Why Asia Should Fear the ‘Persian Pivot’

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Why Asia Should Fear the ‘Persian Pivot’

In defending the nuclear deal with Iran, President Obama likens his outreach to Tehran to President Nixon’s opening to Beijing in the 1970s. But at the time, China was a weak and defensive power, seeking an alliance against a stronger Soviet Union that was pursuing a revolutionary foreign policy that was destabilizing its region and the world. The president’s analogue to today’s Iran is not correct: it is Iran that is pursuing a revolutionary foreign policy that is destabilizing its region and the wider world. The U.S.-China rapprochement in the 1970s did help create a balance of power against the Soviet Union, while the U.S.-Iran rapprochement today creates an imbalance of power in the greater Middle East — tilted toward the regime that has done more than any other to violently destabilize it.

This points to one reason why Asian allies concerned about China’s regional ambitions are worrying about the precedent the Iranian nuclear agreement sets for U.S. leadership in their region.

Energy-starved countries such as Japan and India may welcome the opening of Iran’s oil and gas markets. But the U.S. U-turn in the Middle East, from a policy of working with allies to contain Iran to one that facilitates Iranian leadership at their expense, should make its Asian friends anxious.

The deal lifts tough international sanctions immediately, in return for long-term pledges of Iranian nuclear restraint — pledges whose sincerity and verifiability are both in doubt. The effect will be to unshackle constraints on Iran’s military power and regional influence, enabling it to pursue its designs for primacy in the Middle East more aggressively.

Meanwhile, President Obama has pledged to employ stronger military alliances and new economic coalitions, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to constrain China’s ability to pursue parallel designs for Asian primacy.

In Asia, Obama pledges that the United States will stand by its friends and cede leadership to no other power. In the Middle East, he has broken with our friends, striking a deal that will facilitate Tehran’s accumulation of military and economic strength in ways that will undercut the security of allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and of pivotal states like Iraq. The fact that President Obama is already preparing to veto a bipartisan congressional resolution disapproving the agreement suggests that his judgment of U.S. interests is less-than-fully convincing.

Obama’s approach would be less problematic if Iran were not so aggressively pursuing policies that have destabilized the Middle East. It is the chief sponsor of President Bashar al Assad in Syria, whose war on his own country has caused its collapse and led to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Authorities such as General Jim Mattis, the former top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, say that Assad’s regime would have fallen several years ago had Tehran not deployed forces to fight on his behalf.

The Syrian fire fanned by Iran has indirectly spurred on the rise of the Islamic State — an enemy of Iran — and the spread of its villainy across the region. Iran is also the chief sponsor of the Houthi rebels, who have ushered the collapse of Yemen. It is the dominant external power in Iraq, where its forces filled the vacuum created by Obama’s withdrawal of all military forces in 2011 — securing for Iran the gains that had previously accrued to the United States and Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iran is also the sponsor of Hezbollah, which has helped to construct a violent “Shia crescent” across the Middle East, turning much of it into an Iranian sphere of influence and igniting proxy wars between Iran and U.S. allies there.

This week’s agreement in Vienna between Iran and the U.S.-led negotiating coalition, which also includes the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, will nullify previous U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran, including some that are unrelated to the nuclear issue such as those concerning support for terrorism and Tehran’s proliferation of ballistic missile technologies. The deal will also lift an international arms embargo on Iran, including one on its ballistic missile program.

The deal calls for a complex regime of inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. But Iran has the right to object, with conflicts between Tehran and international inspectors ultimately refereed by the Security Council, where they will be subject to Russia’s veto. The agreement also includes a “snapback” mechanism to reimpose sanctions should Iran violate its terms. But the re-imposition would need to be negotiated between many countries whose corporations are preparing to invest in Iran, creating domestic lobbies that will oppose any renewal of sanctions in the face of Iranian noncompliance.

Most importantly, in return for the partial (but not total) and time-limited (not permanent) suspension of Iran’s production of nuclear fuel, the agreement will open Iran’s economy, after biting sanctions had largely closed it off to the world and undercut the standing of its leaders among a young population hungry for change. Removing economic sanctions will produce rapid growth and bring in waves of foreign investment. This influx of capital and technology could give a new lease on life to the regime in Tehran, providing substantial new resources for it to use to further its aggressive foreign policies.

In Asia, nuclear deals with North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, offered sanctions relief that enabled the Pyongyang regime to consolidate power and resources, only to reject elaborate international inspection mechanisms and push on to test and deploy a growing number of nuclear weapons. In Iraq, it was Saddam’s expulsion of nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency that precipitated repeated Security Council condemnation, followed by the invasion of that country by the United States and its allies in 2003.

This points to the danger that the United States and its friends are setting themselves up not for a new era of peace and harmony with Tehran, but for a potentially escalating series of confrontations over nuclear inspections by international monitors, leading to conflicts rising from the current agreement.

In Asia, American allies such as Japan worry that a U.S.-China agreement could produce a separate peace that would undercut the interests of other regional powers — just as the Iran nuclear deal has been met by opposition in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States threatened by Washington’s “Persian pivot.” They see a U.S. government that has tired of maintaining a regional military posture to balance Iranian power, and has instead chosen to do a deal with its primary strategic competitor to ease the burden on Washington — allied concerns notwithstanding.

Asian friends worry that Washington may ultimately make the same calculation in their region, striking a bargain with China that leaves U.S. allies exposed to that country’s unchecked power without an American counterweight.

Obama and his team believe that a nuclear settlement with Iran will allow the United States to focus its diplomatic and strategic energies on Asia, a region that will do more to determine the history of this century than the morass in the Middle East. But if the deal liberates Iran to cause more regional mayhem, the United States will have less time and energy, not more, to manage its intensifying strategic competition with China in Asia.

Japan, India, and other regional states will take note, and will make their own arrangements, just as America’s allies in the Middle East are now doing. The results may produce exactly the proliferation, proxy wars, and great power conflicts that the Iran deal is designed to prevent.