Compromising With Iran on International Security
It is highly improbable that Iran will compromise on demands from the U.S. and its allies that it halt the expansion of its ballistic missile capabilities or extend critical provisions of the current nuclear agreement. Considering that its motives for expanding these capabilities are both defensive and offensive in nature, the U.S. and EU should devise a strategy that alleviates Iran’s defensive concerns and also attempts to pacify their offensive motives—particularly Iran’s aggressive behavior toward Israel.
In his February 2017 report, “Iranian Concepts of Warfare: Understanding Tehran’s Evolving Military Doctrines”, J. Matthew McInnis, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and formerly senior expert on Iran at U.S. Central Command, writes that the searing experience of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War generated the initial impetus for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ballistic missile program.
“Saddam Hussein initiated the war of the cities in 1984 by sending ballistic missiles into western Iranian cities to terrorize the population. The Iranian leadership eventually responded in a similar manner but struggled to develop a missile…capability on par with Iraq’s. The psychological effect of Iraqi missiles, though, ensured that Iran would continue to focus on its missile program as the centerpiece of its conventional military power long after the war ended.”
“The [conventional Iranian military’s] inability to maintain an effective or modern air force after the revolution also left Iran with missiles as its primary option to overtly strike its distant adversaries, such as Israel, if needed. The program is now the centerpiece of Iran’s retaliatory deterrence and is considered an existential element of Iran’s defenses.”
“Iraq aside, no power has threatened the IRI’s existence like the United States has. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 and [the Iraq War] in 2003…instilled the centrality of developing doctrines to defend against, dissuade, and undermine the inherent advantages of the American way of war.”
The U.S. is once-again expanding its military presence in the Middle East, motivated to a great degree by Iran’s openly acknowledged support for the Houthis in Yemen. Also, Iran’s aggressive expansion of its military presence in Syria in pursuit of the annihilation of Israel will only reinforce Iran’s lack of cooperation on international security issues unless difficult policy compromises are made on both sides.
For the U.S., such compromises must include a demonstrated sincere commitment to achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which must necessarily include exerting substantive pressure on Israel to make hard compromises vital to any conceivable agreement. It must also include basic acceptance of Iran’s interests as a Muslim country in the outcome, especially as it pertains to freedom of peaceful religious expression in Jerusalem.
On the Iranian side, it must initially include a commitment to accept Israel’s fundamental right to exist, contingent upon Israel’s recommitment to the two-state framework. It must also include limitation of Iranian support in the interim only to groups that have eschewed terrorism in the most basic definition of the term and that are also willing to support a two-state solution.
It remains to be seen what plan the Trump administration will present to the international community to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but diplomatic signals to date do not give one cause for confidence; nor does the current bipartisan consensus of Congress. Such moves reinforce the Supreme Leader of Iran’s belief, frequently emphasized in his speeches that communication of weakness on Iran’s part will invite bolder challenges to the security, sovereignty, and dignity of Iran and the broader Muslim world.
The U.S. needs to lead efforts to guide the region to a more stable and peaceful equilibrium, which will require it to build a regional consensus—including Iran—on what a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem would entail, however inherently imperfect this will be. Those who say it cannot be done need only look to the evolution first of Egypt’s and Jordan’s policies, followed by the broader Arab and Muslim world’s disposition toward Israel.
It should also be made clear that it is highly improbable that Iran will agree to enter into serious negotiations on this issue without some application of coercive leverage to complement constructive diplomatic engagement. Iranian leaders will protest that they will not negotiate under threat, but their negotiating behaviors on the nuclear and Syria issues demonstrates the necessity of such measures as elements of an overarching strategy.
Sanctions and calculated application of military force against Iranian individuals and entities organizing for a war of annihilation against Israel in Syria and Lebanon will probably remain necessary for some time to bring Iran to the negotiating table. The U.S. should also recognize the moral hazard of making its military forces the first line of Israel’s defense, however. It is abundantly clear at this point that if Israel also does not feel some pressure to compromise, it will not.
Thomas Buonomo is the Humanist Studies Coordinator with the American Humanist Association. His views are his own and do not represent an official position of the American Humanist Association. @thomasbuonomo