My Alhurra appearance (I’ll toss up the YouTube whenever it’s online) went pretty well, I think, in no small part because I just felt a whole lot more comfortable (i.e., much less nervous) going in. About half of the show was focused on ISIS and the campaign in Syria, particularly the continuing lack of a consistent strategy from the Obama administration with respect to what’s going to happen to Bashar al-Assad. I’m going to try to tackle this issue next week, but the point I tried to make is that our Syria policy is a mess because Syria itself is such a mess. How can we fight ISIS without aiding Assad? Is that possible? On the other hand, how could we shift our focus in Syria to ousting Assad without doing serious damage to the course we’re following with respect to ISIS? Shifting to regime change right now could compromise our relationship with Baghdad and make American forces in Iraq and Syria targets for Iranian and Syrian retaliation. On the other hand, Assad is slaughtering rebels and refugees left and right, in particular the “moderate” rebels who we’re hoping to train up to fight ISIS (and then later Assad, maybe), plus we’re talking about a dictator who has lost control over two thirds of his country (admittedly, it’s the two least populated thirds) and who really has no way to ever regain full control over Syria. Like I said, it’s a mess.
Then we moved on to talking about Iran, and that’s what I want to cover here. There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week (it’s behind their paywall, but if you’re a subscriber or know how to get around it, go nuts) making the case that U.S.-Iranian relations have entered a détente phase, with all the attendant fear-mongering about regional security and the risk to America’s allies that you’d expect from Rupert Murdoch’s most prestigious print publication. But the case the piece makes is absurd. It cobbles together a bunch of unrelated U.S. actions in the region and attempts to draw a connection between them that is pure speculation. The evidence it offers for this supposed détente is as follows:
- The U.S. and Iran have stopped directly antagonizing one another
- Both countries have lately worked together, informally, on a range of regional issues
- U.S. intelligence agencies have shared intel with Iran’s Lebanese client, Hezbollah
- John Kerry talked to countries that have ties to Hamas when he was trying to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza this summer
Let’s take these points in that order. First of all, the U.S. and Iran are in the final month of a major international negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program. After a period where it looked like nothing was happening, there are actually some positive signs of late that a deal might be within reach. Why wouldn’t these two countries take concrete steps to avoid antagonizing each other at such a critical juncture? The nuclear deal has the potential to fundamentally remake the Middle East and Iran, putting the Islamic Republic on a path toward full reintegration into the regional and global order for the first time in 35 years. I realize the prospect of that terrifies some of America’s regional allies, but there is a tremendous potential for this deal to unlock a political change in Iran that would be good for everybody. So, yes, please, let’s not go back to antagonizing the Iranians until we know for sure that a deal isn’t happening.
Are we working with Iran on regional issues? The WSJ piece talks about an “alignment” between Washington and Tehran:
But recent months have ushered in a change as the two countries have grown into alignment on a spectrum of causes, chief among them promoting peaceful political transitions in Baghdad and Kabul and pursuing military operations against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to these [brave, anonymous “U.S. and Arab”] officials.
Certainly Tehran helped shove the incredibly unhelpful Nouri al-Maliki out the door in Baghdad, but the fact of the matter is that some U.S. and Iranian regional interests have been in “alignment” since at least 2001, if not before. Both countries wanted the Taliban out in Afghanistan and still want a stable government to form in Kabul that can keep the Taliban out and corral that country’s runaway opium trade. Both countries wanted Saddam gone and a representative Iraqi government put in his place (well, Iran wanted a Shiʿa government in his place, but any “representative” Iraqi government is inevitably going to be Shiʿa). Both countries are worried about Sunni extremism in the form of Al-Qaeda and now ISIS (and yes, Iran has worked with Al-Qaeda in the past for its own aims when convenient, but, you know, so have we). So, yes, there’s alignment, but it’s been that way (despite our best “Axis of Evil” efforts to wreck that alignment) for a long time.
The final two points can be taken together and are handled quite nicely in this EA Worldview piece:
Yes, Secretary of State Kerry communicated indirectly with the Gazan leadership of Hamas during this summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Gaza. He did so because it is impossible to pursue a ceasefire if you only speak with one side — the Israelis — in a conflict. The US maintained its bar on any direct contact with Hamas. It supported a final ceasefire in which Hamas was forced to make concessions to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt.
And none of this had anything to do with a “US-Iran detente”: Gaza was not on the agenda of any contacts between Washington and Tehran.
Similarly, the claimed indirect communication with Hezbollah, via Lebanese security organizations, was never part of a wider initiative involving Iran. In the context of the Syrian crisis, Washington was concerned that car bombings could spark widespread conflict throughout Lebanon, with the involvement of the Islamic State and the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra.
The laughable part of the Hezbollah angle is that we were sharing intel with Lebanese officials, undoubtedly knowing that it would filter to Hezbollah, last summer, before any change in the U.S.-Iran relationship had begun to take shape. It doesn’t take a grand conspiracy theory to understand why the U.S. would be interested in warning Lebanese authorities (which, like it or lump it, Hezbollah is) about Al-Qaeda plots in southern Lebanon, does it? Where Hamas is concerned, we didn’t just suddenly start engaging with Hamas via back channels; we’ve been doing that for quite a long time now, it’s just that we used to go through Egypt, which was acceptable to the Israelis since the Mubarak regime was an Israeli ally. The coup that brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power last year eliminated that channel to Hamas because Sisi refused to have any contact with them. Kerry was trying to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza, so in the absence of the Egyptian channel he went through the two American allies with which Hamas still has close ties, Qatar and Turkey. That’s all.
Look, we may be on the cusp of some fundamental changes in the U.S.-Iran relationship, but the hyperventilating on the right is starting a little prematurely. If the nuclear talks fail to produce a deal then it’s pretty likely that we’ll see a backslide into a more hostile relationship. If the last two years of the Obama administration pass without a deal, we will certainly see a backslide into a more hostile relationship under the next administration. Please, hold your freakout until it’s really warranted.