A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of Unites States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

As the U.S. campaign season wears on, both Republicans and Democrats are pledging to stay tough on Iran. Such promises aren’t new. Last summer, as the Barack Obama administration unveiled its nuclear agreement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured skeptics that the United States would sustain essential sanctions that punish Tehran for its aid to terrorists, regional aggression, and human rights abuses. For her part, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has echoed Kerry’s determination to hold Iran accountable for its malevolent non-nuclear behavior.

But Clinton and Kerry’s position contains a crippling contradiction. Washington can either accommodate or confront the clerical regime. It can’t do both. And confrontation is made difficult, if not impossible, by the nuclear agreement and a war-weary public that is eager to be free of the Middle East.

In the year since the nuclear agreement was concluded, Tehran has continued its development of long-range ballistic missiles, a historic signpost of a state with atomic weapons ambitions. The regime hasn’t cut its leash on the Iraqi government; Iranian Revolutionary Guards dictate Baghdad’s strategies against the Islamic State (ISIS) and encourage a hardline approach toward Iraqi Sunnis. And Tehran has ensured the survival and success of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war machine, to the point that even Washington has become eager to dispense with the mantra “Assad must go.” Syria, after all, is where the United States’ redlines go to die.

The Gulf is simmering with Iranian intrigue. Tehran is busy fortifying Shia groups in Yemen and exploiting widespread anger against the Sunni princely class. Gulf Arab internal security services are probably not lying when they tell of increasing Iranian covert aid to violent radicals, as they have to both domestic audiences and international interlocutors. According to the State Department, moreover, terrorism remains very much an instrument of Tehran’s statecraft.

Dismantled planes are seen in the recycling yard of Air Salvage International (ASI) in Kemble, central England November 27, 2013. Following an interim deal over Iran's nuclear activities, Tehran will be allowed limited purchases of aircraft parts
Dismantled planes are seen in the recycling yard of Air Salvage International (ASI) in Kemble, central England November 27, 2013. Following an interim deal over Iran's nuclear activities, Tehran will be allowed limited purchases of aircraft parts and repairs.
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters
And yet Kerry has undertaken a tin-cup mission of sorts, imploring European banks to process Iran’s financial transactions so that the Islamic Republic can reenter the global economy. Obama is eager to see a multibillion-dollar Boeing aircraft sale to Iran go through as well, even though these aircraft, and the maintenance contracts that accompany them, could significantly improve the Revolutionary Guards’ airlift capacity. The force routinely uses civilian airlines to transport men and materiel abroad.

The Boeing deal will also open the gates for more American trade, especially in the Iranian energy sector, creating a U.S. business lobby that hasn’t been seen since the shah. American capitalists extolling the long-term beneficent effects of their trade should remember the history of U.S. capitalism in Soviet Russia. It is unclear why the process would work better this time. Yet, for the Obama strategy to pay off, it will have to.

For nearly four decades, the United States has relied on economic sanctions to punish Iran. Future administrations will not have this option. Iran’s financial institutions, including its central bank, which is deeply involved in the regime’s unsavory activities, can no longer be sanctioned—unless Washington is prepared to see the nuclear accord collapse, which it is not. The only barrier remaining between Iran and the global economy is thus psychological: some Europeans are reluctant to reengage a nation that Washington still designates as a sponsor of terrorism. 

However, psychological prohibitions will fade if a new president exempts European and American business from such sanctions and as the lure of commerce and competition among investors grows. Neither Clinton nor Trump have proposed doing as much, but at any rate, such trends seem the inevitable byproduct of friendlier relations with Iran.

And the nuclear deal aside, pushing back against Iran would likely be too costly. The only way to stabilize Iraq is through a permanent U.S. military presence complemented by a substantial civilian force deeply embedded in Iraqi governance. The U.S. military will be needed not just to train nonsectarian Iraqi armed forces but also to actively participate in combat against Iranian-backed militias, which sow sectarian hatred and militancy.

Only after Washington makes plain such a commitment could it realistically press a reluctant Shia Iraqi government to sever its ties with the clerical regime and its militias. At a time when both presidential candidates insist that the Iraq war was a mistake, it is hard to see such a reengagement. And the situation in Syria is even worse and will not likely change until the Assad regime’s slaughter of Sunnis is forcibly stopped by Western arms.

Accommodation with the Iranian regime isn’t pretty. Morally and strategically, it diminishes, if not cripples, the United States in the Muslim world—a fact the next president will have to keep in mind.

  • REUEL MARC GERECHT is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
  • RAY TAKEYH is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the coauthor of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.
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