a tremendous transfer of wealth to major Middle Eastern energy producers.  All of these shifts are playing out against what is increasingly perceived, in the Middle East and elsewhere, as a decline in America’s relative power and influence.

We note that, after President Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, “the Islamic Republic was able to take advantage of these developments to effect a significant boost in its own regional standing.”  But, we also note that a critical mass of Iranian elites, cutting across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum, continues to recognize that

the Islamic Republic has basic national security and foreign policy needs which can only be met — or, only optimally met — through rapprochement with Washington.  And, over the course of [the last 20 years], Iranian decision-makers have come to believe that the only reliable way to effect such a rapprochement is by forging a comprehensive set of strategic understandings with Washington.

After tracing the evolution of the Islamic Republic’s post-1989 foreign policy toward the United States and other great powers, we take on some of the more common — and also more distorted and damaging — portrayals of Iranian foreign policy in the West:

There has always been a current in Western analyses of Iranian politics that sees the Islamic Republic as too ideologically constrained and/or politically fractious to pursue a strategic opening to the United States.  From this perspective a determinative portion of the Iranian leadership sees opposition to rapprochement with Washington as critical to regime legitimation and a weapon to use against political opponents.  Since the Islamic Republic’s 12 June 2009 presidential election, such arguments have gained greater prominence in Western discussions of Iranian politics.  But the historical record of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy since 1989 strongly suggests that this view is fundamentally mistaken.

Notwithstanding an increasing interest in Tehran in forging closer ties to major Eastern powers — China, India, Russia — Iranian foreign continue “to be attracted by the prospective benefits of rapprochement with the United States.”  To be sure, Iran does not want rapprochement with the United States at any price and, at this point, wants to define,

a priori, a “comprehensive framework” for any sustained US-Iranian dialogue — a framework that would be clearly oriented toward fundamentally realigning US-Iranian relations, addressing the Islamic Republic’s security interests, recognising its regional role, and normalizing its international relations.”

But,

[e]ven after the 2009 presidential election, there continues to be a critical mass of Iranian elites, cutting across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum, that is interested in rapprochement with the United States, within the parameters discussed above.

On the American side, we argue that, “from an interest-based perspective, the imperatives for comprehensive realignment of US-Iranian relations are as compelling for Washington as they are for Tehran”:

Looking ahead, how Washington deals with the Islamic Republic has become, in the context of the Middle East’s new Cold War, the primary litmus test for the future of America’s regional position.  At this point in the evolution of the Middle East’s balance of power and geopolitical influence, the United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority objectives in the region — reaching negotiated settlements to the unresolved tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, containing terrorist threats from violent jihadi extremists, curbing nuclear proliferation, putting Lebanon on a more stable trajectory and ensuring an adequate long-term flow of oil and natural gas to international energy markets — absent a productive strategic relationship with Iran.

Against this backdrop, we take on some of the more frequently-heard criticisms of our analogy between the reorientation of American policy toward China undertaken by President Nixon during the early 1970s and what we believe is the optimal course for America’s Iran policy today:

Some observers question the parallel between the policy challenges confronting Nixon regarding China and those confronting decision-makers today regarding Iran, arguing that there was an immediate Cold War rationale for US-China rapprochement (to “triangulate” against the Soviet Union) that is absent in the Iranian case. . . .  Such a [perspective] defines both Nixon’s accomplishment vis-à-vis China and the contemporary challenge of Iran too narrowly.  The primary impetus for US-China rapprochement was not a common enemy, but the need to align US and Chinese interests to deal with an array of strategic challenges; that is why the relationship established by Nixon and his Chinese counterparts has become even more important in the post-Cold War era.  And, as with China in the 1970s, the United States today cannot address some of its most important foreign policy problems without a strategic opening to Iran.

Not surprisingly, we argue that,

to achieve this, Washington needs to pursue a genuinely comprehensive and strategic approach to diplomacy with Tehran.  Such an approach would be grounded in a reaffirmation of America’s commitment in the Algiers Accord not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs and in the prospect of a US guarantee not to use force to change the borders or form of government of the Islamic Republic.  It would seek to resolve major bilateral differences and channel Iran’s exercise of its regional influence in support of US interests and policies.

We note though that “unfortunately, the United States — even with the Obama administration in office — has yet to pursue such an approach.”

Why has the United States — even under the Obama administration — not moved more purposefully to embrace comprehensive engagement with Tehran, aimed at a fundamental realignment of relations?  We acknowledge that “part of the answer lies in domestic politics.”  But

a larger part of the explanation, in our view, lies in ongoing confusion among American foreign policy elites about two critical questions:  The first of these questions is the relative stability/fragility of the Islamic Republic’s political order. . . .  The second of these questions is whether Tehran’s national security and foreign policy strategies are designed to resist aspects of US hegemony that threaten Iranian interests and regional prerogatives or to replace American hegemony in the Middle East with Iranian hegemony.

We, of course, offer what we believe are clear and compelling answers to these questions.  But,

in the absence of intellectual consensus on these critical questions — or a clear presidential choice to deal with the Islamic Republic as it its presently constituted and seek rapprochement based on a balance of US and Iranian interests — US policy toward Iran has been and will remain, at best, incoherent.

We conclude with a forecast that,

because of the intellectual confusion and policy incoherence described above, US efforts to encourage internal liberalization and contain perceived Iranian threats will continue to undercut the credibility, in Iranian eyes, of whatever attempts Washington makes to engage diplomatically.  And, thus, the United States — even under the Obama administration — will continue to fall short of the Islamic Republic’s minimum threshold for determining that Washington is finally serious about rapprochement.

And that brings us to the closing passage that we cited at the outset of this piece:

The absence of US-Iranian rapprochement will perpetuate the new Middle Eastern Cold War, imposing costs on the United States, Iran and other regional and international players.  However, in strategic terms, the heaviest costs of continued US-Iranian estrangement are likely to be borne by the United States.  In particular, lack of productive relations with Tehran will contribute significantly to Washington’s failure to achieve important policy objectives in the Middle East, thereby conditioning further erosion of America’s regional standing and influence.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 1 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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