Compounding this is the divide between South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia, on the one hand, and the traditional West, on the other. Popular Western elite ideas of a “rules based order” are far more physically real – bureaucratically, legally, and in value-based terms – in the European Union than in Asia. Non-Western rising powers are far less obsessed with nonproliferation and rogue-sate nuclear capabilities as the defining issue that drives all foreign policy and national security actions. Increasingly, middle and rising powers (both allies and non-allies alike) are driven by regional geopolitics. Their “globalism” among decision-making elites and wider societies is only at the economic level; otherwise, their security concerns are decidedly regional in nature. Simply put, rising powers in all non-Western regions of the world are relying on the profits from the global economy to fuel their local expansive goals.
Ultimately, a lack of strong support for these measures from Northeast Asian allies and from friends in Southeast Asia could potentially hurt U.S. legitimacy and thus future military-political efforts to contain and deter China in the Asian regional context.
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There is still time over the next few months for the United States to partially “uncouple” its long-range Iran strategy from existential, short-term Israeli views and concerns. The United States and Israel, though allies, have diverging as well as congruent interests – and perhaps more importantly for the present crisis, may have different strategic policy solutions for achieving the same overall goal of a non-nuclear-weapons Iran.
Specifically, the United States can still decide to announce that it will accept some limited level of enrichment on Iranian soil, provided that a new diplomatic process is started immediately based on the mediation of powers such as India or Turkey. Rising powers such as these have common as well as conflicting positions with all parties concerned and are “fellow travelers” with Iran in the G-77 Global South grouping of states, making them potentially valuable mediators with much higher levels of legitimacy in Iranian eyes than the Great Powers who are already represented in the years-long P-5+1 process.
This course of action wouldn’t be a sop to Iranian maximal demands. The point to Iran would be: continuing pain will be felt under already-existing sanctions and Iran will continue to be relatively isolated unless and until it realizes that it must negotiate a new nuclear regime for storing spent fuel on third parties’ soil with strict international observation internally on Iranian soil as well.
Of course, this strategic turn in U.S. policy would distance the United States from Israel in the short-term, since Israel would no doubt continue to insist on an implicit or explicit “zero enrichment” position. However, this in itself could have the salutary effect of pressuring Israel to accept this middle-ground option, as well, prior to an eventual Israeli bombing raid.
Put another way: it’s not necessarily in Israel’s long-term strategic position in the Middle East for it to be seen as the “enforcer” of the NPT via military means, especially given the increasing restiveness of Arab publics. If the United States were to push a “long view” approach to Iran along the lines of “contain, deter, engage strategy” as outlined above, this would ultimately give Israel a more solid footing in the region and a wiser long-term course than an all-or-nothing military blitz to end the latent Iranian nuclear threat.
At the end of the day, the United States is in danger of putting the issue of counter-proliferation ahead of other, equally pressing, concerns such as energy security, deterrence of China in East and Southeast Asia and relations with rising powers such as Turkey, Brazil, and India. Indeed, even on the issue of countering an Iranian bomb, other grand strategic options are possible, less costly, and have greater potential likelihood of success.
Already, without full enforcement, these sanctions are hurting the Iranian people themselves, particularly the pro-Western middle class, who are seeing their life savings disappear as the Rial plunges and the regime’s isolation increases. If and when the Iranian state undergoes dramatic domestic change and evolution, as history suggests it eventually will, the United States may find little favor with the mass of Iranian people who have been left destitute.
Michael Ryan Kraig is an assistant professor of national security studies at the Air Command and Staff College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air University or U.S. Air Force.