America needs Iran more than Israel

Next month, the Israeli Prime Minister will address the American Congress. It is not hard to guess the essence what he will say. As the Atlantic’s foreign affairs editor, James Fallows, observes his message regarding Iran almost invariably turns on a single metaphor: Iran as the Third Reich and the present day as 1938. Fallows parses this needlessly alarmist comparison and presents one of his own:

“In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon understood that despite long-lasting, serious disagreements with mainland China, it was far better overall to find a way to work with Mao and his successors, rather than trying to bring them to heel through continued isolation. There was more to gain than lose through this non-Chamberlain-style “compromise.” The government of Taiwan and its supporters in the United States bitterly resisted this change, but from America’s point of view they were wrong.

I believe that something similar applies with Iran as well. As with China in the 1970s and Cuba in recent years, there is no evidence that the national population itself has become deeply anti-Western or anti-American. Restoring relations, while it would hardly eliminate all disagreements, would have enough benefits to be worth pursuing as a strategic goal. Even if the pursuit doesn’t pay off, the potential benefits, from the American point of view, are substantial enough not to give up prematurely, by imposing pre-conditions that would make any negotiations impossible.”

The emphasis is mine. There do seem to be many Americans for whom their nation’s relationship with Israel is (literally or figuratively) sacred. They are prepared to pay a vast price for Israel’s sake. There are others who might not see things in such grandiose terms but nonetheless feel supporting Israel is morally right. I largely disagree but I think the graver error is the calculation that its support for Israel is also beneficial for America and perhaps even sufficiently beneficial that it would be worth forgoing rapprochement with Iran in order to keep neanyahu’s government content.

In fact, I would suggest the opposite is true. Israel has largely outlived its usefulness. During the Cold War it was “America’s aircraft carrier” in the Middle East: it repeatedly crushed the militaries of states that sympathised with Soviet Union and thereby shifted the balance of power in America’s favour. But things aren’t that simple anymore. The Israeli military is still one of the most effective in the world and it still fights on a routine basis. However, it seems unable to weaken its opponents. For example, its 2006 invasion of Lebanon actually strengthened Hezbollah by generating a wave of anger that broadened the movements appeal.

Even were it able to do more damage to its enemies, these are not groups America especially needs damaging. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah appear to be aspiring to attack American targets. And any Israeli involvement in fighting the groups that actually worry America – ISIL, Al Qaeda and the Assads – would be a huge propaganda boost for those organisations and therefore wholly counterproductive.

In fact, Israel is now sufficiently toxic in the Middle East that America’s alliance with it is now a liability. It makes it easier for anti-American forces to stir up hatred of the country and puts America’s other allies in the region in a complicated position.

Iran, by contrast, has a lot to offer the US. As a Shia nation it opposes many of the extreme Sunni groups that menace the US. The two countries are both bombing ISIS and supporting the Iraqi government to fight it. Iran borders Afghanistan and has a long history of opposing the Taliban though it has not necessarily pursued this in a manner America would like. The Taliban’s base has always been amongst Pashtu speakers, whilst Iranians have an affinity for their fellow Farsi speakers. The Islamic Republic was an early backer of the Northern Alliance that overthrew the Taliban in 2001 and enjoyed close relations with the American backed Karzai government. Resolving the nuclear issue would enable the US and Iran to begin discussions about co-ordinating their efforts against ISIL and the Taliban. It would also head off the prospect of a detente between Iran and the Taliban.

The US could also use the possibility of showing favour towards Iran as an incentive for Saudi Arabia – which sees Iran as its principal rival for influence in the Middle East – to stay in line with US policy.

Iran also has the second largest proven reserves of natural gas in the world, which is potentially handy when you consider that the World’s largest reserves belong to Russia.

For these reasons co-operating with Iran has the potential to expand American power, whilst its alliance with Israel depletes it. Iran may be a less savoury ally than Israel: its internal repression and backing for the Assad regime are worse than anything Israel has done in the occupied territories. However, Iran would hardly be the worst regime the US has formed an alliance with: Saudi reprehension is of a far more totalitarian character than anything seen in Iran. So when Tel Aviv and Tehran pull Washington in different directions, I can see no compelling principle that should prevent the US making the pragmatic decision to seek a rapprochement with such a potentially useful nation.

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