What in the hell is happening between America and Iran?

It’s been easy to get lost in the details. A complicated deal, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Protocol of Action, just had one of its key members, the United States, pull out.  This has been painted as both stupid and brave, by the usual suspects.  America’s credibility is shot! cry some.  America is strong again! say the others.  But that’s all besides the point.

For now we are talking war. From Reuters:

A senior Iranian military official, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, said Iran would not bow to Washington’s pressure to limit its military activities. The United States “does not have the courage for military confrontation and face-to-face war with Iran,” he said.

The United States, of course, does have the courage for face to face war with Iran; that is, as so much political rhetoric is, irrelevant.  The matter is not about courage.  It is, at its core, a question of which great power is to have the biggest say in the region.  And it is a question that the locals – in this case, Iran – have their own answer to.

America and Iran: a tale of two nation-states

At its core, this is a struggle for the shape of the Middle East.  The United States wants the Middle East reordered as something of a Middle Eastern NATO – a network of allies able to block any other great power from gaining too much influence.  It has tried to do this several times since World War II: first, it helped Britain form the Baghdad Pact of the 1950-70s; then, it help Saudi put together the Gulf Cooperation Council of the Gulf states.  America even has its list of Major Non-NATO allies, which have, since the end of the Cold War, increasingly included Middle Eastern powers.

For America, the Middle East is critical to secure if it is to ensure that no Eurasian power ever rises that can challenge it in the New World.  Whether that’s from Russia, China, India, or some other power yet to appear on the map is irrelevant: for the U.S., which cannot conquer the world, Eurasia must be in one of two states.  It must either be divided against itself, or it must be strongly allied to the U.S.

This means getting Iran on America’s side.  Without Iran, the Middle East is in flux; to have the Middle East secured, a nation-state needs to have the region’s natural power cores on its side.  Those cores – Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and, these days but still to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia – are the traditional centers of empires and kingdoms going back to the ancient days.  The closest anyone has ever gotten to this are the Achaemenid Persians in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE.  But because demography, technology, and politics were very different back then, it was possible for a seemingly small power – Macedonia – to come along and shatter that empire.

America doesn’t have that option.  It can’t just ride as Alexander did through capital after capital until all that’s left are kneeling princes.  Besides, even Alexander’s empire barely survived him.

So instead, America plays the game of alliances and friends, and in that sense, America is tantalizingly close to having the Middle East secured from its chief Eurasia foes, China and Russia.  Iran is a huge gap – and an important one, as through Iran Russia is increasingly able to use its powers to reach out into Syria, Iraq, and other places.  (Turkey is another place that is wobbling, but until Turkey quits NATO, it won’t become the kind of vehicle for Chinese or Russian power that Iran can be).

The view is clearly different for Iran.  Because it is weaker against these three competitors, Iran has three choices: it can be a pawn, it can play extra-regional powers off one another, or it can try to stand on its own and use its natural geopolitical advantages to dominate the region.

After the 1979 Revolution, it tried option 3, but this was a disaster.  In the dynamics of the Cold War, it angered both the Soviets and Americans with its sudden about-face towards its own political ideology that rivaled both capitalism and communism. As a result, it found itself under attack by a U.S. and Soviet-armed Saddam Hussein.

So after the war, it pivoted to option 2, while aiming for option 3.  It became useful to the Europeans, Russians and Chinese as a market and energy supplier, all of whom wanted Iran tilted towards them for the same reasons as the Americans wanted Iran in their camp.  (The Europeans are far less great-power about it, but they still want the security that comes from Iranian trade).  This was the crux of why the JCPOA worked: it was Tehran skillfully playing the world against the Americans, using its nuclear program as a negotiating card.

But that only worked so long as America was led by people who thought it was not strong enough to really break Iran’s ideology and bring it back into America’s alliance system.  The Obama administration concluded that the struggle to secure Iran was less important than focus on a rising China.  It wanted to contain Iran’s nuclear program, and more or less ignored everything else Iran was doing; it felt that its only good option was a deal that sort of addressed the Iran issue and forestalled war.  At the end of the day, Obama saw whatever Iran was doing as less important than whatever China was up to.

The Trump admin has concluded America can do both.  That’s the reason it pulled out of the deal: it believes it can manage China, through tariffs and whatever else, at the same time that it crushes Iran.  And it does mean to crush it: unlike the Obama admin, which had given up the fight to reform Iran, the Trump White House has decided it will change Iran, either by cracking it through sanctions, or by provoking a revolution.

That leaves Iran with an increasingly bad set of options.  It can try to play the world off against America again – and it’s trying – but is finding that’s hard going.  Alas, the Europeans, and especially the French, care as much about Iran meddling in the region as the Americans do, even if they’re not willing to sanction Iran over it.  And the Russians don’t particularly want Iran in Syria forever, especially if that’s going to cause a war with Israel that Moscow might get dragged into.  As for the Chinese?  Well, in the Middle East at least, they’ve been economic opportunists, and are still years away from taking a serious stand on anything there.

So if that fails – and seems likely to – Iran can either become a pawn of some great power, or it can try to go it alone yet again.  Neither are great choices.  To become a pawn – and in this case, it would probably be Russia – is not as easy as it sounds.  Russia could not just rush into Iran on a dime.  Iran is also an energy competitor with Russia, and both are scraping for the petrodollars to keep their economies afloat.  So unless Iran really gives Russia a gigantic say in its security posture, or has some sort of ridiculous economic concession, it won’t get the protection it really needs from Russia.  As for China, the price of being a pawn of Beijing are even steeper: whatever that price is, it would require China to take the huge risk of propping up a far away country it only marginally gains from.

So by default, Iran might be forced to go it alone again.  That is not necessarily fatal for the regime: it survived the all-out assault of the 1980s, after all.  And it could hope that the next American admin revives the skeleton of the JCPOA to save whats left of the regime’s skin.

Or it could escalate and hope that diplomatic and economic turmoil creates an opportunity.  The easiest way to do that is restart is nuke program, and go hard for nuclear weapons.  But doing so is basically gambling on war.

That may be the only option they think they have left. War means threatening energy markets on a global scale; it means spooking the planet into thinking another recession is on its way.  It means spooking American voters that they’re about to do 2003 all over again; it means spooking Israelis that they might get stuck in some 1982 or 2006 nightmare.  All of that could win Iran concessions, perhaps, as a worried world pressures America and its allies to back off.  More likely, it would result in the regime’s isolation or destruction.

Alas, the options going forward are bad for Iran.  They will only get worse.  The game is old, but the dynamics are new.  As America looks to secure the Middle East, under this White House it will press Iran as hard as voters at home tolerate.

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