NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – Difficult though it may be to believe, Iran presents more important challenges than whether a nuclear deal negotiated with the regime in the teeth of congressional opposition would be legally binding. Nuclear weapons are scary, and they do matter, but in the long run, geopolitical reality matters more. That’s why this report, which arrived over the weekend from the Dubai-based Orient Advisory Group, should be disturbing:
Ali Younusi, advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, said in a seminar titled “The Iranian Identity” held in Tehran on March 8th, that his country is in Iraq to stay. “Iran is an empire once again at last, and its capital is Baghdad. It is the center of our civilization, culture and identity as it always was along the course of history.”
This is rather heady stuff. But might it be mere rhetoric, designed for domestic political consumption? There is reason to think not. Iraq has served for decades as a bulwark against Iran’s territorial ambitions, but that status was exploded by a pair of U.S. decisions: first, President George W. Bush’s invasion; and, second, President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. forces.
This is why it matters that the United States is essentially sidelined in the campaign to drive Islamic State fighters from Tikrit. Not only is the U.S. not participating in the battle, but also, according to the always excellent reporting of the Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef, the Obama administration didn’t even know that the attack by 30,000 government troops and Shiite militiamen was imminent.
Reuters reports that the battle for Tikrit has become a stalemate. Al Jazeera quotes an Iraqi commander as complaining that the U.S.-led coalition is providing too little air support. But nobody seriously imagines that Islamic State can hold on in Tikrit. It’s not unusual for combat engagements to proceed in fits and starts, and the fact that the offensive has slowed doesn’t mean that the defenders aren’t in retreat.
This should be good news. The trouble is that the largest militia group participating in the attack is the Popular Mobilization Committee, some elements of which have been accused of war crimes. This matters because, if and when Tikrit falls, there is a significant risk that the Shiites will take a bloody revenge on the Sunnis who remain — and the U.S. has admitted there is little it can do if that happens. That’s the cost of not being involved.
Now let’s add in last month’s comments from Gen. Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Quds Force, currently aiding — some would say directing — the ground campaign in Tikrit: “Today we see signs of the Islamic revolution being exported throughout the region, from Bahrain to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen and North Africa.”
Headier stuff still. Tehran makes no secret of its ambitions, and seems to face no significant opposition in the drive to achieve them. Certainly the U.S., formerly the dominant regional power, seems to be standing aside as Iran advances.
An important and accurate criticism of U.S. President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy was that too little thought had been given to the long-term consequences of U.S. military action. His administration had planned inadequately for life after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussen. The identical criticism can be leveled against the Obama administration. Officials seemed to have no realistic understanding of what might happen once the U.S. withdrew. When it became clear that Iraq was becoming a disaster, the administration had no clear plan on what to do about it — or even whether it mattered.
It’s not as though only vulgar partisans saw this coming. Plenty of professionals tried to sound the warning. Among them was George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, who made this very point in his perspicacious 2011 book “The Next Decade: Empire and Republic in a Changing World”:
The balance of power between Iran and Iraq remained intact until 2003, when the U.S. invasion destroyed both Iraq’s government and army. Since then the primary force that has kept the Iranians in check has been the U.S. But the U.S. has announced that it intends to withdraw its forces from Iraq, which, given the state of the Iraqi government and military, will leave Iran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf.
How dominant? Sufficiently dominant, Friedman argued, that negotiations over nuclear weapons would be beside the point: With Iraq essentially neutralized, its 30 million people fighting each other rather than counterbalancing anyone, Iran is for the first time in centuries free from significant external threat from its neighbors. … With Iraq in shambles, the nations of the Arabian Peninsula could not resist Iran even if they acted in concert. Bear in mind that nuclear weapons are not relevant to this reality. Iran would still be the dominant Persian Gulf power even if its nuclear weapons were destroyed.
It seems likely that the Obama administration has already reconciled itself to this reality. The White House quite likely believes that the U.S. is unable to afford the cost of a continued large-scale deployment of forces in the region. Friedman saw this coming too: In the next decade, the most desirable option with Iran is going to be delivered through a move that now seems inconceivable. It is the option chosen by U.S. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon when they faced seemingly impossible strategic situations: the creation of alliances with countries that had previously been regarded as strategic and moral threats.
Conditions on the ground put the U.S. in a similar position today vis-a-vis Iran. These countries despise each other. Neither can easily destroy the other, and, truth be told, they have some interests in common. In simple terms, the American president, in order to achieve his strategic goals, must seek accommodation with Iran.
In short words, Friedman argued that the long-term interest of the U.S. would be best served by detente with Iran. The U.S., he contended, should accept Iran’s status as the dominant regional power, and negotiate with Tehran as it would with any other hostile but untouchable nation.
Perhaps this is what the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are really about. The Obama administration has decided to yield to what it sees as inevitable: Iran’s emerging status as the dominant power in the Middle East. If that’s what’s going on, the president of the U.S. should say so. Both his own citizens and the people of that troubled region deserve the truth.
Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, teaches law at Yale University.