Iran as Ally

Vali Nasr thinks we should ask for Iran’s help with Russia:

Many have assumed that Russia can help solve the Iran problem, but few have considered that the reverse is also true. Iran is important to Russia’s game plan and how Moscow weighs its options going forward. That makes talking to Iran an essential part of America’s plans for containing Russia.

To Nasr’s credit, this approach does at least have the benefit of offering Iran an identifiable incentive: gas sales to Europe. This is considerably more realistic than the directionless “common ground” approach. However, the problem with this plan can be found in Nasr’s own words:

This provides the United States with an opportunity. Washington has already understood Iran’s importance to achieving American goals in Afghanistan and Iraq. It engaged Tehran over Afghanistan’s future in 2001 and over Iraq’s security in 2007. The high-stakes game in the Caucasus similarly justifies talking to Iran.

Continuing to consult Iran before we proceed with foreign policy initiatives produces two dangerous results. First, it further emboldens Iran and makes the case for their legitimacy as a world power. The fact that America incorporated Iran as a problem-solver on questions about Afghanistan and Iraq gives credence to the suggestion that we should now engage Iran about Russia. Doing so would make the case for consulting the mullahs on some other future predicament, and so on. This is legitimacy by contrition, and it’s a slippery slope upon which we never should have embarked in the first place. It didn’t start with the present U.S. administration, either. Bill Clinton, for example, conveyed his private assent to Iranian arms sales in the Balkans, hoping it would help turn the tide in the war-torn region. That it did no such thing is my second point.

When we ask for Iranian help on geopolitical challenges, we get headaches. For all our engagement with Tehran about Afghanistan, Iran still protected Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. For all our engagement with Iran about Iraq, it was the punishment inflicted on Iranian backed militias by American and Iraqi forces that produced a change in behavior. And even now, some of those militias have likely switched from fighting forces to “social service” organizations for reasons of recruitment and stealth. This is because Iran functions more as a radical cause than a state. And that reality has rendered any American diplomatic effort moot since 1979.

Finally, Nasr’s plan is predicated on the notion that an Iran with nuclear weapons is tolerable. If he believes that, why does he so narrowly define our goals in Iran? If we’re going to accept Iranian nukes, we might as well open up relations completely. Let’s trade freely, sell them equipment and technology and all the rest. That Nasr doesn’t suggest this casts suspicion on his premise. It’s clear he understands the potential catastrophe of Iran’s ambitions, and that makes his argument both morally and strategically incoherent.

Nasr frames his case with the claim that “Barack Obama has been right all along.” Not only would it be wrong to engage Iran today for the reasons outlined above, but Obama first pledged to talk to Iran without preconditions over a year ago. The Russian circumstances described by Nasr only came into effect this summer. It would seem to me being “right” should at least take into account the dimension of temporal reality.