In selling the nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration has been careful to point out that it is just an agreement on nuclear issues. “[The deal] solves one particular problem,” President Obama explained in his news conference on Wednesday. And supporters and critics alike are quick to suggest that this move is quite different from Richard Nixon’s opening to China, which transformed China and its relations with the world. Iran, after all, is a rogue regime that chants “Death to America” and funds anti-American terror across the Middle East.
But let’s recall what China looked like at the time Henry Kissinger went on his secret trip to Beijing in July 1971. Mao Zedong was, without question, the most radical anti-American leader in the world, supporting violent guerrilla groups across Asia and beyond. And while it didn’t chant “Death to America,” Beijing was the principal supporter of the North Vietnamese, sending them troops, supplies and funds to fight and kill American soldiers every day. China was also in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, one of the most barbaric periods of its modern history.
Initially, the opening to China changed none of this. During the talks involving Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese refused to end their support for the North Vietnamese regime or even to encourage Hanoi to negotiate seriously with Washington. In fact, while Nixon and Kissinger were talking to the Chinese, Beijing’s shipments of arms to North Vietnam were increasing. The historian Qiang Zhai, whose book on China’s involvement in the Vietnam War draws on Chinese archives, documents that between 1971 and 1972, China’s shipments of guns, artillery, radio transmitters and vehicles all rose sharply. And just as today we are told that there was a mythical better deal to be had with Iran, conservatives excoriated Nixon for selling out Taiwan, claiming that rather than handing over Taiwan’s spot in the United Nations to Beijing, Washington could have done more to negotiate a dual-seat arrangement.
But over time, China did slow down its support for revolutionary movements in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. And its relations with Vietnam soured — for many reasons, but certainly the opening to the United States was one of them. These shifts finally led to a wholesale rethinking of China’s foreign policy — but seven years after Kissinger’s meetings, under a new Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who first consolidated power and then broke with Mao’s revolutionary worldview.
On Iran, let’s make several caveats. China’s move toward the West was fueled by its split with the Soviet Union and, perhaps, its total isolation. Iran faces no such dire security threat and, as an oil-producing country that, even under sanctions, gets tens of billions of dollars in revenues, it has never been truly isolated or destitute. And yet, Iran clearly resents being treated as a pariah in the world. A new generation of Iranians has demonstrated that frustration in many different ways. And a new set of leaders — who have some influence though not complete control — wants to restore Iran to a more normal status.
Will that mean that Tehran’s foreign policies will moderate? History suggests that as countries get more integrated into the world and the global economy, they have fewer incentives to be spoilers and more to maintain stability. That is surely why so many hard-liners in Iran are opposed to the nuclear deal. They believe it will take Iran in the wrong direction, one that might soften the revolutionary edge of the regime.
Of course, Iran will follow its national interests and sometimes these will conflict with U.S. policy sharply. But on the United States’ most pressing challenges in the Middle East right now — the threat from the Islamic State and the stability of the Iraqi and Afghan governments — Iran and the United States actually have overlapping interests. (Yes, Iran is funding militias in Iraq and Syria, but they are the single most effective force on the ground that is fighting the Islamic State. Should it stop?) The sectarian war in the Middle East — being fueled by Sunnis as well as Shiites — will continue. But finally Washington and others can talk to both sides of the divide to try to broker a reduction of tensions.
No significant change is going to happen in Iran in the next few months. It didn’t in China. It hasn’t in Cuba or Burma. But over the next 10 years, if there is greater contact, communication, commerce and capitalism between Iran and the rest of the world, surely this will gradually empower those Iranians who see their country’s destiny as being part of the modern world, not in opposition to it.