What can confuse many a foreign policy layman is why the hell America doesn’t just bomb Iran. Iran is just so annoying; it’s classy behavior over the years includes using children as mine-sweepers during the Iran-Iraq War, sponsoring Hezbollah and its terrorism throughout the decades, arming Iraqi insurgents with bomb technology meant specifically to kill American soldiers, and, oh yeah, that whole hostage deal 30 years ago.
And all that “Death to America” chanting doesn’t exactly smooth feelings. There are more than a few who believe that there’s no way America can ever deal with such a nation-state.
But geopolitically, they couldn’t be more wrong.
The cliff notes! Why skim when someone will do it for you?
Now, the long bits, starting with why Iran is so important to begin with.
During the Cold War, long before Saudi Arabia became the West’s strategic oil spigot, the Shah of Iran was happy to throw a million or two of barrels around for his friends in London and D.C. This is because of all the nation-states in the Middle East, Iran is the only one with a trifecta of geopolitical awesomeness.
It has all the population of Egypt without any of the overly crowded urban hangups. It has all the natural resources of Turkey, but one ups Ankara with billions of barrels of oil. It has the political and cultural sophistication of one of the cradles of civilization. All it lacks is a modern military, the result of it cutting ties with the United States after 1979.
Iran has been the center of many great empires for very good reasons. It has historically competed with powers based out of India, Turkey, and Egypt – all geographical locations that also give rise to powerful states.
The United States knew this and anchored its anti-Soviet strategy for the entire Middle East in Iran.
Today, Iran is geopolitically weaker than its neighbors wholly because it has alienated just about everyone with its Shi’a revolution, which no state in the world wants to see exported. Without the benefit of world trade, especially in heavy weapons, Iran has fallen further and further behind. Case in point: the Iranian air force‘s most advanced fighter jet is the MiG-29, a relic of the late Soviet Union, and a weapon that didn’t do much for Iraq when the U.S. came a-bombin’ in 1991.
Why would Tehran be so nonsensical as to isolate it? Largely because its elites have long been empowered by anger, conservatism, and fear.
To overthrow Iran’s Shah required a groundswell of popular anger. That anger was deep for two reasons: the Shah was attempting to modernize Iran too fast, causing a cultural backlash, and the Shah was also refusing to allow that cultural discontent to be channeled into the state, where it could be defused. Afraid of losing ground to his opponents, the Shah used his army and secret police to try to maintain himself through torture, arrest, and beatings.
Unlike the Saudi royal family, who in the midst of massive technological changes have indulged their conservatives by giving them power over large swathes of the state, the Shah believed he could use his dictatorship to pull Iran into the 20th century by his sheer will alone. But that created many enemies; human beings in general don’t like things to change too much, too fast. When his fall came, few Iranians wept.
To whip up the anger into its most effective form, Iranian revolutionaries sought the most emotional, pointed purity they could find. Not only was the Shah bad; everyone who had ever talked to him was bad too. This meant slamming the Shah’s foreign friends, most especially the United States.
It was an overly simplistic solution to a complicated problem, and like many simplistic solutions, it worked for its simplistic purpose: getting the Shah out of power and building a new government. But the cost was high: Iran became a pariah.
In truth, the revolution had such broad support because most Iranians felt Iran was changing too fast and losing its Iranian identity. This feeling was capitalized by the Shi’a Islamists, who used it to initially take power, portraying themselves as the vanguards of “true” (always a bullshit term when used to identify a nationality) Iranians.
To solidify themselves, the Islamists then used hefty doses of fear. They painted the world as against Iran; Iraq’s invasion in 1980 helped prove the point. It was during the emergency of war that Iran’s modern Islamist dictatorship was built. Even then, however, Iran was too complicated a place to just put an Islamist Shah on the throne. Power in Iran today is divided, but divided amongst competing factions of conservatives.
This system of division has allowed Iran’s system to appear to change without actually changing. When a policy goes bad, one faction of conservative elite can be blamed and swapped out by another. During the entire process, nobody questions the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic; they focus their discontent onto individual people rather than the system. This gives the Islamic Republic security that other authoritarian states don’t have.
From 1980 until the early 2000s, no Iranian elite could peddle rapprochement with the West for very long. With the Shah dead and his supporters wiped out or exiled, Iran’s ruling elites need outside enemies to unify their ranks. The United States was perfect for that purpose. Their revolutionary base remained deeply conservative, so no elite could dare modernize Iran too fast, either. Meanwhile, other elites were happy to invent conspiracies, emergencies, and traitors left and right to keep the atmosphere of fear simmering.
Iran’s elites had to, on occasion, walk the talk of their Revolution by supporting proxies worldwide, most notably Hezbollah. But it showed their sophistication that they dared not provoke a war that could destroy them. Rather than taking on Israel directly, Iran has been happy to let Hezbollah – and indirectly Lebanon – take Israeli punishment that would otherwise devastate Iran’s own power.
This state of affairs has been allowed to continue because no other nation-state is seriously interested in dislodging the Islamists. Luckily for the Islamists, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended their most immediate strategic threat to the north; America’s obsession with Saddam Hussein also neutered a potent army to the west and kept American policy makers from considering a regime change in Tehran. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s chaos in the 1980s and 1990s, left untended by the world, prevented any Sunni power from taking hold there. On all sides, save the Persian Gulf, Iran’s strategic situation has improved since 1979.
But now those revolutionaries are getting grey, and their kids can’t be bothered getting so worked up about the old, dead Shah.
Well over half of Iran’s current population was born after 1979. They may have grown up on the stories of the nasty SAVAK police, the evil ol’ Shah, and his Great Satan Master, America, but these grow dustier with each retelling. Instead of attending “Death to America” rallies, Iran’s kids are increasingly banging each other and annoying people on Instagram like everyone else.
This is a natural generational shift. Mom and Dad lecture you passionately; you listen for a bit, yawn, and later on as an adult you establish your own independence by setting up a moral compass informed by your parents, but not dictated by them. Mom may have told you again and again in hysterical tones about how important it is to vote a woman for president, but when the choice came you didn’t vote blindly. You’re an adult and you have your own interests; while you may feel like you should, that doesn’t mean you will.
So while Iran’s many youths will remain conservative, they’ll also have a streak of pragmatism. That pragmatism is what propelled Iran’s president to power last year.
So now comes a confluence of opportunity as Iran moderates and America’s elites realize they need Iran again.
The United States faces a great security crisis in the Middle East. In the Middle East, the United States desires two outcomes: secure, predictable energy, and border security that guarantees the former. The oil spigot still spouts, but there are many nasty forces bubbling underneath the surface that can threaten it. Almost none of them are as rational as nation-states. The few that are rational – Hezbollah chief amongst them – are Iranian proxies.
With the scary as hell rise of the Islamic State, the United States faces a security crisis as big as revolutionary communism. Now comes an ideology that flies directly in the face of everything the U.S. has spent the last century building. Sunni jihadism seeks to wholly destroy the U.S.-led world order, starting by breaking long-sacred borders.
Revolutionary Iran once sought such a thing, too. But quite rapidly, starting with the desperate struggle to save the Iranian nation during the Iraqi invasion, the Revolution was subsumed by Iran’s geopolitical interests. That zeal to rebuild the world in a Shi’a image has faded and will continue to fade.
To counter Sunni jihadism, the United States needs as many organized nation-states on its side as possible. It has every state except Iran and what remains of Assad’s Syria. Syria has always been a third-rate power in the Middle East, and its civil war has made it drop further in power calculations. That leaves only Iran as the one national force capable of upsetting America’s applecart.
An Iran that begins to trade with the U.S. and opens an embassy will not immediately drop it anti-Israel rhetoric or its support for Shi’a groups around the region. But it will create a new pressure for Iranian elites: they will now have to guarantee the trade boom from the West. Over time, that means Iranian-backed militias will either have to tame their behavior or be cut off from Tehran.
This would be very similar to what happened when Egypt jumped into the American camp in the 1970s. From sponsoring Palestinian attacks on Israel, it now coordinates with the Israeli army. Such a process was not overnight, but it was the inevitable result of Egypt engaging in trade and arms deals with the West.
But wait! What about all that blood on their hands?
Once more, geopolitics does not give two shits about morality. It’s about security and efficiency. Iran’s elites have sponsored plenty of terrible things over the years, but geopolitics is not about justice. Getting revenge with Iran is a terrible decision, and one that thankfully Obama does not seem tempted to embark upon.
The United States, from its devil’s embrace of Stalin during World War II to all the various dictators it supported during the Cold War to its current ‘friendship’ with Saudi Arabia, has mostly been pragmatic enough to work with what’s there rather than what it wished was there. When the United States has gotten too idealistic, the result has been disaster: witness Somalia, where the U.S. hoped to save a society far too fractured by tribalism simply by sending in the Marines, or Iraq, where America wanted to just overnight a liberal democracy over an equally dysfunctional country.
Over the years, the Iranian elites who most hate America will be pushed aside, just as the most anti-Israeli Egyptians either got with the program or were dismissed from their posts. The United States never had to bomb Cairo to get Egypt to play ball; there’s no reason it can’t do the same with Tehran.
There’s just too much at stake these days not to make a smart play for Iran.
Sunni jihadism now has a country, and the U.S. needs every ally it can get to suppress the rise of the Islamic State. And even if the Islamic State is wiped out, America still needs a quiet, stable Middle East, which it won’t get without Iran. Invading Iran is not a good option; history has shown us occupations create more, not less, chaos. So it must work with what is there. And what is there is a nation-state finally coming to realize it would like to be part of the world again.
Cheer on the nuclear deal. Cheer on President Rouhani. For either side to fail to build this bridge would be a massive tragedy indeed.