Why Iran Is Now Obama’s Best Middle East Bet
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The Fiscal Times
January 13, 2014

“What are we supposed to do now?” pundits and policymakers ask these days.

The full question being, “What now that the Middle East spins like a dervish and the Obama administration has lost its grip on every major issue in the region?”

Related: Obama’s Last Ditch Effort for Mideast Relevance 

All of a sudden it is a new, unfamiliar ball game. No. 1 on a useful list, an opportunity lying four-square before Secretary of State Kerry as we speak: Take a big stride past three decades of simplistic presumptions and recognize the Iranians as sharing a common interest in restoring order (we cannot say “maintaining” at this point) in a region that is top-to-bottom reinventing itself.  

The big news now is the tragic (if inevitable) collapse of the Iraq the U.S. left behind when Obama withdrew American troops two years ago. There is the Syria conflict, Lebanon’s renewed fragility, the going-nowhere talks on the Israeli–Palestinian question, the new dictatorship in Egypt, the drift in U.S.–Saudi relations, and, of course, the region’s descent into Sunni–Shiite sectarian animosity. 

In no case can the U.S. pretend any longer to be the “shaper of events,” as think tank scholars like to put it. The Middle East is becoming Middle Eastern: The dynamic belongs to the region now, not to any outside power—not Washington, not Moscow. 

This is to the good, despite the annihilation of Christians in Aleppo and other outrages throughout the region. Iran’s emergence as a regional power is beyond anyone’s power to stop. 

Until now, Washington’s approach to Iran’s rise has been either to frustrate it or deny it. Both amount to nostalgia—always a waste of time and opportunity in foreign relations—even as much of Congress still insist that Iran is some kind of eternal enemy.

Related: Why Kerry’s Iran Deal Will Hold Up

It is a question of standing on the right side of history. Working with Iran where possible, instead of against it would amount to a dramatic policy flip, and this is precisely why we are all asking what we ought to do next. 

Example: Fallujah has fallen to Sunni militants; on Sunday we had more news that sabotage in Baghdad continues to mount. Iran has offered material support (not troops) to the Shiite-dominated government of Noori al–Maliki. Maliki declined the offer, according to local press reports, saying rather ridiculously that Iran “meddling in the country’s affairs” would be intolerable. Of course, he cannot send his army into Fallujah because he knows its Sunni residents would side with the insurgents.   

Having deposed a dictator who brutally enforced a secular regime, what is Washington to do? First choice seems to be offering a Shiite regime military support itself, but this is almost too bitter to contemplate. Now think: What about talking to the Iranians, whose influence in Baghdad is considerable and who do not want a sectarian war next door? 

As in Iraq, so in Syria. Kerry long insisted that the Iranians had no place at Syria talks known as Geneva II, where Bashar al–Assad, also Shiite, also enjoying Tehran’s support, is somehow to be bargained out of power. It could not hold and has not.

Related: How Democrats Could Blow Up the Iran Nuke Deal

Kerry recently allowed that Iranians “could contribute from the sidelines” at the talks (to convene next week in Montreux, not Geneva). But the distinction comes to vanity on Kerry’s part. Iran may or may not attend—it rejects the depose–Bashar agenda and the second-fiddle status—but Kerry will need all his Irish luck if he does not recruit Tehran’s cooperation, whether it is open or covert.

There is a key to engaging Iran with a view to region-wide questions. It is the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

On Sunday, the foreign ministry in Tehran announced that the deal, struck last month with the U.S. and five other major powers, will go into effect January 20. In exchange for diluting or converting to oxide their stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent—making it immediately unusable for military purposes—the U.S. is opening the checkbook for Iran with billions of dollars in relief from economic sanctions.

Not everyone in Congress is happy with the deal.  But this time, it’s not only the Republicans who want to block it. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has pledged more sanctions to ensure the protection of Israel.

The way is now open to achieve a long-term agreement on Iran’s nuclear plans, one that respects the nation’s sovereign rights and eases the fears of many others. 

Related: Iran Nuclear Bill Would Have Consequences 

There are two things to understand here. One, President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are serious statesmen with vision and reformists who enjoy the support of a broad piece of the political spectrum, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the majority of the electorate. Two, they want this deal badly because it will ameliorate Iran’s isolation and (most of all) get the sanctions-disrupted economy going. 

Hence the deal on nukes is the key to a great deal more. Get it in place and Washington can begin to renovate a Middle East policy that is less useful and more burdensome one day to the next. Hardly would Iran be the linchpin; but it could take some of the diplomatic space gradually being vacated by the Saudis, who are bent on fomenting Sunni aggression—exactly what they are doing—in places such as Syria.   

Get Syria resolved and Lebanon can re-stabilize. A stable Lebanon can reduce tensions with Israel, helping to force Prime Minister Netanyahu to take Mideast peace talks more seriously than he evidently does at the moment. Iran, indeed, would have to be very stupid to miss the chance to reduce tensions with Israel over its nuclear program by way of a combination of signals and substance—bilateral stuff, not merely through the nuclear negotiating group. 

Iran as demon is over; Iran as dealer, as a nation desiring of regional security, faces us. 

The most immediate task for Kerry and Obama as nuclear talks proceed and as Syria talks are upon them: Keep Washington’s sanctions-mongering fundamentalists in line as effectively as Rouhani is managing his.

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A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.