International sanctions on Iran were lifted on Saturday. It was determined that Iran had carried out its obligations under its agreement with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany to stop pursuing the development of an atomic bomb. At Geopolitical Futures, we expected sanctions to be lifted and Iran to agree to halt these activities. However, our forecast was not based on the issue of nuclear weapons. Rather, it was based on our model, which indicated there would be cooperation between the US and Iran as a result of converging strategic interests. Nuclear weapons were at one point the main issue when it came to Iran. But by the time an agreement began to emerge, they had become a minor issue. There were much more important problems that needed to be addressed. These problems included the future of the region, the Islamic State, and the common interests of the United States and Iran on both subjects.
Let’s begin with the question of Iran and nuclear weapons. Ever since the 1990s, some had argued that Iran was likely to develop nuclear weapons in the near future. By the mid-2000s, the expectation was that it would have these weapons within two years. As each year passed, the due date for when they would be developed moved by another year. The fact that the predictions were constantly wrong didn’t deter the predictors at all. At a certain point, it became necessary to address this question: If Iran was hard at work on nuclear weapons, and was on the verge of building one, why did an underground test never take place?
Building a deliverable nuclear weapon is hard and involves much more than simply enriching uranium. Just consider the stresses a completed nuclear weapon, miniaturized to rest on top of a missile, has to undergo. It has to withstand the massive G-forces and vibration of a launch, enter a vacuum where the temperatures vary by hundreds of degrees each second, then re-enter the atmosphere at thousands of degrees, and then explode. Even building a sufficiently ruggedized and miniaturized atomic bomb that can be delivered by aircraft is difficult. But detonating a nuclear device (it’s not yet a weapon) underground as part of a testing process is much easier. The device can be as fragile and sprawling as you want. It isn’t going anywhere. It was my view that Iran might possibly manage a test explosion, but a weaponized system was beyond its capacity.
A nuclear test, however, was a risky move. Having a uranium enrichment program, just secret enough that every intelligence agency in the world knew about it, was extremely useful. It allowed others to obsess over Iran’s nuclear power, and that’s exactly what Iran wanted. It had learned the North Korean gambit. The West, and particularly the United States, is obsessed with the mere possibility of nuclear weapons. If you actually build one, the risk is the US may attack you. If you aren’t building one, you will be ignored. But have a nuclear program, without a nuclear bomb, and you will neither be attacked nor ignored. That’s what Iran wanted and what it got. It gained international leverage and attention far beyond what it would have received without a program. And that attention could be used domestically to demonstrate the power of the regime, and regionally to block any extremely aggressive move against Iran, as had happened in Iraq. Becoming too aggressive toward Iran risked the unknown, since it might have been further along in developing a nuclear weapon than was thought. Therefore, Iran’s nuclear program was less about building a weapon than building uncertainty.
This strategy came with a price. The US and European sanctions hurt the Iranian economy substantially. However, the sanctions did not have an immediate impact on Iran’s public pursuit of the bomb. The sanctions began in 2006 and escalated from there. So clearly, as much as the West would like to think that it was the sanction regime that changed Iranian policy, the lapse of a decade would seem to indicate that this was not what broke them. The freezing of assets mattered of course, and the lack of substantial oil revenue and investments also took a toll. But given that the Iranians were not compelled to agree to a settlement when oil was at $100 a barrel and sanctions on oil sales would have had the biggest impact, they were unlikely to feel compelled at $30 a barrel. Sanctions hurt, but not enough to force a change in policy.
That’s because sanctions helped the Iranian government politically. Here were six countries, five of them nuclear powers, obsessed with stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The sanctions were used to demonstrate both the injustice with which the West treated Iran and the fear they had of Iran. This was a heady brew, and the Iranian government used it as more than a counterweight to sanctions. The ability of the Iranians to absorb economic difficulties was substantial. But the pictures of Iranian officials meeting with global powers as equals and challenging their hypocrisy were political gold. And the nuclear program opened the long-term possibility of reaching an agreement that would benefit Iran.
Then the region was transformed, and the putative nuclear program decreased in importance to both the United States, in particular, and Iran. This transformation was caused by the emergence of a powerful Sunni movement that was able to take and hold territory in a large region: the Islamic State. The Iranians had experienced the difficulty of dealing with a Sunni-controlled state in the 1980s, when it fought a war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein that cost them about a million casualties. Iran’s worst-case scenario wasn’t war with the United States, but war with a strong Sunni force to their west. The Islamic State was not yet that powerful, but its existence was sufficient to cause Iranian foreign policy to swerve in a new direction. Put differently, a civil war appeared to be breaking out between Sunnis and Shiites, and it was an overwhelming imperative that the Sunni coalition be broken before it could dominate Iraq, and certainly before it could threaten Iran.
Iran proved incapable of breaking IS by itself. It needed an anti-IS coalition, and the United States had to play some role in that coalition. By this point, nuclear programs were simply irrelevant to the reality of Iran.
The United States also shifted its regional strategy. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States discovered a core lesson. It could defeat any conventional or near-conventional enemy army, but it could not occupy either country without fighting an extended war against insurgents and terrorists who were deeply committed to their cause. This was not a new discovery. The Romans, British, and Germans learned this lesson as well. During World War II, in Germany and Japan, the US did succeed in peaceful occupation, not only by waging a military war, but by smashing the society as well. But at that time, it had 10 million men under arms, an economy entirely devoted to the war effort, and powerful allies like Britain and the Soviet Union. Without these things, the only goal that could be achieved was winning hearts and minds and, as it learned in Vietnam, that was easier in theory than practice.
Therefore, the United States developed a new strategy. Since it could not control the region through its military, it had no choice but to allow the region to evolve as it would. It was now up to regional powers, who had far more at stake than the United States—and couldn’t withdraw—to manage the situation. The United States would provide air power, intelligence, weapons, and training, but it would not take the primary responsibility on the ground for shaping the situation—because trying consistently led to failure, and continuing to do the same thing hoping for a different outcome is the definition of insanity, to use an appropriate cliché.
There were four regional powers who were compelled to be interested in the development of the Islamic State. They were Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Each was threatened by the rise of IS. Each was utterly different from the others and in most cases shared a degree of hostility with each other. Some were close to the United States, and some were hostile.
Iran was hostile, yet it was the most concerned of all about IS. The Turks had shown a tendency to try to manage their relations with IS by tacitly ignoring the group. They reportedly allowed the passage of IS operatives and the sale of IS-controlled oil through Turkey and permitted IS militants to use Turkish banks. Tension with IS had grown substantially, but Turkey had not yet committed major forces to the fight against the group. The Saudis, like the Turks, were Sunnis, and while they were concerned about IS, they were far more worried about what Iran might do in the Persian Gulf. The Israelis were worried about everything, but they also understood that a war of attrition against IS was not something they could afford and that an Israeli intervention would only strengthen IS.
This shift required a closer relationship with Iran. Neither country liked the other, but they had at least some common interests. More important, the US had close relations with the other three regional powers, and this created the appearance of being an anti-Iranian coalition. Particularly as a Sunni rising coalesced around IS, a working relationship with Iran became essential. The nuclear settlement was designed to at least clear the ground for this relationship. Obviously, this meant drawing away from the Saudis, who feared the Iranians, and also allowing friction to build up in the Americans’ relationship with Israel. However, Israel and Saudi Arabia maintained their relationships with the US regardless, as they had no choice. The wildcard was Turkey, which wanted nothing to do with this coalition of the frightened, but has over time moved into an increasingly hostile position toward IS.
But it is Iran that has an overriding interest in breaking IS. More than any other issue—the Assad regime, Israel, or nuclear weapons—Iran has an interest in the future of IS. It cannot defeat IS by itself, and it knows that the modest Russian intervention in Syria won’t accomplish the task either. The only power that can both use significant force against IS and create an anti-IS coalition is the US. Saudi Arabia fears Iran, and that is precisely why it must follow the American lead. Israel may not have a military role, but its intelligence and other capabilities can’t be withheld if the US wants it in the mix. And Turkey, as resistant as it is, cannot face a hostile Russia and an indifferent US. It must be brought in as well. Now all of this is far more complex than I have made it, but the bottom line is that the United States and Iran have common interests that override other considerations.
It will be argued that any arrangement with Iran is temporary and that in the end the Iranians may turn on the US—or the US may turn on them. This is absolutely true. No arrangement between nations lasts longer than their interests dictate. The US alliance with the Soviet Union crumbled after World War II, while Germany and Japan became allies. The US is now discussing military cooperation with Vietnam. There is no end to the complexity of the relationships between nations. Iran and the United States are not friends. There is no friendship between nations. There are interests—and both share an interest in breaking IS. Even together, they are unable to achieve this task, so others must be compelled to play their part. And when it’s over, different interests will emerge and different constellations of nations will evolve.
And so, the great terror of Iranian nukes has been replaced by the great terror of an IS caliphate. Both terrors are legitimate, but passing. For the moment, the US and Iran are afraid of the same thing. This is the finest basis for a shift in relationships between nations.