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Iran: The Debate We Should Be Having

By T. Greer

Major religions in the Middle East
Image Source: Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project


I am not a specialist in arms control or nuclear technology. I must rely on the judgement of others with relevant expertise to assess the viability of the new agreement with Iran. This makes things difficult, for the opinions of experts I trust are divided. Lawrence FreedmanCheryl Rofer, Aaron Stein, and the other folks at Arms Control Wonk all support the deal. Most do so with great enthusiasm.  Thomas Moore and Matthew Kroenig, on the other hand, oppose it with uncharacteristic harshness. Over at the excellent blog Zionists and Ottomans, Michael Koplow sticks to the middle ground. He accepts that the provisions of the JCPOA will successfully deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but worries that this focus on Iran’s nuclear program misses the forest for the trees. As he writes:

It is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory. [1]

Koplow is not the only person to express such concerns. In a thoughtful write up for the Brookings Institute, Tamara Coffman Wittes warns that this deal “will not stabilize a messy Middle East.” Kenneth Pollack’s recent testimony to the House of Representatives explores these themes in even greater detail, and should be required reading for anyone who wants to contribute to these discussions. (And of course, throw-away lines about Iranian plans to destabilize the region have found their way into almost every speech given by those who oppose the deal). [2]

This is an important turn in the debate. For many the finer points of technical issue like uranium enrichment centrifuges or IAEA enforcement policies have been eclipsed by broad questions about Iran’s role in the regional order. These questions will only became more prevalent  as the newness of this deal wears away with time.

This is not a conversation Americans are prepared to have. The mental model most American observers–and if their statements are to be taken at face value, American officials–use to make sense of Iran, America’s allies in the region, and America’s role in upholding the regional order are faulty and simplistic. You can see this quite clearly in comments like these:

Iran’s nuclear program—for obvious reasons—has been the most important issue in that country’s relations with the West, but it is very far from the only issue. Iran remains one of the most prolific state-sponsors of terrorism in the world. It has and will certainly continue to seek hegemony in the Middle East, to deliberately destabilize its neighbors and other states in the region, and to promote ballistic missile proliferation and human-rights abuses throughout the Near and Middle East and beyond.

Only a comprehensive strategy, led by the United States and supported by our major allies, can neutralize Iran’s malign activities, and this will take time. In particular, that program must take into account the views and interests of U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and those Arab States that understand and fear Iran’s ambitions and capabilities.[3]

The role played both by Iran and “U.S. allies in the region” is far more complicated than this. Each plays a part in the instability now wrecking the Near East. Like America, Iran’s relationship with other actors in the region is convoluted and sometimes contradictory. By simplifying the region’s geopolitics into a narrow contest of good and evil we do ourselves a great disservice. A more accurate narrative would recognize that there are two separate conflicts  threaten the stability of the Near East. These conflicts are related but distinct. The failure to distinguish between them is the root problem behind much of America’s flawed commentary and confused policy.

The first of the two contests is the strategic rivalry between Iran and her regional enemies, Israel and the Saudi led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As with the great geopolitical contests of the last century, this rivalry has a hard ideological edge that makes compromise difficult. However, the ambitions of its central players fall squarely within the realm of traditional power politics. The roles each claim are as old as Thucydides, with today’s Persians playing the part of rising challenger to the existing order, and their opponents acting as its main defenders. This is a war of the shadows, waged through sabotage, assassination, espionage, terrorism, and the occasional full blown insurgency. The instability caused by American intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring has raised the stakes of this competition. Now Tehran and Riyadh both desperately scour the region, ever seeking some new opportunity to tilt the balance of power in their favor.  It is the civilians of the smaller powers caught in the middle that suffer most. That is where the proxy campaigns are fought. For the most part it is also where they end.  But just below the surface remains the constant fear that these endless maneuvers in the shadows might lead to open war in the light.

It is to prevent such a war that analysts like Mr. Pollack—whose testimony to congress I urged you to read above—favor a strong U.S. presence in the region. This has been the traditional role of the United States since the ‘80s, with America acting as a guarantor of sorts of the existing order. Under such conditions Iran and the United States are natural enemies. When upstart dictators like Saddam Hussein don’t call attention to themselves, “maintain the regional order” is short hand for holding back the tide of Persian hegemony. It is important to realize, however, that no matter how hostile Iran and its proxies may be towards America, their power to harm American citizens and servicemen will always be proportional to how invested America is in the region. This was Ronald Reagan’s central insight when he ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon in 1984. Americans are only a target in the shadow war if they decide to participate in it.

This does not hold true for the second conflict that roils the Near East. This conflict is of much broader scope. Its scale is global; at stake is an entire civilization. In a previous essay I described it as “a global contest for the soul of Islam.” It is in essence a battle over belief. The beliefs that sustain its most violent fighters are inevitably of some Salafist or Deobandi strain. The former has its geographic center in Saudi Arabia, the latter in Pakistan. Due to oil money and internet propaganda, Salafi-Jihadist ideology has spread far beyond its homeland, tainting madrassas and chat forums across the globe. Its most fearful expression is seen in the caliphate established by the Islamic State. But this is not its only expression. Stabbing sprees in Yunnan, kidnappings in Nigeria, bombings in Indonesia, shoot outs in Paris, and the murder of marines in Tennessee are all products of this toxic ideology.

Here the threat to American interests is clearer, but—barring a sudden influx of Muslim immigrants comparable to the numbers living now in France—it is limited. The attacks of 9/11 were the United States’ most harrowing experience with Salafi-Jihadist terrorism to date. This brush with extremism changed our politics, but it did not alter the fabric of American society in any fundamental way. Such distance is not possible in the Near East. The blood of Syria and Iraq’s 2,000 year old Christian communities testify to the scale of the changes this conflict promises to bring to the region. I tried to capture this scale in my last essay on this topic:

Think of these Salafi reformers as you do the first wave of Protestant reformers back in the 16th century. The comparison is apt not only because the goal of the Salafi-Jihadists is, like the original Protestants, to bring religious practice back to a pure and original form, or because the savagery displayed by many of the Protestant reformers was quite comparable to ISIS at its worst, but because this comparison gives you a sense of the stakes that are at play. This is a game where the shape of entire civilizations are on the table. The Salafi-Jihadists want to change the way billions of people worship, think, and live out their daily lives. ISIS’s success in the Near East gives us a clear picture of exactly what kind of society the Salafi-Jihadists envision for the Ummah.

I will not mince words:  humankind faces few catastrophes more terrible than allowing Salafi-Jihadist reformers to hijack Islamic civilization. Theirs is an ideology utterly hostile to human progress and prosperity, and their victory, if attained, will come at great human cost. The Protestants secured their Reformation with one of the most destructive wars of European history; there is little reason to think Salafi-Jihadist victories will be any less disastrous. Not every ‘great game’ of international power politics is played for civilization-level stakes. But that is exactly what is at stake here. [4]

No Caliphate worth its name can tolerate claims of state authority beyond its own, so it is little surprise that every power in the region has turned against it. As I type Turkish F-16s are conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets. The Turks were the last to join the anti-ISIS coalition. Their reticence to combat the horrors on their doorstep show the great difficulties that face all who hope to defeat Salafi-Jihadist extremism. The truth is that many powers in the region do not much mind it. Others positively encourage it. For some of these the matter is as simple as ideological affinity for the Salafi-Jihadist cause; this is certainly the case for Qatar, whose sheiks’ money has been traced to extremist madrassas and terrorist groups across the globe. For others it is about larger geopolitical goals. The decades Pakistan has spent nurturing and sheltering barbarous Deobandi and Salafi terrorist groups that could be used as proxies against India (and later, American troops in Afghanistan) is the textbook example. It is a risky strategy. Not because of the powers targeted, of course—in face of Pakistani sponsored terrorism India has shown one of the greatest displays of restraint in modern history, while America rewarded Pakistan for killing thousands of its soldiers and citizens with hundreds of billions dollars in aid.

The larger threat is posed by the terrorist groups themselves, whose presence—indeed, very ideology—are a source of instability. Rawalpindi exports as much of this instability as it can to Afghanistan and India (and perhaps now to Xinjiang), but it still witnesses a horrendous amount of carnage within the borders it is charged with defending. Rawalpindi rides the tiger. But they are not the only power to do so. The GCC plays a similar game, though they have yet to suffer the kind of instability seen in Waziristan. The enemy that attracts them to dangerous extremist groups is Iran. A terrorist outfit or militia inspired by Salafi-Jihadist ideology is an ideal vehicle for opposing Iranian ambitions, for the Iranians and their clients are Sh’ia, an anathema to Salafi extremists everywhere. ISIS’s explosive rampage across the region may have cooled the GCC’s ardor for Sunni militias somewhat; it has certainly given them the sort of convenient excuse that they have lacked for the past decade. This morning Saudi officials countered Nouri Maliki’s claim that Saudi Arabia supports Sunni terrorists groups in Iraq by describing the GCC as the “forefront” of the anti-ISIS coalition. They fooled no one. It took months of cajoling and arm twisting before Riyadh agreed to bomb ISIS positions. It took less than two weeks for them to decide to do the same thing to the Shi’ia Houthi fighters in Yemen. A clearer demonstration of their priorities could not be asked for.

Iran’s position in this conflict is unique: there is no state who fights against Salafi-Jihadist extremism with the consistency and force shown by the Islamic Republic. The revolutionary Shi’a ideology promoted by the Iranian state is less extreme and exclusionary than that promoted by Sunni extremists: Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah’s most important political partners are Christians and Druze, while Syria’s Christians flee to the areas controlled by Assad’s regime for safety and protection. In Afghanistan the Iranians worked for a stable regime that protected minority (and thus Shi’a) rights. In Iraq and Syria no other power—with the exception perhaps of the Kurds—fights ISIS with the consistency of Iran and its proxies.

The narrative presented here is more nuanced than the standard cable news presentation on Near East or on Iran. In many ways it is still a gross oversimplification—one could easily add a few more levels of complexity to the discussion by describing the role of the Kurds in regional politics, or tracing the relationships between different Libyan militias and their foreign sponsors, and so forth. But the marginal utility of these additional layers of complexity are small. The most important distinction has already been made: instability in the Middle East is largely rooted in two distinct but connected conflicts. The first is a regional geopolitical rivalry between Iran and its adversaries, Israel and the GCC. The second is an attempt by extremists to hijack Islamic civilization with a violent and utterly intolerant Salafist ideology. Recognizing this should change the terms upon which we debate American-Iranian relations.

The Iran debate we should be having centers around two questions:

  1. Why should the United States care about the Middle East at all? The United States is a power beset with region-bound rivals. It faces challenges to the regional orders it helped create in Europe, the East Pacific, and the Near East. Allies in each region are worried that the United States is not sufficiently committed to their security and the regional order by which they have prospered. They are right to worry. The United States has neither the political will nor the fiscal wherewithal to maintain an active, forward presence in all three regions. It is far past time for those who argue for a stronger presence in any of these places to justify why Americans should prioritize the region in question over the others. Hard questions like these simply cannot be put off any longer.

    This is particularly true for the Near East, for the threat countries like Iran can pose to American interests is correlated with the size of our presence is in the region. Previous interventions in the Near East have been justified in terms of energy security and spreading democratic governance. The shale revolution has rendered the first of these obsolete; the Iraq debacle and the Arab Spring have shown the folly of the second. What justifies American involvement in the present? 

  2. What war do we really want to win? Over the last fourteen years the United States has tried to combat Salafi-Jihadist extremism and quell Iran’s regional ambitions at the same time. One of these aims treats Iran as a tacit ally; the other treats Iran as a an avowed enemy. If this seems contradictory, it is because it is. The United States cannot continue the current course and expect success. A regional order where Salafi-Jihadist extremism is weak is a region where Iran and her proxies are stronger than they are today. A regional order where Iran and her proxies are weakened or defeated is an order where Salafi-Jihadist extremism thrives. Both the Iranians and the GCC realize this. It is time Americans follow suit.

This post was cross posted at The Scholar’s Stage.


[1] Michael Koplow, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Iran Nuclear Deal,” Ottomans and Zionists (14 July 2015) 


3 Responses to “Iran: The Debate We Should Be Having”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Great post!
    I think that all of us who are in favor of the agreement feel that it is not a cure-all for the region’s problems. I suspect that many of us would agree that your questions, or something close, are the bigger ones that should engage us as we move forward.
    The Middle East is a mess. I think we can agree on that even if we don’t agree on the causes. The Middle East has been a mess for so long, that causes almost don’t matter, and I say that as someone who thinks that understanding causes can often help in figuring out future strategies. And I would extend that “mess” back to when there was less military action in the area and more strongman dictators, because they were damaging their countries’ and peoples’ futures. Which is what we are in now.
    One way to work on a tangled ball of string (metaphor change!) is to pull on loose ends. The removal of chemical weapons from Syria was a loose end, as were getting the nuclear equipment out of Libya, attempts to shape the attempted revolution in Egypt, military intervention in Libya, trying to find an Israeli-Palestinian solution, and many more Western interventions. The Iranian nuclear program is one of those loose ends.
    None of the earlier loose ends has led to particular success, but the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) might. One thing it does is to remove an immediate threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. That would make all the other problems harder to solve.
    I think that some of the objections to the JCPOA are, in fact, an objection to any sort of deal at all with Iran. That objection, it seems to me, is an argument for the status quo. But there is no status quo in the Middle East right now. Syria would be a mess with or without Iran’s intervention. Egypt would have its own problems. Can Saudi Arabia continue to oppress its own people and export salafism? And the Israel-Palestine open wound continues. What part of this status quo is desirable or in US and European interests?
    Yes, the deal opens the way for a larger Iranian participation (good and bad) in the region. But Iran is a large country, and it is looking outside itself, also in good (trade) and bad (terrorism) ways. To my mind, better to open some of the more positive channels rather than suppress into the negative ones.
    We don’t know how things will turn out. But did we know that about the Middle East before?
    Your two questions are a valuable guide to where we go from here. Interesting times.
    David Rothkopf’s argument here is a nice example of what I think of as the status quo argument.

  2. Grurray Says:

    To your first question about the reasons for intervention, a third should be added, and that is the social justice doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, which hasn’t quite worked out that well either. You could argue that the Kurds have been beneficiaries, but it seems they are more like a proxy army rather then a group of ‘little people’ to be ensconced. Perhaps justification is too hard to articulate and qualify in our turbulent times and should just be left to, ‘you know it when you see it’.
    An interesting model of intervention is the French, who swoop in whenever stability is judged to be threatened in one of their former colonies. Maybe this is a way to prop up their sense of national pride and pump up their diminished place in the world. It could also be an acknowledgment that there’s an intrinsic reason why some areas developed in certain ways, and that some areas simply require punitive, restorative measures.
    One quibble I have in this otherwise excellent post (so far, heheh) is regarding the notion that the Shia are more tolerant than the Sunni. It does appear that way in examining their system of jurisprudence and some of their practices. On the other hand, Lebanon is bit more complicated. Micheal Aoun is indeed allied with Hezbollah, but the Lebanese Forces, a Christian faction from the civil war turned political party, is aligned with Saudi Arabia. It’s leader was just caught begging the petro-sheiks for money in the last wikileaks dump
    The other main Christian group, the Kataeb is aligned with Israel, although they don’t generally publicize it because the squeaky wheel in Lebanon has a tendency in to get oiled – by those tolerant Shia, if you know what I mean.
    Maybe there’s a lesson there in the Levant for our Rube Goldberg balancing act of Middle East policy. I believe part of Iran’s urgency for signing the deal, other than no chance of ever finding an American leader willing to deal with them ever again, is that they’re conceding the Syrian civil war is lost. Now Iran is jockeying for position to preserve their remaining spheres of influence through their usual methods of deception, ambiguity, secrecy, hypocrisy, and bribery – tactics as old as the Middle East. Given the low cost to benefit ratio, we should think about doing the same.

  3. T. Greer Says:

    Thank you for the kind words Cheryl. I agree that “some of the objections to the JCPOA are, in fact, an objection to any sort of deal at all with Iran.”


    I think the root cause of this attitude is–on average–less about the regional order and its status quo, and more about President Obama. Five Thirty Eight notes that opinions about the deal track opinions about Obama very closely. This makes sense, really. Most Americans don’t know anything don’t know anything about nuclear science or the IAEA. All they know is that Obama has negotiated a deal. If you trust Obama, then you will trust his deal. If you do not trust the president’s intentions or capacity (personally I’m not a fan) then there really is no reason to trust what he has negotiated, or perhaps more importantly, his ability to enforce what has been negotiated. I had this exact conversation earlier this week with a friend of mine. His position basically came down to: “Obama supports a deal, and Bibi doesn’t. Bibi’s grasp on reality is a hell of a lot better than Obama’s. That is really all I need to know.”


    One would assume that analysts with domain relevant expertise are a bit less partisan than this, but I am not sure they are. Had a hardnosed GoP president negotiated this exact deal I suspect that many of those who object to it would do so far less stridently–or would support it altogether. Again, there is something to this. A hardnosed GOP president could credibly threaten to re-impose sanctions, launch airstrikes, or whatever, if the Iranians were not cooperating. I don’t think most people on the right side of the isle think Obama has the gumption for that sort of thing. They simply don’t trust him to enforce with good faith.


    Of course, this cuts both ways; one could just as easily complain of liberal analysts willing to excuse Obama and his deal of any problems. This is why assessing the deal is difficult–I don’t quite trust anyone to give me honest analysis. Those I trust most tend to be from people like Michael Koplow, who usually take one side of left/right debate but here find themselves on the other (Koplow is a strong supporter of Israel, views Iran as the biggest regional threat, and mildly supports the deal), or commentary from countries quite removed from the deal, like most of the stuff showing up in the Indian press.


    @Grurray – you may be right; Shi’a toleration in the ME may just reflect the distribution of power there, which is not in their favor. They need to make friends with whoever they can to survive, it seems. But I’ll stick to my guns on the long term and global implications of what is happening there. Outside of the ME there are very few Shi’a terrorists.

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