I’m afraid I have to throw cold water on Scott McConnell’s fantasies:
So imagine: the nuclear diplomacy track gets going, and Iran makes it clear that it will trade transparency and inspections to ensure non-weaponization. Obama does what he can strip away the sanctions, encouraged by Europe, which is eager to trade and invest in Iran. And suddenly Americans realize there is this large, sophisticated Muslim country, with a large middle class and a huge appetite for American culture and business. It is not a U.S.-style democracy, far from it—but no country in the Middle East is. At worst it is in third place. Compared to the state of political freedom in China in 1971, contemporary Iran is a New England town meeting.
Recall: in 1971, American elites fell in love with China. The “China Lobby”—that large complex of anti-communist Chinese and Americans with personal and professional ties to China who felt jilted by the Revolution and which had prevented any rapprochement until then—proved to be a proverbial “paper tiger” once President Nixon decided to reach beyond it. American elites were suddenly enthralled by ping pong and pandas. New York Times columnist James Reston had an appendectomy with no anesthetic beyond acupuncture, and it worked out wonderfully—and became the source of hundreds of respectful news stories about Chinese medicine. For years, China was the new flavor on the block. Growing ties with China were the backdrop to everything: America could be humiliated in Vietnam and the world hardly noticed. . . .
My guess is that many Americans will fall in love with [Iran] —or at least with the combination of exoticism and profits that detente with Iran promises. Yes, there will be blind and naive aspects to the love—when is there not?—but it will unleash powerful forces that governments cannot control.
So who loses? Obviously we aren’t talking about a reversal of alliances. Israel will remain one of the cornerstones of American Middle East policy. But note: “one of.” Israel has grown accustomed to a weirdly disproportionate role in Washington, as the one country to which America looks for interpretation and guidelines to action in the Mideast. Normalcy with Iran would almost certainly muddle that. . . .
[Iran] would be a self-reliant and independent power, not a military threat but certainly a state wielding considerable cultural and economic “soft power.” A procession of American tourists into Teheran, followed shortly by students and businessmen, would change American perspectives on the region. Israel’s ability to act as America’s ears and eyes and ultimate interpreter of regional events would almost certainly be diminished, perhaps radically.
Reality check time:
First of all, Iran has no reason to want to be perceived as allied with America. The United States and China had very substantial common interests. China had fought a border war with the Soviet Union and with Soviet-friendly India; America, exhausted by the war in Vietnam, badly needed to shake up the geopolitical map. By contrast, to the extent that Iran has any limited influence in a region where anti-Shia extremism is rising, it’s because of its opposition to the Great Satan. And close ties with Iran would create more problems for America with its Arab partners (and with Pakistan) than they would solve. I’ve complained about the China analogy before, and my objections still stand.
Second, the opportunities for Americans to profit from trade with Iran are limited. Their economy is too small relative to America’s, and Europeans will be more logical partners in most areas. Opening up their economy is enormously important to Iran – because they are on the cusp of the democratic dividend. Iran risks missing a historic opportunity to jump to semi-first-world status, which is the reason the regime might just take the ideological risk of coming to some kind of agreement with America on the nuclear issue. But America as a whole will barely notice whether they make the jump or not.
Third, there’s already a large, well-educated, relatively prosperous Muslim country with close ties to America, and which is increasingly critical of Israel’s approach to the region. It’s called Turkey. I haven’t noticed that Turkish complaints have had any effect at all on the Washington discourse. Why assume that Iran will be able to influence America at all?
Fourth, while it’s true that every American I know who’s been to Iran has loved the place, and I would love to visit myself, only the narrowest slice of Americans would have any interest in traveling somewhere like Iran. And the press is no longer the monolith that it was in 1971. Can you imagine the conservative media apparatus participating in a pro-Iran love-fest in the wake of successful nuclear negotiations? Right.
Finally, these kinds of fantasies can be quite destructive as we approach the diplomatic process, because by raising expectations they invite the perception of failure. Our goal is not “flipping” Iran from the enemy to the allied column. We should not be surprised or offended if Iran continues to posture against America in international forums, or even take more concrete actions to frustrate our aims in the region. We should expect them to want to drive a wedge between us and our allies, and to spin any agreement as our defeat. We should keep our eye on our primary objectives. Our goals are avoiding war and neutralizing the destabilizing threat of Iranian nuclearization. Their goals are avoiding war and ending the sanctions regime. We have concrete goals and interests, and so do they. That’s what we should be talking about – and getting to a deal on. If love follows in its season, well and good. But we don’t need it.