An opportunity for America to be smarter in how it chooses its friends

In the game of geopolitics, choosing one ally will often require spurning another. For large, powerful countries with global reach, that tends to involve compromises and trade-offs that can gradually engender deep complexity and even lead to contradictory courses of action being taken. For the United States, handling knotty diplomacy has often proved beyond its ken, whether out of hubris, lack of foresight, ideological straitjacketing, or because it has become embroiled in situations that defy resolution. And of course there are always elements in American politics that prefer to spurn diplomacy in favour of aggression, who would only deign to talk to enemies to discuss their unconditional surrender. The military industrial complex is a real and large presence. But the limits to American power have been amply demonstrated by its failures in the Middle East over the last fifteen years, a point acknowledged by enough cool heads in Washington for the time being. The US will have to act with greater finesse in the coming decades in this region, because it has overseen a calamitous chain of events it can ill afford to see perpetuated. Part of the problem has been the friends they have chosen to keep.

Shortly after the Second World War, the US became a benefactor to Pakistan at the expense of India, because the latter’s openness to the Soviet Union was considered to render it unentitled to American largesse. India-Pakistan tensions thus became one of a long list of proxy confrontations between the superpowers during the Cold War. Today, the relationship between the US and Pakistan is characterised by mutual disdain and a dysfunctionality that is poorly disguised by the security commitments they remain notionally bound to each other by. It has cost the US billions over the decades, while in the meantime India has become a thriving economic power.

The US distrusted and undermined Arab nationalism through the decades, often by engineering coups, only to see some of these countries end up being governed by far less stable and amenable regimes. It is important for the country’s own sake that America avoids these missteps in the future, because the region has become a lot more complicated and febrile, partly because of Western meddling since the Arab Spring, partly also because of the Iraq and Afghan wars that preceded it. Post 9/11, it was sometimes remarked that US intelligence agencies had few Arabic speakers, and few public officials that might be regarded as ‘Arabists’, thoughtful diplomats who were curious and genuinely engaged in the Middle East and its peoples. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador murdered by Islamic militants in Benghazi in 2012 – a tragedy the Republican Party has persistently tried to recast as a scandal ever since – was reputed to be one such figure, but they still appear to be thin on the ground.

The United States has periodically displayed a preference for exploiting jihadis to attack enemies. Their officials discovered late, and in some cases seem to be still discovering, that jihadists are not to be recommended as pawns for achieving policy objectives. The apparent successes of the 1980s, when the mujahideen forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan, demanded reassessment when Afghanistan became a failed state and erstwhile refuge for al-Qaeda. And Libya, hailed as the scene of a successful intervention after the ousting of Col. Gadaffi, has regressed to a fractious condition, harrowed by further civil war in which ISIL are significant players. Viewing the Middle East today, not only is the region now suffering from proliferating and deepening convulsions, but the West is taking up seemingly contradictory positions going from one country to the next, swinging from Sunni to Shia allegiance and back again. Is it a particularly cunning and intricate exhibition of divide-and-rule, or is it chaotic incoherence? Currently, in Syria, America arms and trains one set of rebels while bombing another. They have been supporting Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, while sharing a common objective with Iran to defeat ISIL in Iraq.

Another friendship the US is arguably repenting for at leisure is that with Saudi Arabia. The strategic importance of a region containing some of the world’s biggest producers of crude oil, which remains the lifeblood of the global economy, will inevitably be of interest to the dominant global superpower. It is unrealistic to believe that the US would be a passive actor in this region over the last 70 years. However, the US went further to consciously align its security interests with Saudi Arabia, again because the country’s rulers, in this case the House of Saud, were hostile to the Soviet Union – the anti-lodestar against which America’s Cold War alliances were configured. Saudi Arabia is also the home of the virulent strain of the powerful Wahhabi fundamentalist Islamism that the Saudi royal family has had to appease in order to remain in power, and from which much of the virulent jihadism that besets the whole region today originates. It is an absurd position the US has found itself in, to be tethered to a country that incubates and funds jihadist groups that have committed many notorious acts of terrorism.

Which brings one to the potentially historic deal agreed between Iran and the western powers this week in Vienna. Predictably the agreement has been condemned by the Republican Party, a political entity that nowadays is capable of exhibiting little more than varying strains of hawkish derangement. As already mentioned, the American right tends to disdain diplomatic breakthroughs, even when initiated by their own side. And America’s chief allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia (whose remarkable overlap of interests is a curiously underreported aspect of modern Middle East politics), along with the other Gulf monarchies – have equally predictably expressed their dismay.

It doesn’t automatically follow that this agreement will set Iran and the US on a course to become close allies. There is a litany of distrust between the countries dating back to the coup that deposed democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, and the relationship has been further soured many times since. For example, in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the holding of 52 American diplomats hostage for four hundred forty-four days; in the 1980s, when the US supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran; and over several decades, as Iranian-backed militants have harried the US across the Middle East, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet any sober analysis would say that the United States should try to renormalise its relations with Iran. Iran might be home to one of the world’s nastiest prisons, it might be an unpleasant place for homosexuals, and it might exude super-Texan levels of enthusiasm for the death penalty, but it is still a far freer place than its enemies credit. It is no monolith, and has a population yearning to engage with the outside world. There are complications, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia’s sectarian-aggravated proxy conflict, which has been playing itself out in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. There are also the incessant claims, however preposterous, that Iran represents an existential threat to Israel – the actual threat Iran represents is to Israel’s strategic military advantage and concomitant freedom of action, which is not the same thing. However, while these factors weigh heavily in US politics, overriding that are compelling reasons for America to align itself with Iran on a number of crucial security issues, particularly those in relation to combating the depravities of ISIL.

It is difficult to assess the vulnerability of the clerical establishment in Iran over the coming decades, but there remains a vibrant and diverse society behind it, one that should be cultivated and not rebuffed by idiotic and spiteful sanctions. A reengaged Iran could form the basis of a more stable order in the Middle East, and America’s longer run objective should be to act as a broker between the region’s power blocs until some decent semblance of regional peace is achieved. While there are politically powerful forces in Washington that are deeply hostile to any attempts at rebalancing policy in the Middle East, falling back on the same old pernicious alliances, and what they will demand of the US, will be to America’s ultimate detriment and will do little to put out the fires that are currently raging.

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