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Analysts: US Policy Unrealistic about Iran’s Role

According to an editorial published on Friday in the Times of Israel, a recent think tank report commissioned by the Obama administration raises the possibility of using the conflict with the Islamic State, or ISIS, to bring Israel and Iran together in common cause. The document recommends partnering not only with Tehran against ISIS, but also with the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which the US current opposes. The same document also urges a speedy conclusion of nuclear negotiations in order to facilitate this cooperation.

The author of the editorial naturally rejects these recommendations as dangerous and tending toward appeasement, and he recommends instead that the US and its allies give active support to Kurdish forces and to an Iraqi army that is trained in the absence of current Iranian influence. He also emphasizes that the idea that it is naïve and impractical to think that tensions will diminish between Iran and Israel, especially if Iran is permitted to advance its nuclear program.

Khamenei’s open advocacy for a new Palestinian war drives home this point. The aforementioned policy paper, by the pro-rapprochement Iran Project, takes it for granted that with the Islamic State as a common enemy, Iran and Israel may ignore each other or reduce hostilities. This of course ignores the possibility that Iran and the Islamic State might reduce hostilities with each other in order to address the common enemy that they find in Israel. This latter outcome is arguably more likely, given that Iran has a demonstrated history of putting aside ideological differences with Sunni extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, in order to focus attention on their common enemies in Israel and the West.

Analysts and American military leaders have variously commented on the fact that the US has repeatedly made the mistake of thinking that Iran would choose to cooperate with the US instead of with Sunni groups. The Times of Israel editorial seems to suggest that the Obama administration is intent on making this mistake yet again. Meanwhile, an editorial at Al Arabiya makes the larger point that the Obama administration is simply failing to take into account the widespread regional effects of Iran’s activities.

The editorial’s author, Harvard political scientist Majid Rafizadeh argues that instead of continuing with a policy of appeasement that takes the Iranian role out of the equation, “what is needed in order to address the raising conflict in the Middle East is a comprehensive marshal plan, which would take all the different layers of Iran’s role in the conflict into consideration, including the Islamic Republic’s forces involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.”

To these three areas of influence, Palestine might also be added, especially given the public nature of Ayatollah Khamenei’s comments on that topic. Khamenei’s willingness to openly advocate for war may partly be a reaction to soft American policies, which Rafizadeh characterizes as appeasement and says have led the Islamic Republic to detect weakness and perceive itself as having leverage in dealings with the US.

This also serves to explain some of Iran’s behavior with respect to the nuclear issue. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has previously stated that Iran would resume full-scale uranium enrichment if the US did not concede to a deal. Now, seemingly elaborating on that, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency has released a report quoting the chief of the nation’s atomic energy organization as saying that Iran is now producing high-speed centrifuges.Although many of Iran’s claims of technological development are later questioned or falsified, this report implies that the Iranian nuclear program will soon be capable of higher levels of uranium enrichment, and thus may have a lower nuclear weapon breakout time.

Although many of Iran’s claims of technological development are later questioned or falsified, this report implies that the Iranian nuclear program will soon be capable of higher levels of uranium enrichment, and thus may have a lower nuclear weapon breakout time.

The report also says that “previously, Iran was not allowed to have the high speed centrifuges because of their dual use nature.” It is not clear what this means, since a nuclear deal with Western powers has not been concluded and former restrictions on the nuclear program have not been lifted. Presumably, by limiting these restrictions to the past, Tasnim and atomic energy organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi are either taking it for granted that a nuclear deal will be signed, or are simply rejecting restrictions on their own.

 Whatever the case, this claim of heightened enrichment ability further emphasizes apparent American naïveté  about Iran’s willingness to cooperate in former a nuclear compromise. Among some politicians and commentators, that naïveté  is based on the perception that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei previously issued a fatwa declaring that the Islamic Republic would not pursue nuclear weapons. But on Friday, Iran News Update quoted an exiled Islamic cleric and scholar as saying that Khamenei’s statement has no binding effect on the regime, and is likely nothing more than a “political gimmick.”

A further cause of Western naïveté is simply the assumption that Iran can be expected to act in the economic best interests of its people. This leads to possible overestimation of the motivating influence of sanctions. The website Quartz discussed this topic on Friday in an article that quoted experts as saying that low oil prices are unlikely to push Iran towards a nuclear compromise over the short term.

Although Iran cannot balance its state budget with oil prices held under about 140 dollars per barrel, it has previously shown itself willing to accept a significant amount of economic pain for the sake of other, more ideological motives, including the international status associated with an advanced nuclear program.

Quartz does not conclude, however, that this means that sanctions are ineffective or that low oil prices cannot lead to concessions from the Islamic Republic. It merely points out that those low oil prices and other economic motivators will have to be maintained over a long period of time before the Iranian regime is willing to take the prudent action and compromise.

Unfortunately for those who wish to exert such pressure on Iran, there are indicators that sanctions relief and rising interest among foreign investors has diminished that pressure to the point at which Iran is likely less motivated to compromise than it would have been at the height of sanctions. Trade Arabia, for instance, indicates that Iran appears to be stockpiling corn and wheat, thanks to sanctions relief that has made foreign buying easier and less expensive. This not only points to increased buying power, but also suggests that Iran may be accumulating stockpiles in preparation for the failure of a nuclear deal and the return of full-scale sanctions.

Such preparation may also take the form of efforts to draw closer to traditional allies and to expand illicit economic relations with global partners. Radio Free Europe reports that the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council is set to visit Tehran in the coming week, signifying the further expansion of relations between the two Asian allies, both of which are frequent adversaries with Western interests.

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