The Iran Deal and a New US Strategy for the Middle East

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

With most commentary being focused on analyzing the technical requirement of the US and west’s agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program, it’s also crucial to take on early the broader ramifications of the deal on Middle East stability. These observations are framed by four quotations from an op-ed piece published by Henry Kissinger and George Schultz in the Wall Street Journal in April 2015.

I believe the wise statesmen’s advice can help guide the formulation of US strategic objectives that should be pursued following the nuclear deal with Iran. Kissinger and Schultz suggest four over-arching tasks to take on as first order of business in tying broader US policy initiatives into the agreement.

 1. “If the world is to be spared even worse turmoil, the U.S. must develop a strategic doctrine for the region. Stability requires an active American role. For Iran to be a valuable member of the international community, the prerequisite is that it accepts restraint on its ability to destabilize the Middle East and challenge the broader international order.”

After the Iran nuclear deal, more than ever, the US must develop a strategic doctrine for the Middle East. The US must remain engaged in the region, and hold together the international coalition that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Whereas many Americans may hope the agreement allows the US to focus more of its energies on domestic issues, the US leadership role will require an intensification of US involvement in the region for the duration of the agreement. This is a good outcome in terms of preserving our national security interests. The successful negotiations provide a counterweight to a broad, misplaced perception of a US strategic retreat from the region, as US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has wound down. The deal is a sign that US influence and power are not waning. 

2. “The final stages of the nuclear talks have coincided with Iran’s intensified efforts to expand and entrench its power in neighboring states. Iranian or Iranian client forces are now the pre-eminent military or political element in multiple Arab countries, operating beyond the control of national authorities. With the recent addition of Yemen as a battlefield, Tehran occupies positions along all of the Middle East’s strategic waterways and encircles archrival Saudi Arabia, an American ally. Unless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts.”

The Iranian nuclear deal is the centerpiece of any US strategic doctrine; the course of implementation will have a decisive impact on regional stability, not only in terms of nuclear proliferation, but in re-defining Tehran’s role in the region. How will the deal impact on Iran’s intentions and capabilities? A new US strategic doctrine must persuade and deter Iran from utilizing its new-found influence in ways that thwart US interests, while strengthening relations and cooperation with traditional Sunni allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf States, and Jordan. Those two goals work at cross-purposes, so it will take deft diplomacy to successfully pursue such contradictory objectives. Achieving both objectives can be done, as long as senior US policymakers maintain strong, open channels of dialogue to explain our intentions and actions with all parties in the region.

3. “As Sunni states gear up to resist a new Shiite empire, the opposite is likely to be the case. The Middle East will not stabilize itself, nor will a balance of power naturally assert itself out of Iranian-Sunni competition.”

In implementing the Iran deal, the US must take great care to not fall into the trap of failing to recognize the unavoidable, regionally destabilizing potential of the nuclear deal. The fact is that Iran’s power in the region will be strengthened by the lifting of sanctions, and by the heightened prestige of having negotiated such a “favorable deal” with the superpower US. In the conspiracy circles that rule the Arab street, the US will be perceived to have entered into a strategic alliance with Iran, over allying itself with traditional Sunni allies. The fact that this is not reality does not matter; the mere perception of a strategic US-Iranian relationship could drive a deeper wedge in the Shia-Sunni divide, and exacerbate Sunni suspicions of US intentions. The perception of a strategic shift in US policy may also increase the legitimacy and popular appeal of the Sunni extremist narrative that has been handed down from al-Qaeda to Daesh, that this is a war between gathering forces of good and evil – between Sunni and Shia. Between believers and apostates. Sunni terrorists will strive to cast the US in the role of the leading apostate, and thus the main enemy of the forces of Allah. In the end of days, each must choose what side to join, for the final battle that will ensue. The US must take great care not to cast itself in a role that will swing independent voters and moderates, so to speak, into the Sunni extremist camp.

4. “Until clarity on an American strategic political concept is reached, the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region. Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms. History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help themselves.”

A US strategic concept for the Middle East, with the Iran nuclear agreement as its centerpiece, must be augmented with an integrated implementation plan that brings together all levers of statecraft: diplomacy, military power, and intelligence. The concept should include a broad communications and messaging plan that brings clarity of US plans and intentions to friend and foe, alike. The strategic concept should require the State Department, Defense Department, CIA, and other agencies to raise their game, in terms of implementation, integration of effort, and interagency coordination.

Implementing a strategic concept won’t be easy.

The US lacks situational awareness of what is transpiring on the ground in the greater Middle East. Regional instability, an increasing number of denied areas in the region, less government control over territory, present an unprecedented challenge to US efforts at developing and sustaining access to adversary plans and intentions. The intelligence community must raise its game.

We need better intelligence collection. Since 9/11, the US has over-relied on technical, standoff means of conducting intelligence, at he expense of pursuing classical espionage. The US lacks sufficient spies and networks of human sources.

We need better analysis. We’ve gotten bad at predicting the future because we’ve given up trying to do so; practicing foresight and early warning is a dying art form in the modern world. High-level support for red cell and dissent analysis is also vital to avoid the dangers of group think.

We need imagination. US decision makers must be willing to endorse the kind of risk taking required to get out in front of the news, to anticipate events, and avert the prospect of encountering strategic surprise. 

About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.