U.S. and Iranian Realities

By George Friedman

georgefriedmanU.S. President Barack Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week  in the first such conversation in the 34 years since the establishment of the  Islamic Republic. The phone call followed tweets and public statements on both  sides indicating a willingness to talk. Though far from an accommodation between  the two countries, there are reasons to take this opening seriously — not only  because it is occurring at such a high level, but also because there is now a  geopolitical logic to these moves. Many things could go wrong, and given that  this is the Middle East, the odds of failure are high. But Iran is weak and the United States is  avoiding conflict, and there are worse bases for a deal.

Iran’s Surge

Though the Iranians are now in a weak strategic position, they had been on  the offensive since 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. They welcomed the  invasion; Saddam Hussein had been a mortal enemy of Iran ever since the  1980-1989 Iran-Iraq War. The destruction of his regime was satisfying in itself,  but it also opened the door to a dramatic shift in Iran’s national security  situation.

Iraq was Iran’s primary threat after the collapse of the Soviet Union because  it was the only direction from which an attack might come. A pro-Iranian or even  neutral Iraq would guarantee Iranian national security. The American invasion  created a power vacuum in Iraq that the U.S. Army could not fill. The Iranians  anticipated this, supporting pro-Iranian elements among the Shia prior to 2003  and shaping them into significant militias after 2003. With the United States  engaged in a war against Sunni insurgents, the Shia, already a majority, moved  to fill the void.

The United States came to realize that it was threatened from two directions,  and it found itself battling both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. The  purpose of the surge in 2007 was to extricate itself from the war with the  Sunnis and to block the Shia. It succeeded with the former to a great extent,  but it was too late in the game for the latter. As the United States was  withdrawing from Iraq, only the Shia (not all of them Iranian surrogates) could  fill the political vacuum. Iran thus came to have nothing to fear from Iraq, and  could even dominate it. This  was a tremendous strategic victory for Iran, which had been defeated by Iraq in  1989.

After the Iranians made the most of having the United States, focused on the  Sunnis, open the door for Iran to dominate Iraq, a more ambitious vision emerged  in Tehran. With Iraq contained and the United States withdrawing from the  region, Saudi Arabia emerged as Iran’s major challenger. Tehran now had the  pieces in place to challenge Riyadh.

Iran was allied with Syria and had a substantial pro-Iranian force in Lebanon  — namely, Hezbollah. The possibility emerged in the late 2000s of an Iranian  sphere of influence extending from western Afghanistan’s Shiite communities all  the way to the Mediterranean. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had  fairly realistic visions of Iranian power along Saudi Arabia’s northern border,  completely changing the balance of power in the region.

But while Syrian President Bashar al Assad was prepared to align himself with  Iran, he initially had no interest in his country’s becoming an Iranian  satellite. In fact, he was concerned at the degree of power Iran was developing.  The Arab Spring and the uprising against al Assad changed this equation. Before,  Syria and Iran were relative equals. Now, al Assad desperately needed Iranian  support. This strengthened Tehran’s hand, since if Iran saved al Assad, he would  emerge weakened and frightened, and Iranian influence would surge.

The Russians also liked the prospect of a strengthened Iran. First, they were  fighting Sunnis in the northern Caucasus. They feared the strengthening of  radical Sunnis anywhere, but particularly in the larger Sunni-dominated  republics in Russia. Second, an Iranian sphere of influence not only would  threaten Saudi Arabia, it also would compel the United States to re-engage in  the region to protect Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Russians had enjoyed a  relatively free hand since 2001 while the Americans remained obsessed with the  Islamic world. Creating a strategic crisis for the United States thus suited  Moscow’s purposes. The Russians, buffered from Iran by the Caucasus states, were  not frightened by the Iranians. They were therefore prepared to join Iran in supporting the al Assad  regime.

The problem was that al Assad could not impose his will on Syria. He did not  fall, but he also couldn’t win. A long-term civil war emerged, and while the  Iranians had influence among the Alawites, the stalemate undermined any dream of  an Iranian sphere of influence reaching the Mediterranean. This became doubly  true when Sunni resistance to the Shia in Iraq grew. The Syrian maneuver  required a decisive and rapid defeat of the Sunni insurgents in Syria. That  didn’t happen, and the ability of the Shiite regime of Iraqi Prime Minister  Nouri al-Maliki to resist the Sunnis was no longer guaranteed.

Iranian Ambitions Decline

In 2009, it had appeared extremely likely that an Iran loosely aligned with  Russia would enjoy a sphere of influence north of Saudi Arabia. By 2013, this  vision was shattered, and with it the more grandiose strategic vision of  Ahmadinejad and his allies in Iran. This led to a re-evaluation of Iran’s  strategic status — and of the value of its nuclear program.

It was Stratfor’s view that Iran had less interest in actually acquiring a  nuclear weapon than in having a program to achieve one. Possessing a handful of  nuclear weapons would be a worst-case scenario for Iran, as it might compel  massive attacks from Israel or the United States that Iran could not counter.  But having a program to develop one, and making it credible, gave the Iranians a  powerful bargaining chip and diverted U.S. and Israeli attention from the  growing Iranian sphere of influence. Ahmadinejad’s hope, I think, was to secure  this sphere of influence, have the basis for making demands on the Saudis and  the Gulf Cooperation Council, and trade the nuclear program for U.S. recognition  and respect for the new regional balance. Indeed, while the United States and  Israel were obsessed with the Iranian bomb, the Iranians were making major  strides in developing more conventional power.

Iran’s regional strategy was in shambles, and the international sanctions its  nuclear program triggered began to have some significant effect. I am unable to  determine whether Iran’s economic crisis derived from the sanctions or whether  it derived from a combination of the global economic crisis and Iran’s own  economic weakness. But in the end, the perception that the sanctions had wreaked  havoc on the Iranian economy turned the nuclear program, previously useful, into  a liability.

Iran found itself in a very difficult position. Internally, opposition to any  accommodation with the United States was strong. But so was the sense that  Ahmadinejad had brought disaster on Iran strategically and economically. For  Iran, the nuclear program became increasingly irrelevant. The country was not  going to become a regional power. It now had to go on the defensive, stabilize  Iraq and, more important, address its domestic situation.

The U.S. Challenge

There is profound domestic opposition in the United States to dealing with  the Iranian regime. Just as the Iranians still genuinely resent the 1953 coup  that placed the shah on the throne, the Americans have never forgotten the  seizure of the U.S. Embassy and the subsequent yearlong hostage crisis. We must  now wait and see what language Iran will craft regarding the hostage crisis to  reciprocate the courtesy of Obama’s acknowledging the 1953 coup.

The United States is withdrawing from the Middle East to the extent it can.  Certainly, it has no interest in another ground war. It has interests in the  region, however, and chief among those are avoiding the emergence of a regional  hegemon that might destabilize the Middle East. The United States also learned  in Iraq that simultaneously fighting Sunnis and Shia pits the United States  against forces it cannot defeat without major effort. It needs a way to manage  the Islamic world without being in a constant state of war.

The classic solution to this is to maintain a balance of power with minimal  force based on pre-existing tensions. A weakened Iran needs support in its fight  with the Sunnis. The United States is interested in ensuring that neither the  Sunni nor the Shia win — in other words, in the status quo of centuries. Having  Iran crumble internally therefore is not in the American interest, since it  would upset the internal balance. While sanctions were of value in blocking  Iranian ascendancy, in the current situation stabilizing Iran is of greater  interest.

The United States cannot proceed unless the nuclear program is abandoned.  Rouhani understands that, but he must have and end to sanctions and a return of  Western investment to Iran in exchange. These are doable under the current  circumstances. The question of Iranian support for al Assad is not really an  issue; the United States does not want to see a Syrian state dominated by  radical Sunnis. Neither does Iran. Tehran would like a Syria dominated by al  Assad, but Iran realizes that it has played that card and lost. The choices are  partition, coalition or war — neither Iran nor the United States is deeply  concerned with which.

Threats to a Resolution

There are two threats to a potential resolution. The primary threat is  domestic. In both countries, even talking to each other seems treasonous to  some. In Iran, economic problems and exhaustion with grandiosity opens a door.  In the United States right now, war is out of the question. And that paves the  way to deals unthinkable a few years ago.

A second threat is outside interference. Israel comes to mind, though for  Israel, the removal of the nuclear program would give them something they were  unable to achieve themselves. The Israelis argued that the Iranian bomb was an  existential threat to Israel. But the Israelis lack the military power to deal  with it themselves, and they could not force the Americans into action. This is  the best deal they can get if they actually feared an Iranian bomb. Though  Israel’s influence on this negotiation with Iran will face limits with the U.S.  administration, Israel will make an effort to insert itself in the process and  push its own demands on what constitutes an acceptable Iranian concession.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile will be appalled at a U.S.-Iranian deal. Hostility  toward Iran locked the United States into place in support of the Saudis. But  the United States is now flush with oil, and Saudi attempts to block  reconciliation will not meet a warm reception. The influence of Saudi Arabia in  Washington has waned considerably since the Iraq war.

The Russian position will be more interesting. On the surface, the Russians  have been effective in Syria. But that’s only on the surface. The al Assad  regime wasn’t bombed, but it remains crippled. And the Syrian crisis revealed a  reality the Russians didn’t like: If Obama had decided to attack Syria, there  was nothing the Russians could have done about it. They have taken a weak hand  and played it as cleverly as possible. But it is still a weak hand. The Russians  would have liked having the United States bogged down containing Iran’s  influence, but that isn’t going to happen, and the Russians realize that  ultimately they lack the weight to make it happen. Syria was a tactical victory  for them; Iran would be a strategic defeat.

The Iranian and American realities argue for a settlement. The psyche of both  countries is in the balance. There is clearly resistance in both, yet it does  not seem strong enough or focused enough to block it. That would seem to  indicate speed rather than caution. But of course, getting it done before anyone  notices isn’t possible. And so much can go wrong here that all of this could  become moot. But given how the Iranians and Americans see their positions, the  odds are, that something will happen. In my book, The Next Decade, I  argued that in the long run Iran and the United States have aligning interests  and that an informal alliance is likely in the long run. This isn’t the long run  yet, and the road will be bumpy, but the logic is there.

U.S. and Iranian Realities is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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