Sunday, December 1, 2013

Is the Iran deal a "Nixon goes to China" event?

Nixon and Mao
When Nixon went to China, I was on a “Med cruise”, Navy short hand for a ship’s 6-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea.  In those days, we got our news from the Radio Room printed on a yellow roll of paper, cut to length and attached to a clipboard available for all who wished to read it.  I can only imagine that today’s naval officers are as plugged in as we are here at home. 

But, plugged in or not, U.S. moves to form a new relationship with Iran might seem as confounding as the Nixon/China foray did in the early 70’s.  Our allies in the Middle East – Israel and Saudi Arabia – are objecting loudly to recent developments.  Iran supports the Assad regime and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.  How can we form an alliance with them?

Let’s remember that when Nixon forged a new alliance with Mao’s China, the U.S. was still fighting in Vietnam, facing a foe that was armed by the Chinese. 

Foreign affairs are not about winning or losing wars.  Wars are costly and should be avoided.  Foreign affairs are about maintaining or disrupting the balance of power.  By winning the war in Iraq, the U.S. disrupted the balance of power in the Middle East and southern Asia.  Iran, bordered by two countries occupied by U.S. troops, moved to counter our presence by forming an alliance with the new government of Iraq and through its support of the Assad regime in Syria.  The national initiative to develop nuclear weapons capability was a way for them to establish legitimacy.  It has forced the U.S. and its allies to deal with them.

Iran has a long history of mercantilism that has yielded a well-educated middle class.  Their economy is migrating toward capitalism and is able to compete in international commerce.  They have joined the international patent system and are viewed by exporting economies in the EU as a potential market.  Ideology aside, they are a natural trading partner for the West. 

I don’t mean to take ideology lightly.  But, in the end, national economic and security interests nearly always trump ideology.  That’s why Iran will pursue these discussions with the West constructively.

Our traditional Middle East allies all have interests that are contrary to ours.  Saudi Arabia, Iraq and our NATO ally Turkey support Sunni extremists in Syria.  Nothing is cut and dry in the Middle East but Sunni extremism represents a clear threat to U.S. interests and security.  And, while Iran’s support of Syria’s Assad is seen as contrary to our interests, the stalemate there neutralizes the benefits of their alliance. 

And let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia was home to Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 terrorists. 

In the end, it may be that having Iran as a strategic economic competitor will be preferable to having them as a strategic nuclear competitor.  Indeed, it’s not clear that Iran ever wanted to develop nuclear weaponry.  Ever notice how they are always a few months away? 

Kerry with Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif
Of course, our most reliable ally in the region has been Israel, a country that Iran has sworn to obliterate.  But, Israel’s options are limited.  As I have written (Let Israel Do It...), Israel can’t attack Iran without the participation of the U.S. military, which is not forthcoming.  It may be that the assertions of Secretary of State Kerry are correct.  A non-nuclear Iran represents little threat to Israel.  Indeed, a strong commercial relationship with the West will make it less attractive for them to support international terrorism.

Na├»ve?  Perhaps.  But, many had the same view of China 40 years ago.  Is China still problematic?  Yes.  But, not nearly as much as they would have been if we were not their largest market.

It will be interesting to observe the U.S. politics over the proposed sanctions relief.  Presidents do better when they oppose the traditional politics of their political party.  Reagan signed a treaty with the Soviets to reduce nuclear arms.  Clinton reformed welfare.  But, Obama faces a more hawkish constituency among Republicans than his own party.  And, any American over the age of 40 remembers the Iran hostage crisis well. 

LEADERSHIP is about common cause. Kerry is well qualified to pursue this new balance of power but he is inarticulate.  It will be up to the President to sell this to the American public and up to his political operation to make it work in Congress.



  1. Dave Shiffman
    Independent Computer Software Professional

    More like the 1992 "GHW Bush Barfs on Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa" incident, except that the current event was intentional, and will be consequential far beyond mere embarrassment.

  2. Ted Phelps
    PCG Consultants

    More like Jimmy Carter's visit to the rabbit, I think.

  3. Tom Jeanette
    I.T. Project Manager at Douglas County Libraries

    Only sociopaths would mock attempts at controlling nuclear proliferation.

  4. Dave Shiffman
    Independent Computer Software Professional

    Tom, I could respect this effort IF I believed it were what you described it to be. But the real leadership of Iran, (not the figurehead president) will not stop, or even slow their efforts to acquire a nuclear bomb and the means to deliver it world wide. The President desperately needs a distraction from Obamacare, and Secretary Kerry has the perfect combination of ignorance and arrogance to believe that he is doing something worthwhile.

    Even France - not known for its diplomatic perspicacity these days - instantly recognized how flawed and unrealistic this agreement is.

  5. Tom Jeanette
    I.T. Project Manager at Douglas County Libraries

    Dave, with your keen insight into the schemes and motivations of the Iranian and American regimes, perhaps you can explain how opening the nuclear sites in Iran to multinational inspections will further their weapons program? We've long known where the labs are located and opening new sites (easily detected) will bring down the entire agreement and unify international sentiment against Iran, especially from Saudi Arabia, making it worse for Iran than if there had been no deal in the first place.

  6. Jeffery Pyle
    Consultant at TekSystems

    It's not even "Chamberlain goes to Munich." It's another "let's make a deal, kick this down the road for some future administration to deal with and take it off the table event" This administration has little interest in or aptitude for foreign affairs and the Iranian problem distracts from the focus on domestic issues.

  7. Steven Whittle
    Analyst at Department of Defense

    Hardly. Neither Kerry nor Obama have Nixon's touch for foreign policy. And Iran is not China. This is like comparing apples with elephants.