A Persian China Card

I’ve been waiting for a while for one of the Presidential candidates to call for full-on rapprochement with Iran. The idea has intrinsic appeal. America and Iran have no natural conflicts of interest. We have no direct territorial disputes, nor are we engaged in classical great-power competition to control trade routes or natural resources. As an ideological rival, Iran is almost laughably weak; radical Islam, unlike Communism, is not a powerful subversive ideology other than in Islamic lands themselves, and in those lands Iran has a small problem: it’s a Shiite country where the overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons for a bunch of reasons, including bolstering the prestige of the regime internally and in the region, but among the big reasons include the need to deter us, and to restore a balance of power vis-a-vis nuclear rivals (and, note, American allies) Israel and Pakistan. If you wander around the conservative blogosphere, you will run into lots of allegations that Iran is supporting al Qaeda, but the much bigger picture is that Iran was very pleased to get rid of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which it regarded as certainly distasteful and potentially threatening, and certainly not an ally. And the Iranian people purportedly love us. Why on earth shouldn’t we be talking to Iran? Why shouldn’t we be allies?

So here’s my question for the crowd advocating a Nixon-in-China strategy for Iran: what, precisely, do we have to offer the Iranian regime?

Hostility to America has been relatively cheap and has been helpful in maintaining the ideological legitimacy of the regime. The major things Iran wants - a nuclear deterrent, a greater role in the holy places of Islam, a docile "near-abroad," etc – are either the precise things we are trying to get them to give up, are not in America’s gift, or would be threatening to other American allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc). Yes, opposition to America has cost Iran in economic terms – but there are lots of countries that have opened themselves up to foreign trade and investment whose populations have not generally shared the benefits of globalization, so it’s not at all clear that the regime is suffering more from the current economic discontent than it would be suffering if Iran experienced a big jump in income stratification such as might follow a big jump in foreign investment. (There are others, of course, where the benefits have been shared more broadly. Which category do you think a post-opening Iran would more likely fall into?)

The Libyan case is not entirely apposite. Libya is a real autocracy, whereas Iran is closer to a party dictatorship (actually, it’s freer than a party dictatorship, but my point is that it doesn’t have a single maximum leader). It is easier to buy off an autocracy than a regime like Iran’s. Moreover, Libya’s game was played out. Its hostility to America was no longer generating any real returns. And Libya "turned" after total isolation for a generation. It seems to me that the Iranians, were they to give up their ideological opposition to America, would be giving up a great deal more than Qaddafi gave up when he turned.

And the China analogy is not a great one either. Nixon was able to play the China card because China and America had a shared rival: the Soviet Union. A re-orientation away from outright hostility to America made sense for China because Soviet Russia was a greater threat than America was, and the complimentary calculation was true for us. But who is this shared threat that might bring America and Iran together? Implicitly, commentators like William Lind think that al Qaeda is that threat. But it’s not at all clear that al Qaeda is any kind of threat to Iran. There is a great deal of space between the notion that al Qaeda and Iran are part of an Axis of Evil and the notion that they are each other’s worst enemy, and within that space is where reality lies. Al Qaeda is not much of a threat to Iran because al Qaeda has no appeal to Shiites – because it is a radical Sunni movement. By contrast, al Qaeda is a big threat to American allies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Jordan precisely because these are predominantly Sunni countries where al Qaeda has some appeal, maybe even a great deal (at least in Saudi Arabia). Lind thinks that Iran, as a state, is a basically status-quo power threatened by non-state actors. Really? That must be why Iran is the primary source of funding and arms for Hezbollah, the non-state actor that has hollowed out the Lebanese state from within. In reality, non-state actors serve Iran quite well, so long as they are not threatening to Iran specifically.

Iran’s hard power is limited, and unlikely to ever get very substantial. Iran’s soft power derives substantially from opposition to the United States. Iran and America have no substantial interests in opposition, but they also have no substantial enemies in common around which they could unite; indeed, Iran’s principal rivals are America’s allies, and the non-state actors that the War on Terror is supposed to be about defeating are most threatening to precisely those countries that are America’s allies and Iran’s rivals. How would rapprochement with America serve Iranian interests?

Mind you, I’m not making a brief here for war with Iran by any means. I think a military confrontation between America and Iran would be disastrous. And I understand the appeal of, to make a different analogy, a Sadat-goes-to-Jerusalem scenario for a new American President and Iran. But, again, I just don’t see what closes a deal. Sadat got the Sinai and American aid; Israel got to stop worrying about its southern front. What do we get from Iran for giving them control of Iraq, influence in Afghanistan, and whatever else they get from a deal with America? Or, to put it another way, assuming Lind is right and that it’s bottom-line good for us that somebody be running the show, that there not be total chaos, what might the other consequences of a massive Iranian victory be? It seems to me that it would be very much in Iran’s interest not to leave the table at this point but to stoke the fires of discontent among its regional rivals; and if I were an Egyptian, a Turk, a Saudi, or a Pakistani, a sudden American reversal on Iran would convince me that America could not be relied upon and therefore we would need to provide for our own security against Iran. In other words, we would not be stabilizing the region and eliminating dangerous non-state actors. We would just be switching horses.

Which, I would point out, is precisely what the Michael Ledeens think we should be doing – only they think we should do it after the glorious restoration of Iranian "freedom." That’s really the only difference between right-wing wishful thinking on Iran and left-wing wishful thinking: the one presumes that after regime change we will be natural allies, while the other presumes that we can be natural allies without regime change. Neither is the case. We cannot be natural allies unless and until we have a natural common enemy or other substantial common interests.

What am I missing here? I’m very receptive to the skeptical case about war with Iran. Why should I not be skeptical of the case for peace as well?