While the famous "unclenched" fist President Obama offered to Iran has yet to be reciprocated, seeking a geopolitical compromise with Iran is rapidly becoming a necessity. However, such a potential agreement must also encompass the wider Shia population within the Greater Middle East. The Shia, though overall a minority in the Middle East, make up majorities in Iran and Iraq. Even though they comprise less than twenty percent of the population in Saudi Arabia, they tend to reside in areas of high oil concentration. This enables them to exert influence disproportionate to their numbers.
This means that as the balance of power between Sunni and Shia shifts with the ousting of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the relative rise of Iran, the US should be willing to shift its focus on who plays the great stabilizer role for global oil prices. However, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the US has had a Sunni-centric approach to the region that has hobbled its diplomatic flexibility.
Any accommodation with Iran with respect to its nuclear program, though perceived by many as heretical, should be rigorously examined.
For this to happen, a change in focus must take place. Despite fears of Iran's pending nuclearization killing the non-proliferation regime, the truth is that it is already dead. Attempting to block nations from developing nuclear capabilities on an ad hoc basis will squander scarce resources and not guarantee success. Rather than clinging on to ineffectual policy options such as economic sanctions, or unrealistic options like military force, the US must re-embrace deterrence.
Iran, contrary to many assertions, is likely to take a strong deterrent stance seriously, though it will need to be quite explicit and quite harsh to be effective. If a line is drawn on what is unacceptable, any crossing of that line must not yield "discussions", "negotiations", or "processes." Such a crossing, for example an attack on Israel, must be made existentially catastrophic so that it won't seriously be contemplated.
Should an aggressive sense of deterrence be established psychologically where the concept actually resides, then a "deal" can be possible allowing Iran a certain degree of security within well defined limits. The regime can be assured that no external forces or externally supported internal forces will overthrow it. It may even be possible to envision allowing it to openly develop nuclear power (and even a limited weapon) capability.
Conceptually, this is no more shocking an idea than having the arch-anti-Communist Richard Nixon work with Mao in order to balance the Soviet Union. That Nixon-Kissinger policy of triangulation is generally considered to have paid handsome dividends. While this diplomatic gambit would be different in many ways, it would operate similarly by opening the door to flexible diplomacy in the region.
If the US and Iran can come to some terms, the ability to tilt between the Sunni Saudi regime and the Shia ascendancy in Iran and Iraq will be possible. Additionally, this flexibility will have to be taken into consideration by a resurgent Turkey which currently appears as though it is attempting to regain influence within the region.
Today the US is stuck trying to contain Iran without the military flexibility to be serious, thus looking a bit like a paper tiger. Tomorrow, it could seize the geopolitical initiative by being the decisive weight on the scale of Sunni-Shia relations. Both would be forced to cultivate relations with the US in order to maintain its support.
Obviously, for this to work the US must allay the most pressing fears of present allies in the region, notably Israel. The US's stance on deterrence must be clear enough that Israel understands that any attack upon it by Iran would be answered with the most aggressive of responses. Additionally, continued missile defense and other technology trade with Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well as with Israel should be enhanced.
In order to avoid losing ground in a geopolitically pivotal region of the world, the US must be bold. Today, Iran and the increasingly confident Shia of the Middle East are playing a central role in shaping what the region will look like a generation from now. The US must be able to adapt to the shifting sands and not cling rigidly to yesteryear's policy prescriptions.
Greg Lawson is the Director of Communications for a US based political advocacy organization and is a life long observer of political and foreign affairs.
Related Material from Atlantic Community:
- Laura Wicks: Deadly Divide- Sunni-Shia Conflict Determines Iraq's Future
- Christian E. Rieck: The Nixon Strategy
- Matt Dupuis: Dealing with Iran- Deterrence is Not Enough