Forgive the presumptuousness of thinking a mere American Intelligence Studies professor is able to give a few lessons about innovative geostrategy to a foreign state, but sometimes it takes eyes on the outside, far away from the forest, to be able to see unique young saplings that have the potential to grow into great redwoods, even though they may currently be completely ignored.
I believe this is just such the case today when we look at the global position of Iran as it considers the many different paths and perspectives moving forward after the JCPOA. If I am being honest, so far the outlook appears less-than-rosy, as the same old-same old seems to be dominating. For the sake of the greatest future of Iran and a more peaceful global community, status quo orthodoxy should be discarded.
Sometimes it must seem utterly comedic trying to navigate the relationship waters with the West. Since the signing of the JCPOA there have been half a dozen accusations from EACH side protesting how the spirit if not the letter of the accord has been breached. America, for its part, seems to exhibit something akin to ‘signer’s remorse,’ more obsessed about finding areas to critique the Islamic Republic rather than emphasizing how to work successfully within this new and exciting dialogue. Iran, for its part, feels strain from all sides, inside and out: internally, the domestic authorities want to tightly manage and maximize the success to be gained out of the accord in a competent and non-chaotic way (without any major political change); externally, many different foreign sides not-so-secretly hope the accord becomes the actual undoing of the government, a facilitator of local unrest and creator of a new regime, exorcising for America at least the ghosts of 1979.
And thus, the frustrating banality of politics: over-determined to make the status quo immutable. American worries about not trusting Iran are as common and inane as Iranian worries about not trusting the United States. The JCPOA could and should be a spur for new thinking and new engagement. So far, on that note, it has been basically irrelevant. It is perhaps even understandable why that is so: Iran sees the greatest capitalization of the accord to be about increasing its economic stability and prosperity. It no doubt will do just that. But it could also do so much more. But that will require both sides, American and Iranian, to be willing to see the future in a more innovative geostrategic light and be less enslaved to the old orthodoxy where the two simply must remain adversaries. It does not have to be that way. In fact, if people on either side could take a moment to step back and breathe, then the INEVITABILITY of this transformation would be more apparent. Yes, I said ‘inevitability’ and meant it: a new day will come. The only real question is will the leaders in Washington and Tehran take advantage of it?
One of the biggest relationship elephants in terms of making such change between Iran and America is Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the ‘special’ relationship between the US and Saudi royal family now goes back decades. While both sides have always emphasized the strategic defense aspects of the relationship – how the Saudis have been a de facto ‘silent affirmer’ of American interests in the region, the Islamic partner Americans can work with – this has come with a steep cost: the political development of Saudi society, the evolution of its governmental system and emergence of civil liberties and citizen rights has been, to put it kindly, abysmally glacial. While many military figures would characterize this as a necessary evil to maintain a major power Islamic partner in the area, the true reality is that this moral turpitude is better explained by the economic energy dependence from which America has been unable to wean itself away and which the Saudis have brilliantly maintained and managed. Until now. And this is where the biggest opportunity sits hidden for Iran. America has finally managed to position itself to where it is at least realistic to see a near future where it is not overly dependent on foreign fossil fuels. This means the ‘special’ relationship with Saudi Arabia is inevitably going to undergo great change. Trust me. When the day comes that the United States no longer sees Saudi Arabia as an essential lynchpin in feeding the energy needs that power its global economic primacy, then the very next day will mark the rewriting of the Saudi-American relationship. Saudi Arabia seems to recognize this better than most: just observe some of its more self-injurious oil pricing decisions over the last several years and most recent declarations about the country’s need to push away from natural resource dependency and be more economically ‘diverse.’ So what will you do, Iran, when this comes to pass? Do you see this for the immense opportunity that it is or have you been ignoring it, determined to remain stuck in a status quo where America remains the so-called ‘Great Satan’ while you remain the hub of a supposed ‘axis of evil?’ Rightly or wrongly, the responsibility to create that new future with America rests on your shoulders. But will you take it?
As America moves off away from this foreign economic energy dependence, a political and diplomatic vacuum will emerge in the Islamic world. Who is going to fill it? Who will be the next great Islamic partner for America? Who can be? There are few true contenders. Honestly, there really have been only two: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Political relevance, military capability, economic potential, and cultural influence have always made you two the natural rivals for regional hegemony and American attention. One only need look at the situation in Yemen to understand how much this is true and dangerous when mismanaged. The unique economic relationship between Saudi Arabia and America in the post-Cold War basically shut you out, Iran, and your resentment over that fact (along with the endless sanctions) did not exactly encourage your best or most innovative behavior to enact change. That same reality has also powered an American blindness to certain disturbing behaviors from the Saudi side, whether that be reckless suppression domestically, clumsy maneuvers against civilian areas in Yemen, or the Faustian bribing of local radical extremists that basically meant the Kingdom de facto exported terrorism abroad in order to keep greater calm at home. But as I said, those days are the old orthodoxy. Maintaining it is egregiously short-sighted and a bit bull-headed. This is of course how most governments in the world tend to initially behave even when a new, better path appears before them. Oh how we rely on our status quo. Can you do differently, Iran, or are you just as much a slave to it as everyone else?
I am not naïve. I know that the only way an initiative from you, Iran, would be received more promisingly from the United States is if you worried just a little bit less about political change within your own borders. It is a disconcerting prospect, most assuredly. On the one hand, you have China as an example of how change can be embraced and fostered without tremendous political upheaval. While the United States criticizes that pace of change, that is just America being America. Sometimes it cannot get out of its own way. But on the other hand, you have what was once the Soviet Union, an example of what happens when change dictates to a state rather than the other way around. You probably surmise: if we cannot guarantee the Chinese path for ourselves, we cannot risk the Soviet one. It is a damnable conundrum, no doubt. But your great progress and positive change on the global stage can only come through such risks, by endeavoring to navigate through such conundrums and emerge on the other side. Your current path, where you think you can maximize the JCPOA while maintaining an adversarial relationship with the United States (and thus, consequently, guaranteeing American resistance to your very progress), is untenable. More importantly, it’s unnecessary. So here I sit, in the odd position of suggesting how two ‘enemies’ should actually look beyond their respective noses to see how much better off each will be as partners moving forward. Many assume that those of us within Intelligence Studies deal only in subterfuge, in deceit and deception. ‘Spymakers’ cannot be trusted, after all. But that is Hollywood hyperbole, where the real world suddenly thinks it is a mirror reflecting the fake world of Bond and Bourne. In truth, the best form of Intelligence Studies is simply gaining new insights from information and thus opening up new pathways to inflict LESS damage, not more. In the end, our mission is not to create chaos but curtail it. An American-Iranian partnership would be the best curtailing.
And so, Supreme Leader, if a ‘spymaker’ can be a peacemaker without contradiction or hypocrisy, then why can’t Iran be a partner to America? It can. It should. Seize the opportunity.