A deal with Iran to stop the Islamic Republic's nuclear program might avert a Middle East arms race, but it could put the United States in the cross hairs of battle-hardened Sunni militants, a foreign policy expert said during a meeting on Tuesday with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.
The growing number of Sunni and Shiite fighters in the region -- drawn by Syria's three-year-old civil war -- are focused on each other for the moment, said Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"This is not an anti-U.S., anti-Western battle. ... It is about unseating a Shia leader (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad). And for the Shia who are coming to fight, it's about defending him and defending some of the Shia shrines," Sanderson said.
Iran is among Assad's biggest supporters. The United States and Iran cut an interim deal in November to pause Iran's nuclear program, the first formal agreement between the countries since they severed diplomatic ties after Iran's 1979 revolution. The Obama administration's diplomatic outreach to Shiite-dominated Iran unnerved some of America's Sunni allies, including Saudi Arabia.
As President Obama tries to shift foreign policy away from the war footing that has defined it since 9/11, he has used the Iranian agreement as an example of his vision of international leadership.
"For the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement -- one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force," Obama told graduates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28.
Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons predates the revolution -- before the exile of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- and the country's leaders are unlikely to abandon it, said Arnaud de Borchgrave, a veteran foreign correspondent and director of CSIS's Transnational Threats Project, during the hourlong meeting with the Trib.
"I am convinced they're going to go ahead with a nuclear weapon. The shah told me that in 1972," de Borchgrave said.
"If you look at a map of the world if you're sitting in Tehran, whether you're a mullah or a democrat, you can see that you're surrounded by six of the world's nine nuclear powers: Israel, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and the U.S. Fifth Fleet," de Borchgrave said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani defended his country's nuclear ambitions on Tuesday at an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Iran's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei.
"Without a doubt, nuclear power is our definite right," Rouhani said. Iran says its nuclear intentions are peaceful, but Western governments believe the nation is seeking nuclear weapons.
International negotiators from Iran and six world powers, including the United States, are scheduled to resume low-level meetings on Wednesday in Vienna. High-level negotiations are expected to take place this month in an effort to forge a permanent version of the November deal that halted further progress on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for loosening of international economic sanctions.
Sanderson said he supports attempts to improve relations with Iran but questions whether the country's foreign policy sector is ready for what would follow.
As many as 11,000 foreign fighters flooded into Syria, many fighting against the Iranian-backed Assad. The influx dwarfs the 1,000 or so who slipped into Iraq to fight U.S.-led coalition forces, Sanderson said.
"They are highly trained. They come from battles in Iraq, battles in Yemen, battles in Afghanistan, battles in Lebanon. The fighters that come out of Afghanistan and Iraq survived a decade of the best of the best -- the SEALs, Delta Force, SAS (the British Special Air Service)," Sanderson said.
A deal with Iran would tie the United States to a key supporter of Assad's regime.
"What that will tell the Saudis and Sunni jihadists is, 'The equation has been flipped. We're now the bad guys. The U.S. is back in cahoots with Iran,' " Sanderson said.
But a deal with potential to validate Obama's foreign policy vision and define his international legacy could prove too tantalizing to pass up, Sanderson said.
"I think Obama sees this as the crown jewel for him -- bigger than getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan," Sanderson said. "He wants to leave with the Nixonian moment of saying, 'I normalized relations with Iran. I prevented nukes from being built in the region, and we now have a normal relationship with them.' "
The Associated Press contributed to this report.