If they haven’t yet tuned out the political noise, many Americans are still trying to decipher the arguments of the Iran nuclear deal. One side contends that it was a good deal, meeting U.S. core policy and asserting that a better deal could not be struck. The other side maintains that the deal was too lenient, an act of appeasement, drawing analogies to the failed 1938 Munich Agreement made with Hitler. Without a crystal ball, how can one decide?
Perhaps the best place to start is from the Iranian perspective, asking why its nuclear capability is so vital. After all, the country is sitting on some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Oil is a far less costly energy source for Iran than nuclear power. And over the last three decades, the Iranian people have paid a significant price for their nuclear strategy. Economic sanctions and pariah status have hit hard on their standard of living causing many societal problems. So why does Iran persist in developing its nuclear capability?
The answer can be found in twentieth century history. Many people are surprised to learn that Iran’s ambition to join the world’s nuclear club predates its 1979 revolution. Post World War II, Iran was a principal American ally in the Middle East. During some of the tensest moments of the Cold War, Iran stood firm on the front line, flanking the Soviet Union on its southern border. With U.S. support, Iran went on to become a regional leader in nuclear technology. And Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the pro-Western Shah, was the Middle East’s principal backstop against the spread of communism. Besides its oil reserves, Iran’s resistance to communism – the dominant obsession of U.S. foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s – became the linchpin for Western ties. As a result, Iran’s oil revenues soared, its economy expanded, and its military became the strongest in the region. Iran, with a then established Jewish community in the country, was even accepting of Israel.
All that changed in the 1970s. With OPEC’s oil embargo and the Shah’s renationalization of Iran’s oil resources, the balance of power in the Middle East began to shift away from Shia Islamic Iran, moving instead toward the massive oil reserves of Sunni Islamic Saudi Arabia with its increasingly pro-Western policies. Iran’s economy began to fail, the Shah’s grip grew tighter and rebellion went on the rise. The Carter administration pulled the plug on further U.S. support, citing the Shah’s civil rights abuses and Iran’s decline was swift. Along with its oil revenues, Iran’s nuclear program evaporated overnight. The country’s deteriorating society made the Shah ripe for overthrow. With the Islamic Revolution, the U.S. embassy was seized, the Imperial family fled, and Western influence was cast aside.
Also consequent from the Iranian Revolution and the West’s maneuvering for more oil, was the rise in Shia versus Sunni conflict in the 1980s. Iraqi madman and Sunni dictator Saddam
Hussein would go on to instigate war with Iran. In the course of the war and with Western impunity, Saddam used chemical weapons, killing thousands of Iranians. Ultimately, the nearly decade-long war cost Iran half a million lives and devastated its country. No doubt, seeds of the current sectarian violence were sown with the Iran-Iraq War and the centuries-old feud between Shia and Sunni was reignited.
Shortly after the war, Iran’s nuclear ambitions again started to rise, directly related to its national security. Iran’s paranoia was undeniable and its recent destruction at Sunni hands with Western support was indelible. Cutoff by the West, surrounded by a larger and stronger Sunni population, and with the region’s balance of power now held by oil rich and Sunni Saudi Arabia, Iranian leadership saw the nuclear wildcard as a necessary option. Additionally, Iran began furthering the Shia cause through support of the Al-Assad family’s regime in Syria and the terrorist organization Hezbollah, thereby putting itself directly into the crosshairs of Israel and drawing further ire from the West. The world community responded by putting Iran into the geopolitical penalty box with even greater economic and political reproach. The effect led to further destabilization of the Shia-Sunni status quo. Apparently, little appreciation had been given to the deep-rooted animosity between the two sides.
Meanwhile, the West’s move toward Sunni power and oil backfired. 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now put the West on the opposing side of a very violent and growing Sunni fundamentalist movement. Western influence throughout the Middle East has now become impotent on both sides of the Shia-Sunni crisis, directly resulting in the West’s predicaments in Syria and with ISIS.
Where the past has ultimately led is to the West’s resolve now to bolster the Shia side of the equation and thereby reestablish a balance of power in the region. Without a doubt, the Iranian nuclear deal will strengthen Iran economically and militarily and their standing in the world community will likely rebound. Also without a doubt, the U.S. had to do the deal. The world, and particularly the West, now need Iran. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” goes the old maxim. Short of increasing its military commitments or putting boots on the ground, the U.S. and the West have few good options to stem the extremist Sunni tide. But working with Iran will require cooperation which Iran may be reluctant to offer, based upon its past experience.
From the Iranian perspective, their endurance has paid off. They will have nuclear arms capability and the West will be unlikely to stop them if they move toward weapons grade enrichment. Iran will strengthen while at the same time safeguarding against the effects of further U.S. sanctions or Israeli preemptive strategies. Time will tell if the deal was a successful last ditch effort to reinstate order, or if it was a precursor to further Shia-Sunni chaos, likely dragging the world into its fray. Is it a necessary goodwill gesture to elicit Iranian collaboration with the West, or a dangerous exercise in appeasement? It may, in fact, be both.
Christopher Petitt is the author of the soon-to-be-released book, The Crucible of Global War: And the Sequence that is Leading Back to It. It will be available for order at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and in bookstores everywhere November 18.