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The first step for the United States in the Middle East is to observe the First Rule of Holes: stop digging. The pursuit of a nuclear understanding with Iran without simultaneously acting to constrain Iran’s effort to dominate the region has destabilized the Sunni world, undermined key American alliances, and contributed to the rise of ISIS and related groups.
The only possible basis for some kind of stability in the Middle East these days involves a Sunni-Shi’a balance based on a Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government and a Sunni-dominated government in Syria. In a sense this would complete the “swap” begun when the Ba’athist, Sunni-dominated Iraqi regime was replaced by a Shi’a regime after the U.S. invasion. If the US were seen to be moving toward establishing a majority based regime in Syria, our relations with Sunni nations from Turkey to Saudi Arabia would begin to improve.
At this point, it is easier to point in the right direction than to trace out a path that policymakers can easily follow. But in order to avoid even worse turmoil in the region, the U.S. needs to link the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran to a resolution of the future of Syria in a way that offers minority communities some basic guarantees, but ensures a government that reflects the majority’s values and concerns. The linkage doesn’t need to be explicit or formal, but American allies need to know where we stand and need to feel that our approach to Iran takes their interests into account.