Analysis & Opinions - Tabnak
Iran and Obama: The Grand Bargain on Roles
This op-ed was originally published in Farsi. An English translation follows.
Any change in Iran's policy in the Middle East will depend on the Obama administration's policy communicating a fundamental "change" in recognizing Iran's key interests and accepting its role in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. The Bush administration's confrontational policies, especially in post-invasion Iraq, have created a new kind of "political-strategic discrepancy" in Iran-U.S. relations. The two countries now regard the growth of each other's role in the region as contrary to their national interests and security. President Obama should change this new point of strategic difference.
The prevailing view in Iran is that no fundamental change will happen in Iran-U.S. relations during Obama's administration and the United States will continue its policies of increasing political pressure and sanctions on Iran. Based on pessimism and caution, such an observation originated from the traditional and strategic concerns of Iranian statecraft, which essentially believe that the main strategy of the U.S. is to minimize Iran's role in its political-security backyard, especially in the Persian Gulf. From this perspective, no matter whether either a Democrat or Republican president is in the White House, U.S. foreign policy in the region will be based on certain sustained strategic principles, such as preserving a "balance of power" in the Persian Gulf and "enhancing Israel's role" in the Levant. Such policies exclude Iran from the region political-security order, dis-integrate Iran from the region's economic activities, deny Iran's rightful nuclear program, and generally construe Iran as the main threat and source of instability in the region. These policies seek to minimize Iran's influence, and Iran can not live with this situation.
The political developments in post-invasion Iraq have expanded Iran's political-security role, necessitating a change in redefining Iran's role in the U.S. strategic calculus. Iran's increased role is due to its geostrategic position in proximity to regional crises such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, along with its dynamic Shia ideology. These elements are currently of great concern to the U.S. in settling regional crises and combating terrorism.
As a key actor, Iran now regards itself a "producer of security" in both the Persian Gulf and the Levant. By linking the political-security issues of these two regions, Iran seeks to broaden its line of security, together with settling its strategic challenges with the United States — a policy that can resolve Iran's political-security dilemma for the sake of sustainable development.
Yet, as occasionally expressed by U.S. officials, Iran's increased regional role contradicts U.S. strategic goals, the interests of Arab allies, and most importantly, the security of Israel. To diminish Iran's role, the Bush administration utilized all means, such as installing like-minded elites in Iraq or through transforming Iraq into a potential model for Iran, in order to form a new kind "balance of power" between the two countries, creating an unfriendly coalition with the region's Sunni regimes against Iran, and, finally, opposing systematically Iran's nuclear program. These policies are all perceived as being contrary to Iran's national security and interests. As a result, Iran and the U.S. are now two "strategic adversaries", which are trying to balance against each other. Today, actions that Washington considers to be security-enhancing are regarded by Tehran as bringing insecurity for Iran. Iran's opposition to the Iraq-U.S. Political-Security Agreement is in this context, whereas any U.S. penetration in Iraq would increase the role of the U.S. across from Iran's western boundaries and likewise diminish Iran's strategic role in its own backyard. For this reason, Iran has persistently asked for U.S. troop withdrawal. Such a characterization of Iran-U.S. relations is somehow new and apart from past bitter history.
A real change by Obama's administration, as expressed by Iranian officials like Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani, should be fundamental and based on redefining Iran's role in U.S. regional policies. The nature of power and politics has changed and become more interdependent in the region. Today, the political-security issues in the Levant are linked with power-sharing conflicts in the Persian Gulf. Iran has the key role in the both regions.
President Obama's policy in the region should be based on changing the traditional policy of "balance of power", which is itself a source of tension and war in Iran's relations with neighboring states. The Iran-Iraq War was the result of an arms race which had begun due to this policy. Such a policy is neither efficient nor will it be accepted by Iran. The region can not be secured at the expense of Iran's insecurity. Instead, the U.S. president should change this policy to "balance of interests" in which all actors' interests, regional or trans-regional, are secured. He should also change the existing perception in America that a powerful Iran will endanger U.S. regional interests.
The "grand bargain" between Iran and President Obama should therefore be based on accepting Iran's role. Unlike the existing view in America, Iran's main point of bargaining is not to obtain "security assurances" from the U.S., rather it is to gain an appropriate regional role commensurate with its sources of power. If the Obama administration is willing to do so, Iran should be interested in settling the Levant issues in exchange for accommodating Iran's role and key interests in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. Iran should also realize that its role and influence in the region are unlikely to be indefinite. It is a momentous opportunity for Iran therefore to settle its strategic issues with the United States in the course of region's transformation to a new-political security order.
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School-
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