I meant to say something about Scott McConnell’s post from Monday on Iran. He says, in passing:
During the segment Mike Barnicle chipped in to say that former senator Bob Kerrey speaks of Iran as “America’s most natural ally” in the Middle East. It is an argument made in the very interesting book Reset by Stephen Kinzer. It is worth recalling that Iran was the only place in the Middle East where there were spontaneous expressions of grief after 9/11–Teheran’s citizens took to the streets in candlelight vigils. In the months to follow, there was substantial intelligence cooperation between Iran and the US, as Washington went after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. That was brought to halt, regrettably: The neocons in the Bush administration had a different agenda, and turned their attention to Iraq.
I think it’s important for advocates of a less-confrontational approach to Iran to keep their enthusiasm within reasonable bounds. Iran is not a “natural ally” of the United States for a host of reasons. First, the regime’s legitimacy arguably depends on confrontation with the West, which would make it difficult for Iran to achieve normalization without internal risk. Second, and more important, we do not have a common enemy. Saudi Arabia is a rival of Iran’s, but hardly an enemy – that is to say, it is not a material threat. So who would we be “allying” against? Finally, what do we have that they want? Other than ending a state of hostility, what can alliance with America offer Iran?
It’s worth comparing Iran to India in this regard. We’ve been talking about India as a “natural” ally for a while now, but that alliance is having a hard time really getting off the ground. The basis of the alliance is our mutual desire to counter China. But while some American conservatives have at times thought that America’s wars in the Middle East also suited India’s interests, because of India’s long-time rivalry with Muslim Pakistan, this was not the case. India’s interests are not served at all by lining up with America against most Muslim countries, and India’s interests are also not served by America’s perceived need to curry some degree of favor with Pakistan. We do have limited interests in common, and this should be the basis of a growing friendship. But we are not going to be allies in some grand common struggle.
So if “natural ally” India isn’t simply going to line up and salute, what are the prospects with Iran, with whom we have no similar set of interests in common?
Four years ago, I wrote about the prospects for rapprochement with Iran, and the structural difficulties with achieving same. I compared rapprochement with Iran to three possible precedents: Nixon’s opening to China, Reagan’s negotiations at Reykjavik, and Sadat’s overture to Jerusalem. I rejected the first two analogies as, ultimately, inapposite – but the Sadat analogy I thought might be plausible, but it had different implications from those you might think:
Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem was not the beginning of an era of engagement; it was an end of an era of engagement. It relegated Egypt to the status of a bystander in Arab politics for a generation. Israel took advantage of the peace with Egypt to pursue a more aggressive policy against thePLO in Lebanon; Egypt condemned the Lebanon war but never contemplated taking action. In like fashion, I suspect that an overture to Iran would signal to the Arab world that America had no interest in being a serious player in the region, and they would presumably adjust their own foreign policies accordingly. That might be a good thing, mind you! But it’s not usually the way a policy of engagement with Iran is sold.
Actually, that’s exactly how a non-interventionist would sell it. But it’s the opposite of saying that Iran is a “natural ally” of the United States.
Back in the early days after 9-11, one of the biggest cheerleaders for the idea of a “natural” alliance with Iran was Michael Ledeen, who said many of the same things that McConnell says – Iran has a sophisticated, pro-American population; we have no interests in conflict; Saudi Arabia is the real enemy. Of course, he assumed a revolution was necessary to bring Iran around, but once that was accomplished we could form the natural alliance we should have, and get down to business “pacifying” the Arab world together.
The rationale for an opening to Iran should be made more narrowly. Either that articulating a goal of full normalization (not alliance) could lead to real progress on the nuclear front, and that we should prioritize that question over America’s other interests; or that our other interests, including our interest in non-proliferation, are not substantial enough to justify the risk of war that inevitable follows from a policy of confrontation. Those claims are difficult enough to substantiate. We don’t need even bigger dreams clouding our judgment.