What is missed is that Tehran and Washington have incompatible strategic objectives. The U.S. needs a stable and inclusive Iraq, while Iran’s ambitions lie in preserving a Shiite-dominated state that relies on Tehran for its survival.
A Doubly Dangerous Iran
Beware of attempts by Tehran to leverage its involvement in Iraq to extract a better nuclear deal.
By MICHAEL HAYDEN And EVAN BAYH
The temptation is obvious: Iraq is threatened by a radical Sunni insurgency. The United States and Shiite Iran thus have common interest in blunting the success of an al Qaeda offshoot. The enemy of my enemy is my situational ally.
What is missed is that Tehran and Washington have incompatible strategic objectives. The U.S. needs a stable and inclusive Iraq, while Iran’s ambitions lie in preserving a Shiite-dominated state that relies on Tehran for its survival. If we are not careful, the clerical regime will seek to leverage the chaos in Mesopotamia to extract nuclear concessions from us before the Sunday deadline for a deal as talks continue in Vienna this week. We need to be careful not to create indebtedness, even perceived indebtedness.
The Middle East is a region that seems always to divide against itself. In the past, radical republics contested the legitimacy of conservative monarchies; today’s divisions are defined by sectarian identities deeply rooted in Islam. Iran and its Shiite proxies are arduously trying to undermine the Sunni order led by Saudi Arabia. This struggle rages in Lebanon and the Gulf, and most bloodily in Syria and Iraq.
As the conflict grows, America has been reluctant to engage, insensitive to our regional allies’ concerns, and unusually deferential to our adversaries’ ambitions. Although Iran would welcome a stable Shiite-dominated Iraq, it has little interest in an Iraq where Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds cooperate. Iranian ambitions are best served by Shiite authoritarians in Baghdad who dominate the country’s Sunni citizens and are at odds with Sunni Arabs elsewhere.
Washington can ignore neither the Islamic Republic’s nefariousness among the Middle East’s Shiites nor Tehran’s hegemonic designs. If Tehran continues to arm Shiite militias, deploy the lethal Quds Force and press Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to exclude moderate Sunni elements from his government, Washington should respond.
There are many tools available, including economic sanctions. However, America must not bluff: We must realize that U.S. interests in the Middle East are not tangential to our national security but are essential to counterterrorism, thwarting nuclear proliferation and promoting stable, representative governments.
It is equally imperative to prevent the turmoil in Iraq and Syria from easing America’s red lines on Iran’s nuclear program. Countering the nuclear challenge from Tehran is straightforward: The U.S. and its allies have to demand and devise an Iranian civilian nuclear program that cannot be exploited for military purposes. To achieve that goal, the White House must make clear that the hardened uranium-enrichment facility in Fordow must be closed and not transformed into an easily convertible research-and-development installation. The Arak plutonium plant has to be similarly neutered. And finally, the main enrichment facility at Natanz has to be dramatically scaled back and all enriched uranium shipped abroad for fuel reprocessing.
Washington must also insist on a credible verification regime. The Islamic Republic has to come clean about all of its past weaponization activities. If the purpose of an agreement is to put distance between current capacities and nuclear breakout, how can outsiders reliably calculate how quickly an Iranian decision to weaponize could be put into effect without a thorough accounting of past actions?
Iran must also submit to intrusive inspections, without challenge or delay, at any site identified by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. This means snap examinations of any suspect facility by inspectors permanently stationed in Iran.
One of the problems with the Joint Plan of Action-signed in late 2013 by Iran and six other powers, including the U.S.-is that it stipulates that any final agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program will have a sunset clause. Upon its expiration, whenever that may be, Iran would be free to build up an industrial-size program, giving it the ability to manufacture an arsenal of nuclear arms at short notice. It is unclear what legitimate purpose is served by this. The sunset clause must be removed.
There are also great dangers if the interim agreement under the Joint Plan of Action is succeeded by another interim agreement or even if the current negotiating window is extended by another six months. The administration will be sorely tempted to let negotiations continue to drag on, hoping that the Iranians will relent and drop their resistance to any meaningful rollback of their nuclear program.
But the current lull during the “freeze” on Iranian nuclear development limits only some nuclear activities; the Iranians continue to build other essential elements, such as improving the efficiency of centrifuges. As centrifuge-enrichment capacity increases, Tehran’s ability to construct clandestine enrichment sites alarmingly grows. (The lull also has let the Iranian economy improve; inflation is down and their currency has strengthened, further reducing our leverage.) Time is not on our side.
The Islamic Republic is a rash, revolutionary regime at odds with America’s core interests in the Middle East. It is a state ruled by men such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei whose worldview is shaped by conspiracy theories and enduring enmity toward the West. Tehran seeks dominance over its Arab neighbors, sows discord through the region and actively supports terrorist organizations. It is only in this context that Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons can be understood.
All is not lost, and an energized America and its allies can still make a difference in Iraq and Syria. But abandoning the chimera of Iranian cooperation is a precondition. To paraphrase the tribal proverb, while the enemy of my enemy may appear to be America’s friend, with the Iranian regime, that is an illusion. Their enmity trumps all.
Mr. Hayden, a retired Air Force general, is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Mr. Bayh is a former U.S. senator from Indiana.