Progressives who gathered in Detroit two weeks ago for the Netroots convention were not very focused on national security issues, but when those issues did come up there was one loud and clear theme: No more wars in the Middle East. This anti-war sentiment has long been an animating force for progressives and is now understandably heightened by a war weariness shared by a large percentage of the American public. But progressives can contribute more to the national security debate than just a strong voice in opposition to reflexive military solutions. There is a need for a positive progressive vision that supports alternatives to military solutions and finds an appropriate and sustainable role for American national security policy. On one current issue, the effort to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, apprehension about being sucked into another futile Middle Eastern war has motivated many on the left, but there has been less focus on the possible longer terms benefits of a diplomatic agreement in getting U.S. policy in the region on a better track.
Talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 nations have made considerable progress since an interim agreement was signed in November 2013. Tough issues remain to be resolved so negotiations have been extended beyond an initial July 20 deadline and now have November 24 as a target date for reaching an agreement. A good deal that prevents Iran from being able to construct nuclear weapons but allows a civilian nuclear power program under strict inspections is within reach. In return for submitting to intrusive inspections and agreeing to limits on enrichment, Iran would get relief from international and U.S. sanctions. If a deal can be reached and can be effectively implemented, what are the possible positive consequences for U.S. policy in the region?
For decades, the U.S. has been trapped by perceptions of its role in the region that limit flexibility. The implacable hostility toward Iran, complex relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the alliance with Israel have prevented the U.S. from being seen as an honest broker. Simply signing a deal with Iran, of course, will not ensure the U.S. a freer hand in the Middle East. But if the Iranians comply with the provisions of the agreement and the U.S. implements sanctions relief on its end, Iran would be on a path toward gaining status as a normal nuclear state under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Iran’s nuclear program has long been an obstacle to any move toward improved relations. Putting Iran on track to nuclear normalization can demonstrate the effectiveness of diplomacy to the region and eventual sanctions relief can begin re-integrating Iran into the world economy. A good deal, adhered to by Iran, could “unstick” diplomacy in the region open doors to more constructive possibilities on a number of issues. Progress on the nuclear issue could form a foundation on which the US could build to address Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq, in funding terrorist groups in the Middle East, in Afghan drug trafficking, and other regional issues.
For too long, our inability to deal with Iran has contextualized our engagement with partners in the Gulf, feeding the narrative that the United States is taking sides in a new cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that needlessly exacerbates Sunni-Shia tensions. By engaging both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States can rebuild its reputation as a constructive player in the region.
A responsible, verifiable deal with Iran would strengthen the legitimacy of the P5+1 nations as diplomatic players and would enhance the credibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in enforcing nuclear agreements. In the longer term, as former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian recently wrote, a deal could be a stepping stone to greater non-proliferation goals, including a “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone and a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East.” If Iran no longer has active nuclear weapons ambitions they could become serious partners in ensuring that the Saudis or others in region are also not pursuing such a capability.
Above all, what should resonate with progressives the new diplomatic possibilities in a post-Iran deal Middle East might allow the U.S. to extricate itself from long years of military entanglement in the region and enable a broader focus on other global challenges. For example, an agreement with Iran could help jumpstart the Obama administration’s stalled “re-balancing” toward Asia. A success with diplomacy in Iran could create an image of the U.S. as an honest broker and enhance our ability to resolve volatile issues in the South China Sea.
For progressives, a deal with Iran can be more than simply a path to eliminating the direct threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. It can be a first step toward a more constructive approach in the whole region that allows the U.S. to be perceived more as a diplomatic and economic partner than a military superpower leaving destruction, broken countries, and hostility in its wake. Progressive voices should be heard in the media and in Congress promoting an agreement with Iran not just to prevent war but to open up new possibilities for positive diplomatic engagement in a region that has long jammed American policy in rigid and frustrating approaches.