Does the Road to Mideast Peace Run through Tehran?

The diplomatic breakthrough at Geneva is still only a down payment on a much bigger deal, and it is early to begin speaking of realignments in the Middle East on this basis. Hard liners on both sides could still derail the negotiations.

But it is not too soon to begin considering what the Middle East would look like if relations between Iran and the West (the United States and Europe) were to improve.

1. China: One immediate diplomatic benefit to the United States is that a source of friction will be removed with China. China has good relations with Iran and buys its petroleum. The US Congress arranged legislation that threatened China with third party, Department of the Treasury sanctions for buying Iranian petroleum. Not having to follow through on so foolish a threat against a country with which the US runs a huge trade deficit and to which the US owes $1 trillion will be a real relief among the adults in Washington.

2. Afghanistan: Most importantly, it seems to me, a friendlier US-Iran relationship could contribute to a soft landing in Afghanistan. As the US withdraws all but a few thousand troops from that country and confines the remaining ones to a role as trainers and advisers to the Afghanistan National Army, the specter arises that Pashtun Sunni extremists (the Taliban, Hizb-i Islami, the Haqqani group and others) could launch an all-out attempt to topple the government in Kabul.

Iran has strong ties to the Tajiks (Persian-speaking Sunnis) and to the Hazaras (Persian-speaking Shiites), and good relations with the Uzbeks of the north (who tend not to be adherents of political Islam). That is, Iran supports ethnic groups that are disproportionately present in the Afghanistan National Army and who despise Talibanism (which is mainly a Pashtun phenomenon, though a majority of Pashtuns also despise it). Iran’s support for the elected government in Kabul will be important to its survival, especially since far right wing elements in Pakistan and the Gulf may back the Taliban increasingly openly as the US contingent shrinks.

Ironically, then, the small American military force in Afghanistan after 2014 may have reason to be grateful to Iran as an ally of convenience. It may even become desirable in Washington that Iran’s oil income be sufficient to allow it to support the anti-Taliban forces.

3. Syria and Israel-Palestine: Iran has backed the Baathist government in Damascus to the hilt, despite Tehran’s uneasiness both with the scale of the bloodshed and their client’s willingness to use poison gas (from which Iranian troops and officers suffered during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988). As it comes in from the diplomatic cold, might Tehran be willing to play a more positive role, pressuring the Syrian regime to stop massacring its population? Likewise, what would happen if US-Iranian relations improved over the years and a center-left government came to power in Israel eager for a deal with its neighbors? What would happen if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a hardliner, died and was replaced by someone like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani or Hasan Rouhani? Might Iran be persuaded to pressure clients like Hizbullah not to obstruct the deal? It is highly unlikely but not impossible. Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states offered Israel a wide-ranging peace proposal in 2002.

Even just the assured (removal of an irritant with China) and the likely (Iranian help in Afghanistan) consequences of a Western deal with Iran would make the effort worthwhile, not to mention the benefit of backing away from a war footing.

32 Responses

  1. I took time this morning to email the White House to let them know I supported their efforts to avoid war and for standing up to Netanyahu and the Saudis and the Israeli lobby. I thanked the president for standing up to those who wanted our military to instigate another trillion dollar war that would lead to oil prices spiking over $200 a barrel, creating a depression world wide.

    Here is the web address if you would care to make your feelings known.

    link to

  2. Is there any impact on the geopolitics of North Korea?

    I was of the impression that North Korea had ties with Iran, perhaps exchanging nuclear and rocket technology for oil.

    Might this possibly isolate North Korea?

  3. Another important result could be that, without the distraction of the phony Iranian nuclear threat, the world might turn its attention to the apartheid and land and water theft by Israel; especially since Israeli obstructionism on the deal irritated so many Europeans, and will ultimately embarass France for its participation in the obstruction.
    . US support for Israel and the Gulf monarchy despots will probably increase now to atone for the Iran deal and thus prevent any improvment in relations in the middle east in general, but your more specific geopolitical improvments where interests actually coincide do seem very likely to occur.

    • “US support for Israel and the Gulf monarchy despots will probably increase”

      In case you haven’t noticed, US relations with Israel and, especially, Gulf monarchs has been deteriorating throughout Obama’s presidency.

      Why would the warming of relations with a nation that gives the US an alternative to the Gulf monarchies make cause Obama to move closer to them?

      • “Why would the warming of relations with a nation that gives the US an alternative to the Gulf monarchies make cause Obama to move closer to them?”

        It is simply tunnel vision to think that a thaw in our relationship with Iran give us an “alternative to” the Gulf monarchies. To speak of the “alternatives” of either Iran or the Gulf monarchies makes no geopolitcal sense. It is in the US interest to have close relations with all (non-hostile) states in the region, to include the Gulf monarchies and Iran. That is how nations maintain flexibility.

  4. ” The US Congress arranged legislation that threatened China with third party,…”

    How much dumber can Congress be than that? Unfortunately, time will tell.

  5. Excellent analysis, but what is the likely hood that Israel will disavow the extreme right and become more centrist, let alone elect a left leaning government?

    • Israeli Neoliberalism is hurting workers and young people, and there are real estate and finance bubbles. The edifice of the Right could come down any time.

      • Israel has been generally leaning right since Shimon Peres was prime minister in the 1990s following Yitzhak Rabin’s death.

        The only two times a moderate took office after Peres’ latest tenure as prime minister was when Kadima Party formed a goverment with Ehud Olmert as prime minister. Olmert, whose background was largely municipal governance, performed poorly and led to Netanyahu assuming the prime minister’s seat – and the other time was when Ehud Barak was PM in the late 1990s and made the fateful decision to withdraw the IDF from South Lebanon.

        The moderate elements in Israel at this time are politically fragmented, however Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, and Yair Lapid have the potential to galvanize a viable moderate movement – and Lapid largely has with his new party.

        It would not surprise me, however to see right-wing hardliners like Naftali Bennett or Avigdor Lieberman emerge as viable prime minister candidates and get elected.

      • “the edifice of the right could come down any time”

        — I just don’t see that as very probable, Prof. Cole. Some of the best short chapters in Max Blumenthal’s “Goliath” relate how many young, secular Israeli Jews are leaving the country, or considering doing so. For a variety of reasons.

        Hope you get around to reviewing the book.

  6. Today, the Saudis are described as cautiously optimistic about the Iranian nuclear accord-in-progress. This removes a major impediment, leaving Israel alone (except for her US allies on the political right) in being opposed to this agreement, the next agreement, and any agreement that doesn’t reduce Iran’s economy to the level of what post-WW2 Germany would have been under the Morgenthau plan so wisely rejected by Roosevelt and Marshall.

    • Wow, it’s going to take an Israeli leader with exceptional judgement, a sterling reputation among his international peers, excellent diplomatic skills, and a flexible and pragmatic ability to face changing circumstances to navigate this unusual isolation.

      (Looks at Netanyahu)

      Um…good luck with that.

  7. 47% of the U.S. national debt is owed to China and Japan – with the bulk of that percentage owed to China.

    China has now the highest GNP of any world nation, recently supplanting the United States.

    Antagonizing China would be like biting off one’s nose to spite his face.

    This deal also strengthens the political prestige of Iranian moderate elements that could become a potent future political force within Iran within the neaar future.

    • Chinia’s GNP in 2012 was $12.44 trillion.

      America’s was $15.89 trillion.

      But the point remains! Their economy is huge, and growing, and could very well surpass ours in the near future.

    • America’s GNP was $16 trillion, while China’s was $7 trillion in 2012, less than half that of the US, Mark. China has a way to go before it overtakes the US and becomes the largest in the world.

    • One slight correction, Mark. I was just reviewing the World Bank’s latest, refined data for the Chinese economy. The WB now pegs China’s 2012 GNP at $8.3 trillion (vice the older figure of $7 trillion I mentioned). Still, one-half that of the United States.

  8. It is about time to see an American president working for America’s national interests.
    If the results of Iran/USA negotiations were positive, that might cause a big shift in the internal American politics.
    Iran can help a lot in the Middle East, and solving the Iranian nuclear issue is the first step to force Israel to set down with Palestinians and negotiate. Forcing the Israelis to set down and talk peace is the first step to fix relations between the USA and the Arab POPULATION, which will serve the American national interest.
    Obama will achieve a huge political victory if thing went in the right directions, and I hope that when American politicians see the benefits of challenging lobby groups dictations, they will start doing that more often.
    Israel is right in feeling worried about this. Iran caused Netanyahu and AIPAC a very bid defeat in the American elections when he supported Romney, and now this might happen again if Netanyahu challenged Obama’s decisions on Iran.
    With or without intention, Iran’s policies and issues are pushing America in the right direction.

  9. Every news channel I watched says Saudi Arabia & Israel did not like this Iran USA nuke deal.

    Then these same channels show Netanyahu saying it is the worst deal but no one showing any Saudi official showing their displeasure against this historic deal in Geneva.

    It reminds me before the start of first Gulf war during Bush Sr, administration, after third trip to Saudi Arabia, then secretary of state James Baker, news broke on every TV channel “Saudi Arabia invited us”. At that time, also I never saw any Saudi official saying we invited US & coalition forces to invade Sadam Hussain or restore Monarchy in Kuwait.

    Is news media again putting words in Saudi Arabia’s mouth?

  10. What is amazing is that this preliminary agreement when juxtaposed with the the international community’s response to Israeli efforts build nuclear weaponry shows how the U.S. got it right this time to avoid a second Middle Eastern nation acquiring a nuclear capability.

    Just in June of this year, the story of how Canadian intelligence services exposed the sale of 80-100 tons of uranium “yellowcake” to Israel from Argetina became public knowledge. See “Israel’s Request for Yellowcake: The Secret Argentine-Israel Connection, 1963-66” at

  11. Both Iran and Hezbollah, while expressing their disapproval of the existence of the “Zionist regime”, have said that they would not obstruct any deal that the Palestinians agree to.

    Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said “Whatever decision they [the Palestinians] take is fine with us. We are not going to determine anything. Whatever decision they take, we will support that.”

    link to

    Hassan Nasrallah agrees: “At the end, this is primarily a Palestinian matter. I, like any other person, may consider what is happening to be right or wrong. . . . I may have a different assessment, but at the end of the road no one can go to war on behalf of the Palestinians, even if that one is not in agreement with what the Palestinians agreed on. Of course, it would bother us that Jerusalem goes to Israel…. [But l]et it happen. I would not say O.K. I would say nothing.”

    link to

    Hezbollah did not obstruct the Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2000-2001, or 2007-2008, and they are not obstructing the current ongoing talks either. There is little danger that Iran or Hezbollah would obstruct any deal the Israelis and Palestinians make with each other. There is very little that Iran or Hezbollah can do to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That task is mainly up to Israel and the United States, who are the main obstructors of such a peace.

    That isn’t to say that an Iranian-American rapprochement wouldn’t indirectly promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. It may lessen the fear many Israelis have of Iran, which is one of Bibi’s greatest assets, and cause them to vote for a more moderate candidate.

  12. Would Iran, if admitted to the halls of power, demand something “real” for Palestine, or merely get on board the USA’s and Israel’s “let them eat nothing” Marie Antoinette imitation?

    The idea of Iran’s getting Hezbollah to tone itself down is a mysterious idea for me — probably because I don’t know what Hezbollah does. I thoight it was a defensive army whose business was to punish Israel the next time Israel attacks Lebanon. What’m I missing?

  13. Dare one point out the counter-narrative context here? The part about the Imperium dodging a bullet (actually a huge number of them) by the narrowest of fortuities, where possible idiocy or possible real sense averted yet another Milo Minderbinder “war racket,” as the various “interests” with their oh so very narrow focuses and big-talking geopolitical vocabularies lumbered toward slinging Tomahawks at “targets” of some sort, “just because?” That maybe our grand geopoliticians are actually just caught up in the end-of-habitable-planet scrabble for a larger personal chunk of wealth to stimulate and protect them in the End Times they and their “policies” are apparently bringing about, and terribly aware of, or worse, oblivious to? Or that the whispering class, that tells us every day how wise and deep our Rulers are, or blows smoke in our eyes to keep our shoulders to the great wheels of Commerce, missed a little local triumph or two when accident and error stepped in?

    link to

    Of course, there is always hope, that last hang-by-your-fingernails bit of light at the end of the tunnel…

    • Or maybe, JT, when you find that you have to invoke “luck” over and over and over again to explain why things don’t work out as you expected, there’s actually something going on you aren’t getting.

  14. I’m curious what odds, great or small, Professor Cole is willing to give the chance of Iran moderating its support of the Assad regime. I don’t see any reason why the Iran deal, which may be good for the rest of us, including maybe Israel, will do any good in Syria-Lebanon.

    • Substantial elements of the Iranian elite are very embarrassed by the actions of the Baath Party, including using military weapons on peaceful protesters and deploying chemical weapons (from which Iran suffered mightily in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s). Iran would like to be popular in places like Jordan and Egypt the way it was in 2006, which al-Assad is making impossible. I suspect Iranian relations with contemporary Syria are fraught and complex.

      • Thank, that’s really helpful, and I’ve heard parts of the same line of analysis elsewhere. Understanding that these are indeed fraught, complex relations, I’m wondering how you’d call the odds, in terms of likely probable outcomes. Or is just time now to wait and see? I imagine Geneva 2 will settle some of these questions, one way or the other. I wish I could be optimistic, and hope to be proven wrong, but I don’t see any prospect of Assad transitioning out of office.

  15. Informed Comment

    Hi, folks. Some advice please. The metrics on this post are very low, so I’m worried it isn’t public to everyone. Can you see it?

  16. Just a wild guess, but isn’t “Mideast peace” a kind of aspirational oxymoron? Even Bill and Joe remind us of the complexities, politely so-called, of that weird and wonderful set of interrelationships, with such a long history of backstabbing, empire building, attachments of convenience, well-bred racial and ethnic and “religious” antipathies, and one strong man after another seeking to follow the advice of ‘The Prince’ on gaining and holding power over others.

    Too bad that there’s no common model for stability and “peace” that passes from ruler to ruler through the generations, and there are always the Whisperers at the ears and keyholes of power, seeking advantage and profit… which comes generally from ever closer approaches to chaos.

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