Zachary Keck

The Geopolitics of a US-Iran Détente

Sanctions, centrifuges and personalities aren’t the only forces pushing Iran and the U.S. toward a détente.

The Geopolitics of a US-Iran Détente
Credit: flickr/European External Action Service – EEAS

In his pivotal book “Treacherous Alliances, Trita Parsi seeks to refute the conventional wisdom that ideology shapes U.S.-Iranian-Israeli relations. Tracing the trilateral relationship from Israel’s creation through the middle of the last decade, Parsi argues convincingly that geopolitics has been the driving force in the trilateral relationship.

Indeed, people’s natural tendency to focus on personalities and individuals obscures an important aspect of global politics. Similar to competition in Adam Smith’s economic theory, geopolitics is the “invisible hand” shaping international relations. U.S.-Iran relations are no exception. Although Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s president was undeniably important, there are larger forces pushing the U.S. and Iran toward a détente.

Since the end of the Cold War there have been three distinct phases in U.S.-Iran relations. During the first period, which lasted from the end of the Gulf War through roughly 2005, U.S. power in the Middle East was at its peak. American policymakers used this power to construct a U.S.-led regional order that pointedly excluded Iran and Iraq. This began under George H.W. Bush with the Madrid Conference in 1991, and was codified under the Clinton administration with the “dual containment” doctrine. During this time period, U.S. policymakers saw little reason to compromise with Iran, spurning multiple overtures from Tehran, including Iran’s notorious grand bargain proposal in 2003.

U.S.-Iran fortunes reversed themselves around 2005. At this point, the U.S. had overthrown Saddam Hussein — Iran’s fiercest adversary — only to become bogged down in an insurgency and civil war in Iraq. Iran profited greatly from these developments, which allowed it to construct a so-called “Shi’a Crescent” of influence that stretched from Iraq in the Gulf to Syria and Lebanon in the Levant. Its open defiance of the U.S. also made Iran extremely popular among the Arab street.

Under these circumstances, Iran felt little reason to accommodate the United States. Thus, even as the Bush administration became more amenable toward Iran throughout its second term, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hardened its position toward the United States. The usual gridlock persisted.

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Starting with the global financial crisis, but only becoming evident with the Arab Spring, U.S.-Iran relations entered a third phase that continues today. During this period, the U.S. and Iran have seen their positions in the Middle East decline precipitously, giving both a strong impetus to reconcile their differences and cooperate in the region.

Iran’s rising fortunes following the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been partly fueled by the sharp rise in the price of oil. High oil prices also allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to make good on his campaign promises and adopt an expansive and populist economic policy at home. The sharp drop in oil prices following the global financial crisis greatly strained national finances, delivering a huge blow to Iran and Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s situation only grew worse in 2009 following the disputed presidential election. On one hand, the harsh crackdown on Iranians protesting the election badly tarnished Iran’s image in the Arab world. More importantly, the election set off an unprecedented degree of infighting among the Iranian political class, which crippled its ability to carry out its foreign policy.

One consequence of this was that Tehran turned down a nuclear deal offered by the P5+1 in late 2009. This created the perception among many states, including Russia and China, that Iran was at fault for the continued dispute over its nuclear program. These changed attitudes created an environment in which the U.S. and Europe could impose unprecedented sanctions against Iran, which have significantly curtailed Iranian power.

The global financial crisis was a transformative event for the United States as well, including for U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Already weary from a decade of war in the region, the global financial crisis hardened Americans’ attitudes that their political leaders should focus on domestic issues. This has constrained the Obama administration’s ability to shape events in the Middle East, and forced it to concentrate instead on “nation building at home.”

For both Iran and the U.S., the Arab Spring has brought these trends into sharp relief. The revolts that began in early 2011 have forced Washington to abandon some of its autocratic allies, deeply unsettling the remaining ones. It also laid bare just how constrained American leaders are in a post-financial crisis world.

The seminal event of the Arab Spring for Iran has been the Syrian civil war. The uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad forced Iran to take drastic action to save its oldest ally in the Arab world. While Assad’s grip on power has stabilized, he remains extremely weak. Moreover, the effects of the Syrian civil war have spread to neighboring countries, where they have weakened Iran’s allies in Lebanon and Iraq. More generally, the Syrian civil war has greatly heighted sectarian tensions in the region, which bodes poorly for Shi’a Iran.

Repairing bilateral relations would provide a much needed boost to both America and Iran’s positions in the Middle East. For the United States, a détente would allow it to reduce its regional military presence and give it some much needed leverage over its Sunni Arab allies. It would also reduce Washington’s dependency on some of its more autocratic and unstable partners in the region.

For Iran, improving ties with the United States would greatly enhance its economic power and remove an important advantage its Sunni Arab rivals currently enjoy. As the tragic bombings of the Iranian embassy in Lebanon demonstrated, Washington and Tehran would also benefit by cooperating against the rising tide of radical Islamists in the Arab world, as well as the Sunni threat to the balance of power in the Middle East.

None of this guarantees that a U.S.-Iran détente will be realized. Geopolitics shape but do not dictate events. A number of obstacles — including the nuclear dispute, U.S. allies, and hardliners in both countries — could still derail the process. Yet when P5+1-Iran talks reconvene in Geneva today, centrifuges and nuclear reactors won’t be the only factors shaping U.S. and Iranian behavior.