Sovereignty is the idea that a nation can do what it chooses; at least, that is, in its own domain and in defining and pursuing its own interests. For some 400 years, this concept has been the principal organizing idea behind the modern world order. This much about sovereignty is pretty widely understood. What is less widely understood is that, as the glue that holds the international system together, sovereignty is a shared concept. Because of this, it carries not only rights but also responsibilities. Perhaps the most important of these is the responsibility not to cheapen or trivialize the concept of sovereignty itself. For the United States, arguably the nation at the center of that system, to cheapen and trivialize the concept will have far-reaching consequences indeed.
The concept of sovereignty provides a useful lens through which to consider the looming inevitability of the United States going to war with Iran. War with Iran is virtually inevitable because the United States has left no room for itself or Iran to talk. A year ago, Washington took the step of walking away from an agreement that took several years to negotiate. These negotiations were not bilateral, that is between Iran and the United States. Rather, they involved six other nations, and the sanctions that brought Iran to the table involved the European Union as well.
However, the recent United States’ decision to walk away from the agreement was taken unilaterally. It left all other participants in the agreement behind. The negotiations had been difficult, and the results were not fully satisfying to anyone – something that is axiomatic in negotiated agreements. Moreover, by all international standards, and according to the verification measurements set by the agreement itself, Iran was in full compliance with the agreement.
But all of that is less important than the impact of Washington’s current actions for the practice and concept of sovereignty. When the United States unilaterally walked away from this agreement, it walked away from the process of negotiation. It showed both Europe and Iran that there was no point in working with Washington to arrive at an accord because Washington might later decide to abandon it even if everyone involved was living up to what had been agreed. This reflects a fundamental lack of respect for sovereignty as an operating concept in international affairs. Like democracy, sovereignty is a concept whose practice rests on the deliberative process.
By breaking the trust inherent in and critical to international deliberations, the United States took a step towards undermining the principle of sovereignty, including its own. By conveying the message that it could not be trusted to keep its part of the bargain in any future agreement — whether vis-à-vis Europe or vis-à-vis Iran — the United States has practically eliminated the space for discussion and made military action — war — virtually inevitable.
This is not, of course, the first time that the concept of sovereignty has suffered in American relations with Iran. In August 1953, U.S. and British intelligence operatives combined efforts to overthrow the democratically elected, leftist-leaning government of Iran. The coup strengthened the regime of the Shah of Iran, who became a staunch American ally for the next 25 years. The subsequent revolution that overthrew the Shah was instinctively opposed to U.S. interests, and militants attacked the U.S. embassy and seized 44 hostages who, it should be remembered, were later all returned alive to the United States on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, in January 1981.
The quarter-century of positive U.S.-Iran relations under the Shah has now been followed by over 40 years of hostile relations. A number of observations might be made about those 40 years. One is that during this entire period, Iran has had the dominating presence of forces of one or another global superpower on its immediate borders. For the first 10 years, it was the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and since the military operations that forced Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, it has been the United States. But this has not always precluded the possibility of dialogue. In the aftermath of 9/11, diplomatic contacts with Iran helped forge a US connection with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Nor have U.S. and Iranian interests always been at loggerheads, as when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard prevented the surging forces of ISIS from taking over Baghdad in the summer of 2014.
The value of unsettling observations like these might seem to be lost in a climate that is focused on war. Indeed, the prospect of war has its own unsettling perspectives to consider, like those offered by Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S.-led military operations in these countries took place 18 and 16 years ago respectively, which is four times as long as the U.S. involvement in World War II. There is still no resolution to the problems of either country, and political and economic and social instability is chronic in both.
The initial (i.e., military) objectives in both countries were not overly difficult to achieve. Afghanistan was a country of 21 million people, sharply divided, and Iraq was a country of 25 million people, again sharply divided. Iran is quite different. It is a nation of 80 million people and one that is strongly unified in terms of religion, history, and culture. Achieving the kind of preponderant military “success” in Iran that was achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan represents a challenge of an entirely different magnitude.
A similarly difficult picture emerges with respect to the role of allies. The United States led a broad-based coalition in the fighting in Afghanistan. The coalition in Iraq was much smaller but still involved an important ally in the UK. With regard to Iran, it is difficult to picture any meaningful coalition of countries that would agree to get engaged there. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are the only countries that see Iran the way the United States does. However, there is little likelihood Israeli forces would wish to get involved there, and while the Saudis and Emiratis have large arsenals, they have little to offer in the way of troops. In other words, a military encounter with Iran would be immeasurably more difficult in every respect than the challenges faced when U.S. forces under the George W. Bush administration went into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Difficult as it would be, the military challenge would pale in comparison to the political, social, and economic challenges if the United States decides to pursue regime change and tries to shape things in Iran the way it has tried to shape Afghanistan and Iraq for the past two decades. The size and unity of Iranian society would make it far more difficult and costly to manage. Moreover, such an effort would add incalculably to the chaos of a region already convulsed by years of turmoil. That the United States could succeed by force in creating and maintaining an effective government and pro-American society in Iran is literally unimaginable: unimaginably difficult, unimaginable in its impact on Middle East stability, unimaginably damaging to U.S. standing in the international community, and an unimaginable burden to impose on a U.S. society that is already involved in ongoing, lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All of which now takes us back to the concept of sovereignty. The best wisdom on how to deal with Iran has long argued for a combination of military toughness, a threat of sanctions, and openness to negotiate — all closely coordinated with sovereign allies. It is unfortunate that the U.S. decision to abandon the structures and processes of international deliberation has left virtually no room for constructive discussion either with its allies or with Iran. It is a dark corner indeed that Washington has painted itself into.