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Realism Turned on its Head

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By Donald Sassano
In Homeland Security Guest Contributor

Just when you thought you’d heard it all, here comes an emerging, slightly surreal strain of fear mongering regarding the ongoing P+5 effort to ink a nuclear deal with Iran.

According to some, what the West should really be afraid of is a diplomatic breakthrough.  That’s right, we should fear success at Geneva II more than the sucking sound of potential hostilities, Iranian nuclear opacity, or the proliferation that would likely occur if negotiations go down in flames.

So then, why shouldn’t the Obama Administration and its negotiating partners strive to complete an agreement that could forestall us from digging an ever deeper and more dangerous Middle Eastern policy hole?  Because, at least in (realist) theory, a non-nuclear Iran free to rise to its potential is likely to become a hegemonic threat.

Let’s assess this argument but first examine the broad contours of a deal, as well as some add on features that may yet amount to a strategic “grand bargain” with the Islamic Republic. Judge for yourself which path is likely to lead to a better outcome.

First, imagine an Iran free of sanctions, flush with burgeoning oil revenues and renewed international investment, possessing a circumscribed right to peaceful nuclear enrichment under the watchful eye of the IAEA. See an emerging global stakeholder, independent and generally resistant to the broad thrust of current U.S. Middle East policy, yet open to the cultivation of overlapping security interests – blunting Sunni extremism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, for example. Envision an ever more “exceptionalist” Iran, as is its nature and ours for that matter, but no longer the tiresome revolutionary rabble rouser we’ve endured for the last 35 years.

Moreover, stretch a bit and see a paradigm shift similar to what occurred at the time of America’s strategic opening to China, if less theatrical.  (On second thought, imagine a U.S. president stepping off Air Force One upon landing in Tehran…). And with new attitudes see acceptance of, or at least resignation to, a legitimate and enduring Islamic Republic.

Finally, and stay with me on this, imagine an Iran that signs on, or at least acquiesces to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

In short, see an Iran free to bloom both materially and in terms of its human capital, pragmatic but not wholly drained of anti-status quo fervor, sometimes constructive but often not, but at its worst nothing more than another in a long list of U.S. “frenemies”.

Not the best of all possible outcomes, perhaps, especially for neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, Arab chauvinists, or AIPAC, all of whom continue to seek regime change and the evisceration of every trace of otherwise lawful and legitimate Iranian nuclear enrichment capability.

This somewhat upbeat take could indeed be the outcome if smart, realistic and rigorous diplomatic engagement triumphs.  I’d live with it in a heartbeat, given some nasty alternatives.

But embedded at Geneva, according to the groups cited above, is a darker vision containing the seeds of Iranian regional domination.  Here’s the argument: wouldn’t we be better off keeping Iran on its heels, hemmed in between a hostile Israeli-Saudi marriage of convenience and withering U.S. engineered sanctions?  Heck, if keeping the pressure on is our paramount policy goal, perhaps we should rehabilitate the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of a far flung (okay, far-fetched) balancing coalition.  Here I digress, but you get the point. Realist theory says we should keep Iran pinned down, unable to roam beyond its front yard.

At this point, geography, history, and a good bit of perspective is probably in order.  Best let John Mearsheimer, today’s reigning realist, throw some cold water on the fantasy of unleashing an Iranian hegemon at Geneva:

“Iran is nowhere close to having the capability to become a hegemon in the Gulf. It does not have formidable conventional forces, and nobody worries much about it conquering any of its neighbors, especially because the United States would intervene to stop it. Nor is it clear that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons. The consensus opinion in the American intelligence community is that it is not. But even if that judgment proves wrong and Iran acquires a nuclear arsenal, it could not use that capability to dominate the Persian Gulf. Nuclear weapons provide states with little offensive capability and thus are ill suited for spreading Iran’s influence in its neighborhood. Furthermore, both Israel and the United States have nuclear weapons and would never tolerate Iran achieving regional hegemony….”

There we have it.  The Waltz’s, Mearsheimer’s, and Desch’s I’ve read have never espoused the sort of threat inflation and worst case scenarios so prevalent among those that want to sabotage the ongoing negotiations in Geneva. Instead, they recognize that the U.S. can effectively deal with the unlikely event of an Iran hell bent on dominating the Gulf, whether it has obtained a nuclear weapons capability or not.  I just wish those unwittingly standing realist arguments on their head could be a bit more, umm…realistic.

About the Author

Donald Sassano is a businessman with strong interests in Middle Eastern politics, U.S. Grand Strategy, and political theory. He completed his Master’s Degree in International Relations and Conflict Resolution with a concentration in Comparative and Security Issues at American Military University in 2013.

When he’s not reading and writing about foreign affairs, he works at commercial real estate to the extent necessary to keep a roof over his head. He resides with his wife Denise near Lake Erie in Rocky River, Ohio.

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