For months, there have been warnings to the White House by its Middle Eastern allies and from analysts in Washington not to allow the nuclear negotiations to become a stepping stone for Iran.
As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in his March 3rd speech to the United States Congress: “The enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” urging the United States not to use the campaign against ISIS as a pretext to make an agreement with the devil as it were, that would amplify Iranian power at a time it needs to be diminished.
“I think that the Obama Administration has misjudged how much leverage it had with the Iranian regime and I do think in the end of the day that Iran needs the US more than the US needs Iran,” says Owen Alterman of the Institute of National Security Studies.
Alterman urged in an editorial last summer that the US not travel down this road, because ultimately it was the Iranian military that needed to act urgently against ISIS. Alterman agrees the US should not have tried making that sort of bargain with Iran – which he feels probably played a part in the agreement that came about. But unlike the common argument, he does think the US should have used the issue to its own advantage in the negotiations.
“I think that that leverage could have been used differently in the nuclear negotiations to reach a different type of deal.”
Unfortunately according to Alterman, “All that being said, and given where we are today, I am not so sure we can turn back the clock.”
The United States launched a series of airstrikes in response to several murders of American nationals by the ISIS terrorist army last summer. It also became a matter of urgent need for the embattled Yazidi minority on the southwest end of Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) who were besieged on Mt. Sinjar near the Syria-Iraq border. The US was also instrumental in reversing the fall of Kobane in northern Syria. However, Alterman says that the US could still do more for threats immediate to the Iranians that they could force Tehran to bargain for.
“I do think that the US has military assets that it can use and ISIS is a much more immediate threat to Iran than the US. Therefore, Iran has more to lose than the US does from the rise of ISIS.”
“Therefore Iran stands to benefit much more from American investment in the war than the US has from Iranian investment against ISIS.”
The United States has leverage here that it has not utilized. In Alterman’s mind, not much has changed in the strategic situation. He acknowledges that there are strategic considerations to defeat ISIS, though. For example, he cites the Kurds as a stalwart ally for whom the US would likely prefer to be the main military and strategic partner against Islamic State instead of Iran.
“Sure, the United States has broad interests in the region and ISIS is a long-term threat to the American homeland. But, that being said, ISIS at its peak last year was a potential threat to Iran itself within its own borders. It’s only by virtue of what’s been done in the last year,” ironically, by the US-led coalition, “that that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
ISIS is “definitely threat to US allies and interests, but that is wholly different from saying there is a threat to the homeland like there is for Iran.”
Writing last year, Alterman went into depth about how ISIS would present both a direct and indirect threat to Iran’s security and stability:
“A scenario in which Sunni radicals set up camp near Iran’s western border could import longstanding sectarian feuds close to the heart of Iranian population centers.”
‘Offshore’ Balancing Act
So what is going on?
If the United States clearly had more to lose and the Iranians more to gain from the way the negotiations played out, what could possibly be informing the Obama Administration to lead the Western world to this type of deal?
“I think the way Obama looks at this process is that he’s looking at a longer game and in his opinion this deal could lead to the opening of Iran and eventually lead to political change. His goal is to get the agreement done so you can get to that goal of changing the regime’s behavior later.”
“He thinks the best way to change those actions is getting to a deal and getting the sanctions lifted.”
This leads one to wonder if the Obama Administration might have a long-term strategy of democratization, where broader engagement with the world would demand easing of restrictions back home and more demands from political reformers. Alterman does not give an analysis on the viability of such an idea, stating simply that seems to be the way US policy is going.
Does that suggest the United States is looking to replace Saudi Arabia as a key US ally in the region?
“It’s clear the US is interested in reducing its [own] footprint via something called ‘offshore balancing’ in the Middle East. The US is interested in using a regional balance of power based on the relative strength of regional powers, including the US.”
He adds that this is a more hands-off approach that the US does not intend to commit to fully, still adding military input to certain “strategic interventions” like the current US intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. But it might also explain the Americans’ relaxed attitude to Russia’s sale of S-300 missiles to Iran.
“I don’t think it’s a case of the US dropping Saudi Arabia. I think it’s changing its relationship with both [Saudi Arabia and Iran] so they can balance each other.”
This begs the question: is the United States also pulling back from its relationship with Israel in the same way?
“To some extent, yes, but Israel is a different issue because of the political issue Israel is in American politics and the stability of pro-US public opinion in Israel. That’s something that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey for that matter cannot supply.
“Aside from the fact, again, that Israel is an important issue in domestic American politics, there has been heavy investment in Israel over the course of several decades.
“Even if the US wanted to, it would not find it easy to back off of the relationship with Israel.”