The Iran Dilemma.

Tom Friedman’s opinion on Middle Eastern matters must command respect. Friedman has remarkable access to American government sources. The Obama administration often appears to voice its views through his column.

Since the Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Shah, the United States and Iran have been at odds. At the same time, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran have been at odds. So, an alliance of convenience formed between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the upheavals in the Middle East have consolidated the grip on power of Iranian clients in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Over the longer term, however, Iran’s long pursuit of nuclear weapons has been profoundly destabilizing to the region. (See: Bomb ‘em ‘till the mullahs bounce.)

Friedman’s recent column on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program lays out some essential issues, even if it does not fully explore them.[1]

First, the Obama Administration hopes that a nuclear deal with Iran will be “transformational.” If sanctions are lifted, Iran can be drawn into the larger world. Contact with more liberal societies may—eventually—turn Iran into a “normal,” non-revolutionary state.

Second, the Obama administration sees Iran as a legitimate counter-weight to the Wahhabist version of Islam sponsored by America’s nominal “ally,” Saudi Arabia. Iran has competitive (if not “free”) elections; respect for women beyond the norm in the Muslim world; and real military power that it is willing to use. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is an absolutist monarchy that sponsors the spread of the extremist Wahhabism that can easily turn into Islamic radicalism, but will not use its powerful military for more than air shows.

Third, “America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shi’ite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.”

Fourth, “managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem [the United States] should own. We’ve amply proved we don’t know how.”

Points worth discussing.

What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, contact with the West or the inherent stupidity of Communism? Is expanded contact with the West eroding the power of the Chinese Communist Party? These examples go to the “transformational” aspect of the issue.

Is the Obama administration hoping for a Nixon-Kissinger style “opening” (as to China) that will remake the politics of the Middle East? If so, is the game worth the candle? What American interests will be advanced by such an opening? Iran will fight ISIS and Saudi Arabia will back opponents of the Shi’ite government in Baghdad regardless of such a change.

Does the Obama administration accept that we are witnessing the undoing of the Sykes-Picot borders? If so, which borders are likely to be redrawn? Iraq, Syria, and Libya are failed states. What about Saudi Arabia (home to most of the foreign fighters in ISIS) or Egypt?

Finally, Friedman argues that “if one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of the regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.” First, he accepts the thrust of the piece by Broad and Sanger, that Iraq knows how to make a nuclear weapon. (See: A note of caution in Iran.) Second, he argues that changing attitudes is the “only” way to deal with the danger. Really? Soldiers usually plan for an enemy’s capabilities, not his intentions—which can be hard to discern.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Looking Before Leaping,” NYT, 25 March 2015.

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