The Distance to Tehran

In one of my previous jobs, I was tasked with revising a severely outdated briefing on Iran, to serve as the intelligence estimate for a planners’ training course. I did a good job but found the whole exercise a bit of a waste, given that we were clearly pivoting towards Asia and Great Power conflict – or at the very least trying not to get bogged down in wars with relatively second-tier states whom we could safely engage in diplomatic or deterrent relationships.

I hate that everything I learned from updating the intel estimate is useful. I hate that I know a bunch about the government, military, and security services of a country that, frankly, ought to be a strategic partner in a generation. And I hate that now planners might actually use that knowledge not as an exemplar to be deployed against meaningful adversaries, but as the actual basis for operational planning – again, targeting a country whose status as an adversary isn’t terribly older than I am.

I think enough has been said at this point about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani (read Evan Osnos and Adam Entous’s New Yorker piece for more) that I don’t need to go into any great detail here. But there are two aspects of this that signal frustrating trends in foreign policy thinking, beyond the mere mental gymnastics and reality distortions needed simply to try and understand what Donald Trump is even saying, much less what he means. As far as that goes, Adam Elkus has written the definitive essay on the pandemonium of epistomological modernity in the age of Trump.

It is immensely frustrating that we even have to keep discussing Iran as some sort of permanent enemy or center of gravity for the United States. The animosity between the two is real but constantly stoked despite the absence of any true ideological clash between Tehran and Washington. As numerous articles have pointed out, in the months after 9/11, Iranian and US forces partnered together in Afghanistan and Iran played an important and constructive role in the Bonn Conference that established a post-Taliban government.  This isn’t to say that Iran is a benign actor, but rather that there have been opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation that we, to put it bluntly, used to be better at taking advantage of. It helps if you aren’t implacably hostile, which leads to diplomatic possibilities like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from which this administration has, unsurprisingly, withdrawn (indeed, John Bolton recently listed that and the demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty as his proudest accomplishments). And much of animosity on both sides is generational – the weird MEK fanboys of Bolton’s generation won’t be in power forever (inshallah) and neither will the Iran-Iraq War veterans currently populating the upper ranks of the IRGC and Artesh.

Given a generation of change, it’s likely we could see a wholly new type of relationship. As recently as 2012, a majority of Iranians had favorable opinions of Americans. Young Iranians don’t share the animosity of older policymakers in either country (at least, they didn’t before the Soleimani strike). This, to me, is the greatest tragedy of the neocon obsession with Iran. It’s obliterated any chance at reconciliation or a “normal” relationship, finding venues of cooperation where interests overlap while accepting the fundamental legitimacy of the other (not unlike the cycles of competition and cooperation that have marked the U.S.-Russian relationship). I’m not exactly a fan of the Iranian theocracy, but it also represents neither an existential threat nor a hugely valuable prize to be won: it is a country with which we could have a productive relationship if we desired. But we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Counterterrorism cooperation was at an all-time high with Tehran before David Frum wrote George W. Bush’s speech placing Iran in the “Axis of Evil” and that was that; Washington was now implacably opposed to the Islamic Republic’s very existence. The prospects of peace have never seemed dimmer.

And so Iran seems to be – aside from the cascading consequences of the Iraq War – our main raison d’etre in the Middle East. The mistake is both specific and generic. Iran is  not of national interest to the United States. And Martin Indyk – an old Middle East hand – has now made the case in the Wall Street Journal that the region is one of no pressing strategic interest to the United States and that we should seek to disengage, that “the Middle East isn’t worth it anymore.” He’s right. Every deployment, every operation conducted in the region seems to just serve as self-justification. We’re there because we’re there. We’re staying because we’re there. We have to protect our forces there because that’s where they are.

But what if they weren’t? What if we could finally exricate ourselves from a decades-long quagmire and acknowledge that, to put it bluntly, the Middle East does not matter to our interests or our security, and that stoking tensions while propping up theocratic monarchies does much more harm than good, all while draining attention and valuable resources?

Iran shouldn’t matter. And the Middle East needs far less attention than its been receiving.