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United States Should Pivot on Shia-Sunni Divide

By doing a deal with Iran, the United States can maintain a balance of power in the Middle East.

Anwar Sadat Cyrus Vance
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is received by American secretary of state Cyrus Vance at Andrews Air Force Base, January 1, 1980 (DoD)

The balance of power between Shia and Sunni has shifted since the 2003 Iraq War. A bold new strategy of isolating Iran while simultaneously reaching out to and cutting a nuclear deal with it could reset the balance in the region and allow the United States to recalibrate their Middle East as well as global strategy.

Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States have had a Sunni-centric approach to the Middle East that has hobbled their diplomatic flexibility. It is time for this to stop.

The proxy war between Shiites and Sunnis has been ongoing since 2003 but after Iraq finally shifted closer to Iran, a new battleground was certain to emerge. It now seems obvious that battleground is Syria. While much of what transpires there is clearly complex, it is also apparent that Iran is backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia is supporting the rebels. A resurgent Turkey is also shifting to an outwardly hostile position toward the Assad regime.

This represents an opportunity for the United States that is being squandered.

First, the United States should consider not feeding into the proxy war in Syria as many observers are urging but rather seek an internal “palace coup” that eliminates Assad and allows Alawites to retain power in exchange for severing ties with Tehran.

While working this angle to impose greater isolation on Iran within the region, the United States need to seek a real accommodation with Iran on its nuclear program and recognition of the present regime. While any diplomatic accommodation with Iran regarding its nuclear program will be perceived by many in the United States, especially conservatives, as heretical; the time for such a move could not be better strategically.

For this to happen, a change in focus must take place. Despite fears of Iran’s pending nuclearization killing the nonproliferation regime and opening the door to cascading proliferation in the region, that path is already a strong possibilty. Attempting to block nations from developing nuclear capabilities on an ad hoc basis will squander scarce resources and not guarantee success, thus making such efforts of doubtful long-term utility.

As it pertains to Iran, it is to important stop clinging to ineffectual policy options such as economic sanctions. Few expect these to be effective in ultimately preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability of some kind, especially a “breakout” capability. For Europe and the United States, the entire endeavor looks more like a subterfuge designed to give the appearance of meaningful action in the actual absence of such action.

It is also extremely unrealistic to assume that military force will permanently stop nuclear progress absent an actual invasion of the country and an intrusive inspection regime being imposed. Given the limited flexibility of ground forces available to the United States at a time of domestic war weariness and pending budget austerity, the option of invasion seems off the table for the foreseeable future. What is left as an option appears to be, as unsatisfying as it is for many, a reembracing of deterrence or allowing the Israelis to do the dirty work.

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 be seriously contemplated.

Naturally, the development of these “lines” is much easier said than done, however, it seems reasonable to assume several key lines would involve:

  • No attacks on Israel either overtly or covertly through the use of proxies such as Hezbollah or Hamas.
  • No attacks of Arab neighbors either overtly or covertly through the use of proxies such as Hezbollah or Hamas.
  • No distribution of nuclear material to third parties whether state or nonstate based.

Should an aggressive sense of deterrence be established, 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. Other economic incentives can also be included but the most important part of the deal for Iran is recognition, particularly by the United States, of the legitimacy of the present regime.

Conceptually, this is no more shocking an idea than having the staunch 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 Iran and the United States can come to some terms, the ability to tilt between the Sunni Saudi and Turkish regimes and the Shia ascendancy in Iran and Iraq will be possible. While this will no doubt anger the Saudis and other Sunni Arab states, as well as be disconcerting to the Turks, the United States have no reason to desire a particularly stable Middle East. Most oil from the region goes to Europe and Asia, not America. While instability will roil the markets, this may, paradoxically, give the United States more incentive to continue taking advantage of its still copious amounts of domestic natural resources not for national “self-sufficiency” but to become a pivot exporter along with Russia.

In fact, if approached correctly, Russia’s pragmatic if pugnacious president, Vladimir Putin, could be persuaded that Russia could stand to benefit from this scenario. An American-Russian modus vivendi on this area could strengthen both players.

Russia continues selling arms to Syria and working with Iran on a nuclear program while having the United States stop hectoring it on its close ties to unpleasant regimes. This may set the stage for a far more productive relationship on other issues than the much ballyhooed “reset” ever did.

Yet American-Russian relations are not the main component of this strategy that is designed to prevent the United States from continuously being sucked into the endless sandstorms of the Middle East.  

Today, the United States 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 United States in order to maintain its support.

Obviously, for this to work the United States must allay the most pressing fears of present allies in the region, notably Israel whose security concerns regarding Iran are far more immediate and proximate than those of the Americans.

If the United States want a new deterrence policy to work, they will have to go above and beyond in their dealings with Israel, particularly an Israel currently governed by Benjamin Netanyahu. The American stance on deterrence must be clear enough for Israel to understand that any attack upon it by Iran will be answered with the most aggressive of responses.

To further compensate, missile defense cooperation with Israel will probably have to be quickened and made even more robust than it already is.

Additionally, the United States should be careful in pushing an unrealistic settlement in the Israel-Palestinian peace process. It is difficult to conceive of Israel tolerating a nuclear armed Iran while also accepting concessions that could put militants within even closer striking distance of major metropolitan areas than already exists.

Finally, current signs of enhanced missile defense and other technology trade with Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and others should continue indefinitely if not enhanced so as to keep the ability to pivot open.

In order to avoid losing ground in a geopolitically pivotal region of the world, the United States must be bold. Today, Iran and the increasingly confident Shiites of the Middle East are playing a major role in shaping what the region will look like a generation from now. Given the United States’ domestic challenges, they must be able to adapt to the shifting trends at home and abroad while not clinging rigidly to yesteryear’s policy prescriptions.

One comment

  1. wrong, the rise of Shia will be ended when the Iranian people topple the mullahs and the next government in Iran will inevitably be a secular, anti-Islamist (even anti-Islam) and pro-west. The majority of Iranians are against the regime, its Islamist ideology and favor a westernized pro-American system (I am an Iranian and talking based on my personal experience) the west should use all reseouces available to help the Iranians get rid of the mullahs and unlike Iran and Afghanistan, the Iranians will become natural US allies (and natural Israeli ally like during the Shah) just the way S. Koreans, Japanese and Germans become, the Saudis and other Gulf state may remain allies, but will never become natural allies (not anytime soon) because unlike the Iranians and Israelis their societies is Arabo-Islamist and not westernized, the only natural US allies in ME are Israel and Turkey today, America needs more natural allies in the region and a post-mullahs Iran is the only alternative in near term

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