Diplomacy can be more rewarding than trigger-happy militarism
The protracted negotiations that led to the July 14, 2015, signing and the January 16, 2016, implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limits Iran’s nuclear program, have inaugurated a promising dual development. The JCPOA signals the dusk of a militaristic phase of American foreign policy and the twilight of Iran’s revolutionary radicalism. Together, these two developments have created an opportunity to resolve some of the most enduring conflicts in the Middle East through patient and responsible international diplomacy. In this essay, I will outline some implications of these two concurrent shifts.
The military turn in American foreign policy in the Middle East, supported by the US’s NATO allies, not only failed to root out terrorism and democratize Afghanistan and Iraq, but terrorized civilian populations through military campaigns, drone warfare and the destruction of civil infrastructure. The Iraq War followed the US’s lofty promises to protect Iraqi citizens on the eve of the 2003 invasion. While America did indeed “lead from behind” in 2011, similar moral platitudes were broadcast during the invasion of Libya and while arming Syria’s “moderate opposition.”
The devastating outcomes of such demands for “regime change” throughout the region have made the Obama Administration hesitate to continue the militaristic Middle Eastern foreign policy of President George W. Bush. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the IAEA’s confirmation on January 16, 2016 that Iran has implemented its “required commitments” are hallmarks of this demilitarization and of the re-diplomatization of American foreign policy.
The direct diplomatic engagement between Iran and the United States, which had been considered a taboo by both sides since 1979, also reveals a fundamental transition in Iran. This shift was hastened after Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s costly reassertion of revolutionary radicalism. The civil unrest that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 warned the Iranian leadership that, after thirty years of revolution, Iran’s young and restive population demanded a normalization of everyday life and an opening to the wider world.
This decisive message, sent by the 2009 Green Movement and followed by the political lessons of the 2011 Arab Spring, provided the conditions for the June 2013 election of Iran’s current President Hassan Rouhani. With his election slogan—“prudence and hope”—he swiftly fulfilled the promise to conduct direct negotiations with the United States, the “Great Satan” of the Islamic Revolution. The shift in Iran from anti-imperialist agitation to a popularly sanctioned diplomatic concord with the United States has significant implications as Iran proceeds in its transformation—however slow and halting—from being a radical revolutionary state to a constructive new “normal state” in the community of nations.
Not everyone approves of Iran’s reintegration into the world community. Conservative power blocs in Iran, particularly those forces that had benefited politically and financially from the country’s isolation since 1979, have not welcomed the reorientation of Iran toward Europe and the United States.
As two significant elections approached—the February 26th Parliamentary (Majlis) elections and that of the Assembly of Experts—the internal political tug of war between conservative and reformist power blocs intensified. Those who benefited from the sanctions imposed on Iran sought to undermine the nuclear agreement and the normalization of Iran’s relations as led by President Rouhani. The election results, however, clearly signaled the rise of a new moderate trend that seeks internal political reconciliation instead of intensified ideological conflicts. This de-ideologization of internal Iranian politics is of particular importance in the Assembly of Experts, which has the mandate to select the next Supreme Leader. With the probable selection of a moderate Supreme Leader, Iran will decisively enter the terminal episode of its Islamic revolutionary radicalism. This important de-radicalization of the state will be matched by the receding focus on the United States as the “Great Satan.”
How is this seen in Riyadh? The Saudi government and the Iranian revolutionary conservatives are oddly similar in their dislike for the normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States. While Iran was hailed as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf prior to the Iranian Revolution, since 1979 Saudi Arabia has replaced it as the most reliable ally of Europe and the United States in the region. The Saudis were the primary financial and political beneficiaries of Iran’s political and economic isolation, which has continually increased since 1979. Sanctions were initially imposed after the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and were intensified with the 1996 US “Iran Sanctions Act” and through a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions beginning with Resolution 1696 in 2006. That measure demanded that Iran halt its uranium enrichment program. Iran’s re-entry into the community of nations and the removal of extensive international economic and political sanctions against it will limit Saudi Arabia’s prosperity and its networks of political and religious influence.
The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) intensified Saudi Arabia’s internal political crisis, which many in its ruling elite consider existential. This crisis was rooted in the Arab Spring of 2011, with its anti-authoritarian waves of civil rallies, sit-ins, and general strikes across the Arab Middle East.
By considering Iran as the instigator of such uprisings (and indeed, the 1979 Revolution had called for Muslim monarchies to be replaced with republics) the Saudis have intensified sectarianism and re-invented the Shi’i-Sunni religious divide by depicting the Shi’ite citizens of the Arab world as Iranian fifth columns. Saudi Arabia has provided military support for Sunni revivalists and jihadists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. It invaded Yemen in March 2015, and executed the Saudi Arabian Shi’i dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016. These actions are part of the Saudi political calculus, which it views as a zero-sum game. The house of Saud sees the normalization of relations with Iran as hazardous to its own long-term financial and political survival.
Saudi Arabia’s recent intensification of sectarian sentiments, instead of curtailing Iranian influence in the region, has had the opposite effect. The expanding influence of Iran in the Arab world is primarily a reaction to illiberal forms of Sunni revivalism (Wahhabism and Salafism) that have been largely financed by the Saudis. But, as we have seen in the cases of Iraq and Syria, this sectarian war against Shi’ites, such as that furthered by Daesh, has also endangered the lives of Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians, Copts, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians in the Arab world. Thus, the exclusionary rhetoric and militant actions of the Sunni jihadists threaten not only the Shi’ites but also the very fabric of these once multi-confessional and diverse Arab societies.
Rather than something timeless, the current Shi’i-Sunni conflict has become a central venue for the remapping of the Arab world in the image of Wahhabi fundamentalism. Such a religious remapping was not the desired future that inspired the democratic and post-Islamist impulses of the Arab Spring.
The intensification of sectarian conflict could have a boomerang effect on Saudi Arabia. With a failing war in Yemen, an unsuccessful endeavor for “regime change” in Syria, the prospect of continued falling of oil prices with the removal of sanctions on Iran, and an unsettled family and political feud among the ruling dynasty—all of these factors could create a great deal of instability in Saudi Arabia. Such developments could even hasten both the objective and subjective conditions for a revolution in the Kingdom itself. Instead of bringing liberty, a revolution in Saudi Arabia would more likely lead to the formation of an extremist religious polity and a further intensified Shi’i-Sunni religious rivalry in the Middle East and beyond.
In light of this illiberal prospect, the international community must move the Middle Eastern conflicts away from an exclusionary zero-sum game toward inclusion, so that every sector of these societies has a role to play. However, the international community cannot accomplish this through deploying drones or by military invasion. It requires protracted and patient diplomatic negotiations to empower social sectors that are facing the danger of extermination.
This approach could be implemented in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain. Because they back different sides and can exert pressure on them, Iran and Saudi Arabia could both guarantee the success of such an international endeavor.
As the P5+1 process demonstrated, courageous, patient, and mutually beneficial diplomacy can be less costly and more rewarding than trigger-happy militarism, which destroys civil infrastructure and creates the breeding ground for a new wave of international terrorism. Let the likes of John Kerry replace the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and General Petraeus! This would be welcomed by the international community and particularly by Iran.
Professor Tavakoli is a historian at the University of Toronto specializing in Iran. firstname.lastname@example.org