Bringing Iran in from the cold would not only undercut a potential axis with China and Russia, it would allow the US to concentrate on its main game. Washington’s encouragement of a major rapprochement  between Israel and Saudi Arabia is intended to simplify the US’s security dilemmas in the region, including as a counter-balance to an increasingly assertive Iran. However, the singular policy of confronting Iran is seriously misguided: while encouraging a peacetime alliance between Tel Aviv and Riyadh is attainable, it provides little deterrence, and no defence. On its current trajectory, US policy towards Iran will provoke it to nuclear weaponisation, and worse, push Iran into the Russia-China camp at a time when the US strategic priority should be to isolate Beijing, its strongest adversary and a contender for global hegemony.
There is no configuration of Middle Eastern alliances sufficiently strong to repel Iranian territorial conquests in the Persian Gulf. Neither Pakistan nor Turkey or Iraq will permit US operations on their soil against Tehran. In a war with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia will require a major influx of US logistical and military support, which will constitute a major diversion from any US deployment or campaign effort opposite China in the Pacific. The war in Ukraine has revealed that the US has few committed allies—as failed attempts to sanction Russia have demonstrated—therefore, alienating potentially neutral regimes like Tehran, however distastefully illiberal, is dangerous.
Already in 2021, China signed a strategic agreement with Iran whose provisions have not been made public, and Russia is pursuing a new anti-Western economic bloc that includes Iran. The Cold War luxury of Iran’s ambivalence to collaborate with the USSR, driven primarily by Soviet irredentist threats to Iranian Azerbaijan, has been replaced by alliance offers from Beijing and Moscow, two states that pose no geopolitical threat to Tehran. While grouping countries into Manichean divisions makes for powerful domestic rhetoric in Washington, allowing the merger of individually hostile nations into enemy coalitions constitutes a dramatic failure of US balance-of-power diplomacy, often termed “self-encirclement”. Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Gulf States add less overall power to the US than would be gained by pacifying Iran and its regional allies. Many US policymakers wrongly believe that Iran is as weak as Iraq, obviating any need for concessions. However, the authors’ explored wargame-validated scenarios and found that Persian Gulf and European state allies of the US have insufficient capability to force open the Straits of Hormuz[†], and that even the US would be incapable of imposing a quick military solution on Iran.
Drawing Iran away from Beijing would also accommodate India, East Asian allies of the US that import oil from the Persian Gulf, and X Armenia, all of which have friendly relations with both Tehran and the West. Anglo-American success at neutralising pro-Axis Yugoslavia and fascist Spain during the Second World War protected Gibraltar and immeasurably simplified Allied campaigning in the Mediterranean. The 1972 US rapprochement with China compelled the USSR to redeploy a fifth of their armed forces to the Far East, significantly reducing the Soviet land threat to West Germany.
A common US interpretation of Iranian foreign policy sees it as a deterred belligerent. The US is reluctant to commit to a durable settlement with any state they believe is strongly influenced by militant idealogues who will forever seek to justify their domestic privileges in the usual social turmoil of an under-developed economy. In this account, Iran has no clearly defined strategic goals, as its revolutionary political elite is preoccupied with pursuing confrontations with its neighbours to boost its ideological legitimacy. An important driver of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy is achieving the status of Umm al-Qura in the Islamic world, a goal that can be traced back to the Shah of Iran’s Persian revivalism. Umm al-Qura is an Arabic term in which ‘Um’ means ‘mother’ and al-Qura’ means village, with the literal meaning of ‘mother of communities’. It is the goal of achieving leadership status within the Islamic community, and is currently being contested by Iran and Saudi Arabia. This concept was developed in the years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution by Mohammad Javad Larijani, who argued that Umm al-Qura could be achieved through charismatic leadership and superior cultural and political characteristics.
Iran does not assert its sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf region any more aggressively than Pakistan or Turkey do in their ‘near-abroads’ and like these states, it has reasonable security interests that are accommodated by most of its neighbours. Tehran has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be a very reluctant proliferator, when compared with Pakistan or North Korea, making an Iranian nuclear arsenal far from inevitable. Rapprochement between Washington and Tehran is therefore possible, particularly since the US had no problem in principle with deferring to Iran as the regional power and protector between 1971, when the British departed the Persian Gulf, and 1979.
Iran has reasonable grounds for its mistrust of Washington. The US abandoned the 1981 Algerian Accord, which was intended to normalise relations between Tehran and Washington after the 1979 hostage crisis. In this Accord, the Iranian government pledged to release the hostages, and the US assured Tehran of non-interference in Iran's affairs, to cancel trade sanctions, to settle claims, and to repatriate the frozen assets of Iran and of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's family. Four decades later, both Iran and the US demonstrated a willingness to negotiate and accede to the multilaterally negotiated 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The ultimate failure to sustain this agreement has been attributed to various factors, including the difficulty of isolating the single non-proliferation issue from other issues of strategic competition, Democratic-Republican political manoeuvring in Washington, and the spoiler influence of backers of Israel and Saudi Arabia in US domestic politics.
The fourth president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, made considerable efforts to improve Iran-US relations. Hassan Rouhani said in 2013: ‘The relationship between Iran and the US is not a complex and difficult issue, but simple. There is an old wound that needs to be treated.’ The subsequent 2018 abandonment of the JCPOA by the administration of US President Donald Trump led them to declare that the US could not be trusted to commit to an arrangement[†]. Distrust has always been expressed by officials of Tehran. ‘We do not trust the Americans, because they have been mischievous and deceitful every time we have interacted with them,’ Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said in most of his speeches. Nor should the U.S. trust Iran. Tehran may suffer the common erroneous belief that the U.S. is irresolute and casualty sensitive, and it may occasionally be reminded by a U.S. demonstration of the willingness to use force. Nor should the clerics of Qum expect from Washington an end to demands for liberalization of its domestic laws. This is the unavoidable price of negotiating with a liberal democracy.
If the US is to avoid the folly of having to deploy Marines to open an Iranian blocked Straits of Hormuz, during a Chinese attack on Taiwan, it must avoid the confrontational politics of aggressive anti-proliferation in Iran. In a previous study, we have found that every scenario of aerial bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities escalates to a Marine intervention that becomes bogged down on the coast of Iran. Appeasing Tehran to draw it out of Beijing’s coalition is a necessary recognition that the US’s naval power needs to be concentrated in the region of its principal global rival.
Behrouz Ayaz is an Iranian political analyst who specializes in foreign policy of Iran, Afghanistan, South Asia and Terrorism. He graduated from Tarbiat Modares university with a Master of Art's degree in International Relations. He is currently cooperating with SCFR (Strategic Council on Foreign Relations). Ayaz has written the book as a Collection of Papers with accomplished professors “The Nature, Dimensions, and Future of ISIS”, and has published scientific articles, essays and policy related to his expertise. Follow Behrooz on Twitter: @behrooz_ayaz
Dr Julian Spencer-Churchill
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Egypt, and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.
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