American Interest

A Deal Iran's Hardliners Can Love

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Major General Hassan Firouzabadi is a close ally of Supreme Leader Khamenei, and the head of Iran’s armed forces. He is also an intelligent man. He went public this weekend with the news that he is advising the Supreme Leader to accept the nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers. In his shoes I would do exactly the same thing.

Unreflecting hardline Iranians might oppose the deal, thinking that something even better could have been achieved. Look, the knee-jerk hardliner crowd might argue, Iran should have pushed harder. Given the desperate eagerness to reach an agreement so publicly and repeatedly advertised by the American side, the evident lust of the American politicians for Nobel prizes and ‘legacy accomplishments’, and the palpable thirst for Iranian trade informing the negotiating postures of some of the other countries at the table, Iran could have gotten an even better deal.

So why would the smarter, more far-seeing leaders of the IRG see the deal as a good one? Certainly there are some attractive features from an Iranian perspective. There is the good news about the progressive dismantling of limits on Iran’s nuclear program. There are the cumbersome and weak inspection procedures that allow Iranian negotiators plenty of wiggle room for incremental cheats. There is the delicious reality that the drive to negotiate the deal has weakened the core alliances that are the heart of America’s strategic position in the Middle East. And there’s more: the prospect of an end to the conventional weapons embargo, the windfall gains from unfreezing assets and the boost to Iran’s economy that will come with the end of the sanctions.

But the real reason the deal is a gift to Iran isn’t in the language of the deal itself; it’s the path the deal opens up for Iran in the region. At a time of unprecedented crisis among Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals, the nuclear deal offers Iran a historic opportunity to aim for the hegemony of the Persian Gulf and to achieve the kind of world power that Shi’a religious enthusiasts and Persian nationalists believe is their due. God Himself, Iranian hardliners can tell the Supreme Leader, has opened this door for Iran; it is his duty and his destiny to walk through it.

So what’s Iran’s path? Simple, unfortunately. If Iran ratifies the deal, confines its cheating initially to the margins and then opportunistically pursues an agenda of regional expansion it can move towards the glittering prize that has dazzled Iranian nationalists since the time of the Shah: effective control over the oil resources of the Persian Gulf. To both the religious and nationalist hardliners in the Iranian establishment, this is a golden hour. For centuries Iran, a proud and ancient civilization which ruled the Middle East when Europe was a wasteland of primitive tribes, has been pushed around by stronger powers. But that is all changing now. Europe is too weak, too distracted and too pacifistic to matter in the region. China and India are still too weak and too remote to challenge Iran in the Gulf. Russia is a shadow of its Soviet self, and Putin is so worried by Sunni militance that he’s willing to ally with Shi’a Iran as the lesser of two evils. As for the United States, the one country with the motive and the means to block Iran’s path to regional supremacy, the last thing the Obama administration wants to do is to confront Iran.

The Sunni world has never been this weak, this incoherent, this radicalized and this divided. Turkey, the successor state of Iran’s great historical antagonist and rival the Ottoman Empire, remains divided and uncertain. Its increasingly isolated and delusional President has squandered his political capital at home and abroad. Egypt is preoccupied with jihadism in Sinai and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis are floundering; the Qataris are blundering amateurs. Meanwhile Sunni jihadism is being driven into a nihilistic frenzy—in part by the consequences of 100 years of Arab political ineptitude, in part by the spectacle of rising Iranian power—that has terrified and appalled the world.

To Shi’a Iran, this looks like divine confirmation that the Sunnis have got Islam wrong. Contrast the spectacle of failure, division, and anarchy in the Sunni Middle East with Iran’s political stability and technological progress. What could be more obvious: at long last, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolution 0f 1979 gave Shi’a Iran the proper form of government and theological framework. Since then, enemies like Saddam, America and Israel have struck heavy blows against Iran—but they have failed to block the Revolution. One by one, Iran’s enemies have failed, fallen victim to their own arrogance and incoherence: God’s providence is shining through, and Iran’s hour of victory is near.

So here’s what Iran needs to do now, a smart hardliner would tell the Supreme Leader: first, accept the deal, grumbling all the while about how hard this is to do and how painful the sacrifice is. Next, open the door to European, Chinese and Russian companies. Build powerful pro-Iranian economic coalitions in key countries that make it progressively harder for the Security Council to unite against you. This helps you economically as well as politically; you will reduce unemployment and raise living standards across Iran even as you build up your conventional forces and help your clients across the region. Third step, use ISIS as a weapon against the West. This pathetic ‘caliphate’ is not a threat to Iran or to Shi’a Iraq, but the specter of ISIS can be used to hoodwink the stupid Americans and panicky Europeans into accepting Iranian predominance in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, President Obama already seems ready to sign on to the program. As the President told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview broadcast Sunday,

“Is there the possibility that having begun conversations around this narrow issue that you start getting some broader discussions about Syria, for example, and the ability of all the parties involved to try to arrive at a political transition that keeps the country intact and does not further fuel the growth of ISIL and other terrorist organizations. I think that’s possible,” Obama said, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms. “But I don’t think it happens immediately.”

It all makes sense. Cement the “Shi’a Crescent” from Basra to Beirut with the acquiescence of the West, then step up the pressure in the Arabian Peninsula. Stir the pot in Bahrain, Yemen, the Shi’a majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and, once the current Sultan is out of the way, Oman. Keep the Americans off balance with hints of detente and hopes of peace. They fell for Putin’s switch with Medvedev, and they fell for Erdogan’s “Islamic democracy” in Turkey; offer them a ‘reset’ and they will be fawning all over you.

Sooner or later, the corrupt, weak and ultimately cowardly Gulf monarchies will be eager to cut deals with you. The yoke should be light at first; your immediate goal is to control oil output as you move toward common defense arrangements and policy coordination. The key to Iran’s future stature as a world power is to control the size of the region’s energy production. “Coordinate” oil production, and the Europeans, the Chinese, the Japanese and most others will look to you for their economic wellbeing; the Security Council will never vote against you again. Meanwhile, as you gradually develop your conventional weapons and build your regional power, you can, when the time is right, move from quiet cheating on the nuclear deal towards an open drive for nuclear weapons. The Americans, as divided and confused as ever, will almost certainly fail to intervene in time; you will then be a nuclear weapons state in firm command of the world’s fuel supply. Seeing the writing on the wall the Jews will begin to leave Palestine of their own accord. As the Sunnis see the divine favor being poured out on Iran, they will give up their religious errors and embrace the true faith. The community of the faithful, so tragically divided since the murder of Hussein, will be united once again under the true faith, and Iran will once again be a superpower to the glory of God and the despair of His enemies.

This is why sensible Iranian hardliners would advise the Supreme Leader to take the nuclear deal. He will almost certainly take their advice. Not in 1000 years, hardliners will argue, has Iran had an opportunity this grand; if thrown away now it will not come again. The real debate in Iran won’t be over whether to take the deal; the debate will be whether to use it, as Obama hopes, as a first step toward detente with the United States, or to use it as a steppingstone to world power. To give the moderates a chance to win that debate, President Obama will have to reverse his policy of disengagement in the Middle East and start pushing back against Iranian policy in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. If he fails to do that, and he probably will, it will be hard for moderates to argue for a cautious regional policy in Tehran.

Hardliners and religious zealots are often misguided; just ask Phillip II about the fate of the Spanish Armada. The obstacles blocking Iran’s path toward the global stature it seeks are more formidable than they may look from Tehran; while there is a danger that the Iranians could achieve these objectives, there is an equal or greater danger that Iran’s efforts to achieve these goals could lead to exactly the kind of war that President Obama hopes the nuclear deal will prevent.

Making peace is harder than it looks.