The single most contentious, urgent and far-reaching policy debate in Washington at present is centred on where the United States is seeking or expecting to go in its reset in relations with Iran.
The largest group is taking things at face value. They accept that the Obama administration simply wants to avoid another unpopular confrontation in the Middle East and is exploring how to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions without having to resort to force. This is the received wisdom. And the burden of proof is strongly on those who suggest there is more to the US-Iranian dialogue than such limited issues.
Defenders of the conventional wisdom have several important arguments on their side.
First, the six-month interim “first step” agreement achieved by the P5+1 with Iran was quite limited. Iran did little to roll back its nuclear programme. And the sanctions relief it received in turn is also limited. Second, there is powerful opposition in both the US and Iran to even this interim agreement. Third, there are real doubts about the prospects for a broader agreement.
What was achieved so far has been relatively cost-free, and it bought both sides valuable time to consider their options and postpone any potential confrontation. Any deeper agreement will require much greater concessions by both sides and face powerful opposition in both societies. It may not be possible at all.
So those who urge caution at over-reading the significance of Washington-Tehran dialogue can make a strong case.
Nonetheless, speculation is proliferating that what could be at stake is a complete restructuring of the American strategic posture in the Middle East generally and the Gulf region in particular.
Neoconservatives Michael Doran and Max Boot recently opined that what the Obama administration is actually looking for is a “concert of powers”, including Iran, the European Union, Russia and others, to stabilise the Middle East. According to this theory, the United States is exhausted and fed up with the Middle East and is looking to share the burden with others.
But even this highly critical speculation in public is outdone by what is being whispered in private, especially among those most alarmed by what they perceive to be the administration’s intentions: a much more far-reaching transformation in the American posture in the region.
The United States, this thinking goes, is the only global power capable of projecting enough force into the Gulf region to secure the crucial shipping routes through which almost half of the maritime-delivered petroleum in the world is transported. This assumes the US wishes to draw down its regional posture but dismisses any joint global effort.
Such thinking holds that Americans face a stark choice: either maintain a major but undesired military presence in the region or face the fact that there is no international or regional balance of power to secure it. If it chooses to draw down, it must, therefore, seek a local power capable of ensuring regional stability and shipping access.
Its proponents hold that, as things stand, only Iran can provide such an assurance. And they claim that the Shia powers of Iran and Iraq, not the Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council states, now possess the greater share of the region’s oil reserves.
The nuclear issue is therefore considered secondary to both countries, although Iran will be forced to make serious nuclear concessions in a broader accommodation that allows it, instead, a wide sphere of influence in a “Shia crescent” running from Afghanistan to southern Lebanon, and even, perhaps, greater clout in the Gulf too.
This argues that Washington is not seeking an unattainable “balance” in the Gulf, but is actually preparing, in effect, to “switch sides” and enter an uncomfortable and uneasy, but mutually beneficial, accommodation with Tehran in order to draw down its military presence and begin the long-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia”.
Such theories are certainly speculative, if not conspiratorial. After all, so far the US has not even begun to seriously reconfigure its military presence in the Gulf region, the agreement with Iran is profoundly tentative and the administration scoffs at such ideas.
However, tidbits of supporting circumstantial evidence can be identified. US reticence in Syria could be read as hedging for an accommodation that confirms that country as part of Iran’s potential agreed sphere of influence. Unconfirmed reports of secret talks with Hizbollah are also suggestive.
And, if such an accommodation is to be made, it would almost certainly have to be presented to the American public as a common front against a mutual deadly threat: Al Qaeda. Indeed, a recent New York Times article that bore all the hallmarks of administration leaks made precisely the dubious case that the US and Iran “face common enemies” across the Middle East.
This is all suggestive, but also very thin.
The bottom line is that few in Washington feel confident they understand exactly what the administration is hoping to ideally achieve in its outreach to Tehran. Constituencies that either welcome or fear the prospect of a broader accommodation are growing rapidly and becoming vocal.
Only one thing seems relatively clear: anyone who believes an American-Iranian accommodation would successfully secure the Gulf region for the coming decades is likely to be deeply disappointed.
It will either prove an utter chimera that these two old and distrustful antagonists are capable of such an arrangement. Or, if it is attempted, it will almost certainly prove destabilising and provoke more instability and confrontation in the region.