TIME

Iran and the New Geopolitics

The nuclear accord just announced demonstrates the limitations of American power in the Middle East

The nuclear deal reached between the Obama Administration and Iran is a culmination of geopolitical shifts that began with the U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad — with U.S. forces to the west of Iran inside Iraq, and U.S. forces to the east of Iran inside Afghanistan — Iran demonstrated an interest in a strategic understanding with the United States. Had the Bush Administration engaged the Iranian mullahs at that point in time, it would have done so from a clear position of strength; not weakness. However, the Bush Administration was unwilling to engage Iran then. And in the years that followed, Iraq came apart, undermining the American position in the Middle East. This permitted Iranian influence to seep deeply into Iraq, a place that periodically throughout history had been part of greater Persia. Iran now enjoys a zone of influence, albeit not a contiguous one, stretching from the Mediterranean to the confines of Central Asia, a throwback to the Persian empires of antiquity and the early Middle Ages. In addition to its widespread support for radicalized proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi tribesmen in Yemen, Iran has constructed a nuclear program that practically constitutes a threshold bomb-making one. With all this in mind, the nuclear accord just announced demonstrates the limitations of American power in the Middle East.

The accord constitutes probably the best peaceful opportunity for preventing Iran from making a break-out towards nuclear weaponization at this point, but it also lifts sanctions on the Tehran regime while leaving the basics of its nuclear program intact. With sanctions lifted, the clerical regime will have the economic wherewithal to channel more money to its client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in order to save his regime. The end of sanctions will also improve Iran’s domestic economy and help open it up to the world. Given the sophistication and essential westernization of large numbers of Iranians, the Obama Administration is hoping that before the accord’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are lifted, the regime itself will have changed, or at least have been moderated.

Perhaps the biggest effect of the accord, though officials will not admit this (let alone talk about it), is that the accord creates a better context for U. S.-Iranian cooperation throughout the Middle East where their interests overlap: both Iran and the United States want to weaken the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; they both want to weaken al-Qaeda in Yemen; they both want to keep the Islamic State out of Afghanistan; and they both want predictable maritime rules-of-engagement in the Persian Gulf. As for Syria, if there is any hope of removing Assad from power without even more chaos or the rise of a Sunni jihadist regime there ensuing, it lies with a diplomatic solution in which both Russia and Iran are engaged. Given that the Middle East will be afflicted by a low intensity war between Sunnis and Shiites for years to come, and with the United States already enjoying close historic ties with major Sunni nations, it is too much to expect that Washington will avoid engaging the region’s principal Shiite power as well. The nuclear accord, in that sense, is part of an historic geopolitical shift.

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