A nuclear deal with Iran could increase American leverage in the Middle East, according to a new report by top former U.S. officials. The authors warn that Washington may need to cooperate with “unusual bedfellows,” including Tehran, to counter the rise of the Islamic State and other new threats. But U.S. capacity to play a leading role in the region might be enhanced by such new relationships. The Iran Project report, released September 17, reflects the views of 31 former U.S. ambassadors, generals, senior officials and national security experts including former U.N. ambassador Thomas Pickering and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. The following are excerpts from the executive summary.
September 17, 2014
The nuclear issue has loomed so large for so long that it has heavily influenced how many see Iran. Resolving this problem would settle a matter important in its own right and open up opportunities for U.S. policy.
A comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program will be a catalyst for change in the ever-turbulent Middle East. The United States has vital national interests at stake throughout the region and will need to develop strategies to face the latest threats to its security. This may involve new forms of cooperation—even with unusual bedfellows. Each player involved will react differently to a nuclear accord, which will in turn affect overlapping and diverging interests with Iran.
This report has been prepared amid events that suggest a tectonic shift in the Middle East. The successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threaten the unity of Iraq, exacerbate violence in Syria, and compound the already grave humanitarian crisis in the region. The severe unrest and current violence against Kurds in Iraq has increased pressure to establish a separate state of Kurdistan and has further complicated Turkey’s relations with Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The rise of ISIS has reinforced Iran’s role in support of the government in Iraq and raises the possibility of U.S.–Iran cooperation in stabilizing Iraq even before a nuclear agreement is signed. The intensification of Shi’ite–Sunni violence underlines the importance for the United States not siding with, nor appearing to side with, either party in this intensifying sectarian conflict. Additionally, as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, it will need regional partners (such as Iran) to strengthen that country against a violent future.
We do not suggest that a nuclear agreement is the only event that will spark new relationships in the Middle East. Nor are we arguing that it is essential to reach agreement in order that discussions can take place with Iran on other vital regional problems. We do believe, however, that there is a strong link between settling the nuclear standoff and America’s ability to play an effective role in a rapidly changing Middle East, and that a nuclear agreement will help unlock the door to new options.
The United States is the only outside power with the interest, leverage, and capacity to play a leading role in the region. It stands to reap more benefit than any other outside power from new patterns of cooperation. It will also bear the heaviest burdens if it contributes unwittingly to further deterioration of this troubled area because it misunderstood or did not appreciate a fresh dynamic.
A tough-minded assessment of priorities is more important than ever. A comprehensive nuclear agreement would enable the United States to perceive those priorities without every lens being colored by that single issue. Talking with Iran and coordinating strategies with it against ISIS are critical steps to making progress. While it is clear that discussions alone will not bring about agreement on common action, the opportunity to work through differences diplomatically could help in understanding whether other cooperative efforts are possible in the region. Such changes in the hostile relationship between the United States and Iran would unfold over several years and would depend on how Iran adjusts as it slowly emerges from its present status as an international pariah. Should it fail to honor its obligations under a nuclear accord, a quite different scenario would arise.
The talks between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) produced an important interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), in November 2013. Under the terms of the JPOA, Iran has taken significant steps to interrupt the advance of its nuclear program, has complied with its commitments to reduce stockpiles of enriched uranium, and is now poised to grant greatly increased access and monitoring for many years ahead. Agreement to strict long-term limits to its nuclear activities and intrusive inspections would clarify that Iran is serious. Moreover, a substantial period of more open engagement with the world would increase Tehran’s economic and political stake in upholding the agreement.
If the leaders of the United States and Iran are prepared to take on their domestic political opponents’ opposition to the agreement now taking shape, then their governments can turn to the broader agenda of regional issues. Failure to sign an accord could have dangerous consequences: Iran’s eventual acquisition of a nuclear weapon, a greatly reduced chance of defeating major threats elsewhere in the region, and even war.
Click here for the full text.