A large earthquake just struck Iraq and Iran. One thing I have learned from IsraAID, an Israeli-based disaster relief organization, is that disasters are tragedies, but they are also opportunities to build bridges. I will never forget the incredible stories of Muslim refugees arriving on the shores of Greece to find Israelis — their former enemies, but future friends.
After a 2003 earthquake in Iran, the United States deployed a response team that entered Iran to provide humanitarian support. The United States quickly diverted military assets and resources from Afghanistan and Pakistan to aid in the relief. The US should make all possible efforts to respond to this earthquake in the same way. Doing so would take advantage of the opportunity the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) provided to promote regional stability, and avert deepening crisis, by making Iran more accountable through greater political, economic, and social engagement.
Creating deeper ties with Iran is particularly important today, as (1) the United States lacks a good response for Iran’s destabilizing strategies; and (2) Mohammed Bin Salman’s rise in Saudi Arabia means diplomacy will be more important than ever in maintaining stability in the Middle East. Providing humanitarian relief to Iran would increase Iranian goodwill towards the West, foster diplomatic ties, and support President Rouhani’s moderate movement.
Some may argue such aid and relations would merely reward Iran’s regional adventurism, but the United States does not have good isolationist options. Snapping back sanctions would reduce US credibility and encourage Iran to continue with its destabilizing strategies, for which we don’t have a good answer. The shifting diplomatic realities with Russia and China mean we might not be able to enforce sanctions in the same way. Changing realities on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia mean that punishing Iran could lead to threats against US forces and our allies. And, we simply do not have the capital or resources to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran at the same time. Our best option is to engage, and an opportunity to do so presented itself in this tragedy.
The Iran nuclear deal has been signed. Going back on the JCPOA now is not worth the damage to US credibility, and would add more uncertainty and risk to a world with a nuclear-armed North Korea, and growing instability in the Middle East.
The JCPOA’s first purpose was to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons – which it did, for now. But Iran will be able to restart production in fifteen years, unless something changes before then. To make the JCPOA work in the long-run, and to unlock its true value, we must use it as an opening for diplomacy. With an ability to engage Iran, the international community can encourage liberal elements of Iranian society; and make Iran more accountable, by binding it to global economic, social, and and political systems.
The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is seen as more-moderate, ran on a campaign of bringing economic relief to Iran by signing a nuclear deal. We should support his movement, especially in order to elect more moderate Iranian politicians; and to show young Iranians that engaging with the Western world leads to good. We also want to create more economic, social, and political ties between Iran and the international system (for example, by allowing Iran to join the WTO). These ties can help hold Iran in check by creating incentives, and punishments, for rogue behavior.
This liberal approach is advisable because Iran has shown that it is a uniquely challenging adversary. Fighting Iran in proxy or direct wars is an expensive and destabilizing strategy. Iran is “both an arsonist and a fire-fighter” – it helps destabilize countries, and then recruits Shia minorities into terrorism for self-defense (e.g. Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen). Iran is uniquely capable of sowing this type of instability because it has the resources of a state, but can act through proxy militias and terrorist groups.
Instability leads to terrorism and refugees. The United States has proven inept at promoting post-conflict stability (e.g. Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan), and at ending Iranian-fueled conflicts (e.g. Syria, Yemen). Beyond Iran’s sub-state strategies, the United States may have a military advantage in conventional State v. State war. But Iran will likely avoid this type of direct conflict with the United States, and neither side wants the loss of life and resources that would come with such a war.
While Iran may prefer sub-state strategies, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) rise in Saudi Arabia is setting the stage for a Saudi-Iranian war (or at least protracted proxy conflict). This means that having diplomatic bonds with Iran will be even more important in maintaining stability in the Middle East. MBS is a young, and relatively inexperienced leader, who has recently consolidated his power with a series of political purges. MBS has strong domestic incentive to show strength by challenging Iran, and by projecting power across the Middle East. Combine this domestic phenomena with the current Saudi-Iranian proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, a growing proxy war in Iraq, and the beginnings of a serious breakdown in Lebanon, and the stage is set for conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The United States would inevitably be pulled into any such conflict, bringing an unnecessary loss of US blood and treasure, and furthering global terrorism and instability.
Providing humanitarian relief would help bring Iran closer to the West. A more interdependent and connected Iran would be more susceptible to diplomacy. Iran’s unique ability to sow instability through proxy groups poses a challenge to the United States and our allies, who have proven inept at state-building and post-conflict stabilization. Current and growing Middle Eastern crises, and MBS’ rise in Saudi Arabia, set the stage for protracted conflict. Now, more than ever, we need to commit fully to supporting the ideals that underlie the JCPOA. We need to push for a more liberal, interconnected, open, and Western-leaning Iran. Let us learn from IsraAID by treating a crisis as an opportunity, and by providing Iran with any support it needs to recover from this earthquake.