America’s Middle East Challenges

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DENVER – The potential gains from reorienting American foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region were fully evident in November. President Barack Obama followed a successful visit to the APEC forum in China with a fruitful stopover in Myanmar to bolster the country’s political transition, before finishing at the G-20’s remarkably productive meeting in Brisbane.

But in the Middle East, where the stakes seem to rise with every passing week, the United States has not experienced smooth sailing. Indeed, there seems to be little consensus on how to move forward.

Consider the Iran nuclear talks, which have just been extended yet again, this time until June 2015. The extension of the deadline for reaching a definitive agreement is a good outcome; the negotiators’ efforts to date should not be in vain. Moreover, thanks to the interim agreement reached almost a year ago, some limitations on Iran’s nuclear program remain in place (with Iran securing some sanctions relief in return).

All sides acknowledged progress toward eliminating Iran’s capacity to achieve a nuclear “breakout,” which would enable it to begin weapons production within a year. The goal of forestalling a breakout, which depends to a great extent on mathematical, technical, and political calculations, seems reachable.

But back in Washington, there seems to be little enthusiasm for going forward with Iran. Not for the first time in international diplomacy, what those closest to a negotiating process deem desirable and achievable does not necessarily resonate with those in power. In the case of the Iran talks, there are three main reasons for this.

First, preventing an Iranian nuclear breakout, though a worthy goal, is not what politicians and pundits would necessarily regard as an outright victory. On the contrary, Iran probably already possesses the knowhow to build a bomb. Short of rounding up the country’s scientists and exiling them to a desert island, it is far from easy to negotiate the circumstances by which a country in Iran’s position cannot – as opposed to will not – produce a bomb.

The second reason is that sanctions regimes have attracted almost a cult following, defined by a tendency to exaggerate their success and potential. Many academic studies have shown that the success rate of sanctions is limited. It is now understood that even the sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime may have impeded the transition to majority rule. Because divestment by multinational companies often resulted in fire sales of industrial facilities to regime allies, sanctions may have done more to empower and enrich reactionary elements than to catalyze social change.

Today, many US officials believe that the election of a new Iranian government with a mandate to get out from under Western sanctions is evidence that the sanctions are working. (Never mind that a lack of such evidence would have elicited calls for more sanctions.)

In fact, the dynamics of sanctions are more nuanced. As the Balkan wars of the 1990s showed, sanctions often result in a shift from legal to illegal trade. In the Balkans, this empowered mafia elements, and sometimes fused them to political parties and institutions. In Iran, a similar pattern has emerged: Western sanctions have cast the Revolutionary Guard, with all of its seedy economic activities, in the role of organized crime.

The Iranians who most want an end to the sanctions tend to be those who suffer from them, not those enriched by them. But those who suffer from sanctions suffer not just from economic hardship; the isolation that sanctions impose favors the country’s least enlightened elements. The Revolutionary Guard is not worried about whether it is in the international community’s good graces.

The third reason for the impasse in US Middle East policy stems from the complexity of the region’s increasingly sectarian politics. Much has been said of late about the confluence of US and Iranian interests in the broader Middle East. After all, it is the Iranians who have wanted a stable and prosperous post-Saddam Iraq – and have supported a non-Taliban regime there. And it is the Iranians who have favored a dialogue for peaceful power-sharing in Syria.

But Iran has also fueled sectarianism in the region. By supporting Shia forces beyond its borders – particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite regime, as well as some of the worst of the Shia militias in Iraq – Iran has aroused the Arab world against it and empowered Sunni Arab extremists. There is no question that the Iranians have both Sunni and American blood on their hands. Just as recklessly, Iran has competed with the Sunni Arab states in the anti-Israel sweepstakes.

The US has recognized the centrality of these issues and has sought to manage them through other sets of negotiations. But a strategy of compartmentalization requires focus and fortitude on the part of policymakers. Their task will not be easy. Perhaps Obama’s successful swing through East Asia will be a source of inspiration.
Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author of the forthcoming book Outpost.

Project Syndicate

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