A nuclear deal is only the first step

Real life has infringed on blogging today, but I did want to flag this important piece by Stephen Walt from a couple of days ago, explaining why a diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear program can have a deep and lasting impact on the Middle East and America’s role there regardless of the fine details about uranium enrichment and centrifuge R&D:

Furthermore, letting Iran out of the penalty box and building a businesslike relationship with Tehran would give the United States more influence over Iran’s decision making than it has at present (admittedly, it would be hard to have less). Equally important, America’s other Middle East allies in the region would be less likely to take U.S. backing for granted and would have to think harder about keeping Washington happy, if they understood that Washington was also talking to Tehran on a regular basis. Because the United States is thousands of miles away, it has the luxury of letting regional powers compete to win our favor and support. Opening the door to a more constructive relationship with Iran might irritate states that have become accustomed to monopolizing America’s Middle East agenda, but that is precisely why smart U.S. strategists should welcome it. Having lots of options increases U.S. leverage, and leverage is exactly what we want.

Make no mistake, the scenario I am sketching here is not a panacea. We have some compatible interests with Iran (such as pacifying Afghanistan and defeating the Islamic State), but also some significant disagreements. There is also a long legacy of historical suspicion and resentment that will take time to overcome. Playing balance-of-power politics effectively also requires a degree of understanding and diplomatic finesse that has usually been lacking in U.S. diplomacy, and especially in this part of the world.

But let’s not forget something else: For all our disagreements, Iran has a more open and participatory political system than most of our other friends in the Middle East. It does some pretty objectionable things (like backing Assad), but so do U.S. allies like Egypt, Israel, or Saudi Arabia. (And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve done some pretty objectionable things ourselves). More than 50 percent of Iran’s population was born after the 1980 revolution, and many younger Iranians are eager to engage with the West. Americans should have enough confidence in our own ideals and values to believe that an opening to Iran will gradually pull them toward us, and not the other way around.


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