Iran’s new president-elect, reformist Hassan Rouhani, delivered his first speech on the Islamic Republic’s approach to foreign policy and there is reason to hope that we might see a de-escalation in the tensions over its nuclear program.
Washington responded in kind, saying that the United States would be willing to engage Teheran over its nuclear program. Rouhani, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, even received accolades from the former UK foreign secretary, Jack Straw, for being a tough, but fair negotiator. Reactions from Europe’s other major powers were more reserved, but also cautiously optimistic. Behind the diplomatic courtesy, however, there are significant immediate tests for both Rouhani and the West to work together on: the outcome of the Syrian civil war and Iran’s nuclear program.
The dark horse in the geopolitical puzzle is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that international pressure on Iran with respect to its nuclear program must not be lessened – standard remarks that once again confirm Netanyahu’s incompetence on foreign policy, but also raise the security risks for the Jewish state – its reliance on the military factor as the sole conduit for foreign policy is a fatal long-term liability.
Syria has entered its third year of bloodshed in a civil war that has killed tens and likely, hundreds of thousands of people; official statistics of war casualties tend to be vastly underestimated. For the West, the Arab Spring calculus in Syria is not going as planned: President Assad’s forces have not been dislodged and are gradually taking the offensive initiative against the disunited opposition, whose most effective fighters remain Islamic extremists, affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Effectively, Washington’s decision to arm the rebels through the CIA was a political hara-kiri – we’re now de facto allied with Al-Qaeda after a decade of trillions of dollars, two wars and many thousands dead on all sides, all in the effort to eliminate the very same group as a factor.
In a word, we’re openly financing terrorism and America may have just hastened its own de-legitimation in the Middle East. While Assad is at the helm of a brutal dictatorial dynasty, the alternative is a civil war of indeterminate length and a new government that will likely be less tolerant and yet more brutal; the influence of radical Islamists will translate into the Syrian derivative of the Taliban or al-Shabab. Therefore, it is prudent to leave any democratic illusions about Syria at this point in time.
The complication in Syria is the fact that Iran is planning to send 4,000 Revolutionary Guard soldiers to fight alongside Assad’s armies in the country, and the decision was supposedly made before the presidential election; the Ayatollah Khamenei’s power would have made that possible. This move is a precedent in the recent history of Iranian foreign policy, because it has a strategic character, rather than the defensive nature of military action in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. The action also mirrors American foreign policy directly, as Washington also deploys troops around the world. Faced against what are effectively two professional military officers, the mix of rebels and terrorists that makes up the opposition cannot be sustained without equally well-trained and equipped forces. However, this proposition also can extend the civil war indefinitely in time and result in further thousands meeting a premature end.
On the second matter of nuclear polities, even after the elections, Iran has made clear that it will not suspend its program, and Rouhani already appealed for the West to respect the country’s nuclear rights – a refrain not unfamiliar from Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s years in office. While the new president did come out with a constructive appeal to negotiating with the West, both sides will need to make concessions along one route: openness for removing sanctions. As a tool for foreign policy, sanctions in theory are intended to curtail the economic lifelines of the targeted party. Empirical experience with Iran and North Korea, however, proves that sanctions are a resounding policy failure, because they have failed to change the strategic behaviour of those states in re-thinking nuclear development. The logical step, then, is to apply real diplomacy with Iran and engage in direct politics if we want to see tensions dissipate and discussion to move forward.
Iran has the potential to both develop the commercial export of nuclear technology, as well as threshold bomb capacity. The manufacture and trade of small reactors, perhaps less than 1000MW in output, would be a prime business opportunity for developing countries, and it is probably this aspect of proliferation that is important to engage Iran over first and foremost. Threshold bomb capacity is highly contingent on Israel’s behaviour and whether Netanyahu chooses to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran. If so, the attack would provide the sufficient political legitimation for Iran to militarize nuclear power; prior to that, Teheran is better off not developing a bomb, in order to keep a lid on the simmering regional tensions.
Overall, the American relationship with Iran needs to change from "not talking" to "it’s complicated." Geopolitical jockeying in Syria at the price of thousands of lives is concurrent with nuclear negotiations and the entire range of sensitive issues stemming from it. American foreign policy needs to advance 25 years forward very quickly before it becomes irrelevant and succeeds in antagonizing more parties than is wise – and only political engagement through diplomacy is going to ascertain optimal outcomes for all concerned.