Today in Geneva, Iran and six world powers decided to extend their own deadline for a settlement on Iran’s nuclear program by seven months.
Secretary of State John Kerry captured the sentiment of all parties involved in the P5+1 (U.S., China, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Iran) negotiations when he said, “given how far we have come over the past year, particularly in the last few days, this is certainly not the time to get up and walk away.”
During the delay, Iran will continue to receive partial sanctions relief and any work on its advanced nuclear program will remain frozen.
With an extension in the negotiations, the U.S. has time to explore a possible new national strategy goal regarding Iran.
The idea is based on the hypothesis: What if the U.S. set out to once again make Iran its primary strategic partner in the Persian Gulf region?
Thirty-four years of historic hindsight suggests that stability in the Persian Gulf region was thrown asunder when the U.S. lost Iran as an ally after the fall of Shah Pahlavi in 1979. In the ensuing years the U.S. sought to strengthen new alliances and has expended a great deal of blood and treasure to try and create a new balance of power in the region. While Iran has been boycotted, bottled up — and sometimes beaten back — the long lens of history reveals that we are pushing against forces of geography, history and 3,000 years of human culture that are far stronger than our idea of a new balance of power in the region.
At face value, the notion of this possibility may seem preposterous. But I offer a few lessons from history and geography that suggest that the idea may not be as outrageous as it seems.
First, Iran was a U.S. key strategic ally in the region from roughly the end of World War II until 1979’s Iranian Revolution. The fact is, Iran’s geography and culture made it the dominant power in the region for centuries. I would suggest that the past 34 years of turmoil are in many respects the exception to the longer view and this position of dominance Iran has is inherent in these geo-cultural realities.
A more recent glimpse back to the Shah’s reign may be easier for most to recall. Up to 1979 we find an Iran that was the preeminent military power in the region. That is — after all — why we followed the British after WW II and courted Iran as our key ally in the region. This is also why we provided them with some of the most advanced weapons in our inventory, like the F-4, F-14, HAWK and Harpoon missiles.
Our current popular American assumptions about Iran do not take into account the deeper cultural currents. The advantages of Iran’s geographic position, large population (65 million), and thriving ancient culture are what make this nation important. This was true in the time of Marco Polo and remains true today. It has little to do with oil.
Second — in three separate crises in the region — when the US really faced a threat, Iran did not interfere with U.S. operations.
The first of these conflicts was Operation Desert Storm. During this operation against Iran’s bitter enemy Iraq, the U.S. kept four Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) in the Persian Gulf without Iranian interference. Again, after Sept. 11, 2001, Iran cooperated with the U.S. in dismantling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Finally, in the current operations against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria forces, Iran and the US once again find a shared interest.
The relationship between Iran and the US is thorny, and these examples are not meant to oversimplify the complexity of US-Iranian relations in the pre or post-Shah era. Rather, they simply stand as evidence that when a real threat against the US and Western interests was clear and present (1991, 2001, and 2014) not only did Iran not interfere with US operations, when it was in their national interest they actually assisted the US.
Third, consider the fact that the populations of U.S. current allies in the region have been the largest source of funding, manpower, and ideological support for the enemies we have confronted since 9-11. As often cited, of the nineteen 9-11 terrorist hijackers, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, two from the UAE, one each from Egypt and Lebanon. None were from Iran, or were funded by Iran.
Again today in the Third Iraq War against ISIS, the principle financial and manpower support for ISIS largely comes from our regional allies, not Iran.
Undeniably Iran has its own terrorist proxies, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah whom were responsible for the deadly 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
Proxies, such as Hezbollah and Iranian Quds forces remain a sticking point in the way forward with Iran. Perhaps a normalization of relations with Iran will dampen the need for such asymmetric threats. As noted previously, our allies in the region remain our allies, even when their native sons hijack aircraft and crash them into our symbols of power on US soil. Thus, there appears to be room for forgiveness when it is in our national interests.
What’s in it for Iran? In recent years Iran has indicated through its achievements in areas such as aerospace technology, and its gradual diplomatic opening up to the world that it may be seeking to end its semi-self-imposed isolation from the world. Iran has paid a great price economically and geopolitically for the type of threatening gestures practiced during the Ahmadinejad era. Iran now stands on the threshold of an opportunity to end the isolation and rebuild trust with the U.S. and Western powers.
With the current nuclear talks extended, the future of U.S.-Iranian relations is at this moment uncertain. To many this hypothesis may seem far-fetched based on the biases and perceptions we have formed in the context of our era.
Finally, I would offer that a past generation of Americans, would have never imagined that Japan and Germany would emerge as two of America’s most important allies. We fought a total war with those nations, and by comparison America’s conflict with Iran appears as a bitter feud between two stubborn former friends. With a careful consideration of history and geography I remain optimistic that normalized relations with Iran can and should be made a goal of the United States.