Given the chaos and continuing upheaval in the Middle East it seems we all should strive to better understand the various forces at play in that region. Over time I have tried to present various articles aimed at addressing how to stop ISIS, deal with Israel, and now comes the must read from Robert Kaplan regarding how we might address our relationship with Iran. None of what these articles present holds the full approach that might best work to meet international objectives. But reading from a broad perspective of divergent views will allow us to better understand what world leaders are contemplating when it comes to Middle East policy.
In part, here is what Kaplan writes.
The practical approach to Islamist terrorism is not always to fight terrorists everywhere, but to play Shiites against Sunnis and vice versa, depending upon the circumstances. By warming up to Iran, we would not be siding with the Shiites against the Sunnis per se, but rather manipulating both sides more effectively than we have in the past. Nor should ending our belligerence toward Shia Iran mean deserting our Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere. We must go to great lengths to reassure them, in fact. I am not endorsing a flip-flop—an exchange of one alliance for another. Handled properly, a détente with Iran need not jeopardize our relationships with Sunni nations. It could, however, motivate them to be more honest allies than before. For decades, the Sunni dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia took their military alliances with the United States for granted, even as they fostered the hateful climate that produced the 9/11 terrorists. As for the Sunni jihadists themselves, they are already our committed enemies. We must continue to deal with them through a combination of military strikes, support for Sunni moderates (where they can be found), and creative diplomacy (of the sort that might be exemplified by a rapprochement with Iran).
The Levant will likely be in a state of violent and chaotic conflict for decades, much as Afghanistan has been since the late 1970s. The more the United States and Iran coordinate with each other, the less chance there is that America will have to put additional boots on the ground in the Middle East. If the United States is serious about the pivot to Asia, its objective should be to get regional powers, including Iran, to carry the burden of stabilizing Syria and Iraq.
There is more. A future, relatively congenial Iran might be less inclined to make trouble through its Hezbollah and Hamas allies in southern Lebanon and Gaza. It might help secure al-Qaeda-infected Yemen, via Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen (the Houthi are Zaidi Shiites who have been overrunning Yemeni territory). It could even counteract future Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf: Already, Iran and India have joined forces to develop the Arabian Sea port of Chabahar in Iranian Baluchistan. This port could one day compete against the nearby port of Gwadar, which China and Pakistan are working jointly to further develop. An American-Iranian understanding could also ensure the overall security of the Gulf sheikhdoms—an Iran in dialogue with America is an Iran less likely to be militarily aggressive toward its neighbors. And a more friendly Iran might conceivably help balance against Russia’s influence in the Transcaucasus, where Vladimir Putin has made a satellite out of Armenia, put troops near a weakened Georgia, and pressured energy-rich Azerbaijan into a closer relationship.
While the United States could use Iran for all of the above, Iran could use the United States, ironically, to give its regime legitimacy, thereby opening the floodgates of foreign investment and rescuing the Iranian economy. The mullahs’ deepest fear is that they will end up like the shah—toppled by a popular upheaval that is, in the main, economically driven. Of course, such an economic opening runs the risk of further emboldening hard-line elements in Iran, but over time it is more likely to move the country in a liberal direction.