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A Chronology of the Geopolitics of a Nuclear Deal with Iran

10 MINS READNov 24, 2013 | 21:33 GMT
A Chronology of the Geopolitics of a Nuclear Deal with Iran  Read more: A Chronology of the Geopolitics of a Nuclear Deal with Iran
(T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama announcing an interim agreement on Iranian nuclear power Nov. 23 in Washington.

The nuclear deal reached between the West and Iran on Nov. 23, however limited and temporary its terms, may represent a landmark shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East. While it follows a flurry of diplomatic activity and urgent meetings, largely made possible by a regime change in Iran last August and a sense of urgency on the part of the United States' second term president, the imperatives and geopolitical realities driving such a rapprochement have been taking shape for years. Stratfor analyses have discussed the geopolitical forces and imperatives driving this historic shift, as well as the many challenges, for years. Those challenges include a recalcitrant U.S. Congress, defiant allies in the Arab world and Israel and resistance from hard-liners in Iran's security apparatus who would sabotage any prospective deal to protect their privileged position built up during years of international isolation. Ultimately, the deal was reached because the two main parties — the United States and Iran — both believe that a deal is in their interests, now and in the future. Below is a reverse chronology of Stratfor analyses and forecasts over the past decade that have anticipated the events now unfolding in the wake of the new Geneva accord.

Fourth Quarter Forecast 2013

Oct. 1, 2013

While both Iran and the United States are serious about pursuing a dialogue, the transition from making positive gestures to negotiating substantial concessions will be difficult. Iran will expect some give-and-take from the United States on sanctions in negotiating the nuclear issue, but the U.S. president will have a limited range of choices for highly visible concessions he can make independently without having to consult an obstinate Congress. A nervous Saudi Arabia and Israel, meanwhile, will exercise their respective levers to undermine the negotiation, though they will face limits as the United States and Iran try to fast-track the talks while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani still carries support at home.

Iran: Rebalancing Civil-Military Relations

Sept. 19, 2013

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faces a dilemma involving two powerful yet distinct actors: the United States and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Rouhani understands that he must bring in foreign investment to improve the Iranian economy, but he can only court potential investors if he can somehow convince the United States to ease its economic sanctions. The corps wields substantial economic power in Iran, and the group will not easily surrender that power to foreign competitors — at least, not without gaining something in return. To appease the corps, Rouhani will offer concessions and guarantee the protection of its economics interests, so long those interests do not interfere with his foreign policy agenda.

U.S., Iran: Why They Will Now Likely Negotiate

Aug. 2, 2013

Tehran is devoting an unsustainable amount of resources to Syrian President Bashar al Assad in his fight against the Syrian rebellion. And while economic sanctions have not yet forced Iran to the negotiating table, Iranian leaders will likely choose to engage the United States voluntarily to forestall further economic decline. The inauguration of President-elect Hassan Rouhani provides an ideal opportunity for them to do so.

Negotiations Behind U.S. Sanctions Against Iran

July 3, 2013

While talk of sanctions has dominated headlines, a more subtle dialogue between Iran and the United States has been taking place. In an editorial appearing in U.S. foreign policy journal The National Interest, two insiders of the Iranian regime, Iranian political analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani and former member of Iranian nuclear negotiating team Seyed Hossein Mousavian, communicated several key points on behalf of Tehran:

The United States and Iran must continue to negotiate.

  • Sanctions hurt Iran economically but by no means paralyze Iranian trade.
  • Iran cannot be sure that any bilateral agreement made with the United States will be honored by a new administration come November.
  • The United States must abandon any policy intended to bring about regime change in Tehran.
  • Washington has few remaining options other than military intervention, which is an unlikely outcome.
  • Iran can significantly increase pressure on the United States by, for example, threatening the security of the Strait of Hormuz, an act that would raise the price of U.S. oil.

Perhaps most important, they said, "the Islamic Republic is willing to agree on a face-saving solution that would induce it to give up the cards it has gained over the past years."

On June 27, the United States delivered an important message. U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert said during a Pentagon news conference that the Strait of Hormuz had been relatively quiet and that the Iranian navy had been "professional and courteous" to U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. According to Greenert, the Iranian navy has abided by the norms that govern naval activity in international waters. Previously, armed speedboats operated provocatively close to U.S. vessels, but they have not done so recently, Greenert said. It is difficult to imagine Greenert making such a statement without clearance from the White House.

Saudi Nightmares

May 16, 2012

The Saudi royals live with an all-consuming fear — that of an American understanding with Iran. The Saudis know that the American estrangement from Iran is unnatural and cannot go on forever. It has already lasted a third of a century, almost a decade longer than America's estrangement from Communist China. The Saudis also know that the logic of the present standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions must lead — through war or peace — to some sort of American-Iranian dialogue about the two countries' core interests in the Middle East.

The Next Decade, by George Friedman

Published January 2011

In the next decade, the most desirable option with Iran is going to be delivered through a move that now seems inconceivable. It is the option chosen by Roosevelt and Nixon when they faced seemingly impossible strategic situations: the creation of alliances with countries that had previously been regarded as strategic and moral threats. Roosevelt allied the United States with Stalinist Russia, and Nixon aligned with Maoist China, each to block a third power that was seen as more dangerous. In both cases, there was intense ideological rivalry between the new ally and the United States, one that many regarded as extreme and utterly inflexible. Nevertheless, when the United States faced unacceptable alternatives, strategic interest overcame moral revulsion on both sides. The alternative for Roosevelt was a German victory in World War II. For Nixon, it was the Soviets using American weakness caused by the Vietnam War to change the global balance of power.

Conditions on the ground put the United States in a similar position today vis-a-vis Iran. These countries despise each other. Neither can easily destroy the other, and, truth be told, they have some interests in common. In simple terms, the American president, in order to achieve his strategic goals, must seek accommodation with Iran.

The seemingly impossible strategic situation driving the United States to this gesture is, as we've discussed, the need to maintain the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, and to achieve this at a time when the country must reduce the forces devoted to this part of the world.

The principal reason that Iran might accede to a deal is that it sees the United States as dangerous and unpredictable. Indeed, in less than ten years, Iran has found itself with American troops on both its eastern and western borders. Iran's primary strategic interest is regime survival. It must avoid a crushing U.S. intervention while guaranteeing that Iraq never again becomes a threat. Meanwhile, Iran must increase its authority within the Muslim world against the Sunni Muslims who rival and sometimes threaten it.

In trying to imagine a U.S.-Iranian detente, consider the overlaps in these countries' goals. The United States is in a war against some — but not all — Sunnis, and these Sunnis are also the enemies of Shiite Iran. Iran does not want U.S. troops along its eastern and western borders. (In point of fact, the United States does not want to be there either.) Just as the United States wants to see oil continue to flow freely through Hormuz, Iran wants to profit from that flow, not interrupt it. Finally, the Iranians understand that the United States alone poses the greatest threat to their security: solve the American problem and regime survival is assured. The United States understands, or should, that resurrecting the Iraqi counterweight to Iran is simply not an option in the short term. Unless the United States wants to make a huge, long-term commitment of ground forces in Iraq, which it clearly does not, the obvious solution to its problem in the region is to make an accommodation with Iran.

Thinking About the Unthinkable: A U.S.-Iranian Deal

March 1, 2010

The United States apparently has reached the point where it must either accept that Iran will develop nuclear weapons at some point if it wishes, or take military action to prevent this. There is a third strategy, however: Washington can seek to redefine the Iranian question.

The major risk of the third strategy is that Iran will overstep its bounds and seek to occupy the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf. Certainly, this would be tempting, but it would bring a rapid American intervention. The United States would not block indirect Iranian influence, however, from financial participation in regional projects to more significant roles for the Shia in Arabian states. Washington's limits for Iranian power are readily defined and enforced when exceeded.

The great losers in the third strategy, of course, would be the Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula. But Iraq aside, they are incapable of defending themselves, and the United States has no long-term interest in their economic and political relations. So long as the oil flows, and no single power directly controls the entire region, the United States does not have a stake in this issue.

Decade Forecast: 2010-2020

Jan. 21, 2010

We also see the Iranian situation having been brought under control. Whether this will be by military action and isolation of Iran or by a political arrangement with the current or a successor regime is unclear but irrelevant to the broader geopolitical issue. Iran will be contained as it simply does not have the underlying power to be a major player in the region beyond its immediate horizons.

Geopolitical Diary: Military Intelligence Chief Shifts Israel's Iran Policy

Nov. 18, 2008

The change in tone [from the Israelis toward Iran] tracks with the change in Iranian-U.S. relations. While hardly warm, there are signs of some thawing, as we have discussed. U.S. President George W. Bush's administration appears to be moving toward more extensive, open discussions with Iran, and President-elect Barack Obama has indicated a commitment to exploring dialogue with Iran. Under those circumstances, Israel is not going to simply oppose talks. Israel cannot stray too far from the American position, and given that the Bush and Obama positions are converging, Israel cannot attempt to play off political disagreements in Washington.

The Iranian Position

Dec. 13, 2006

Politically speaking, it is obvious why the [Bush] administration has balked at suggestions that the United States should openly extend the hand of diplomacy to Iran, which — chiefly through the mouthpiece of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — has said and done little to endear itself to the world, and much to spotlight the weakness of the U.S. position. Geopolitically speaking, it is equally obvious why the United States has no real choice in the matter. Washington's best option is to combine diplomacy with a military strategy (which we have discussed elsewhere) that can open the door to a substantial drawdown. But engaging Iran on some level — however unpalatable it seems — is an unavoidable part of the equation.

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