Post Iran Deal: Time for the Israelis and the Saudis to Get Their Act Together – Leon T. Hadar/HuffPo
Much of the debate over the nuclear deal with Iran focused on the technical issues relating to Iranian compliance and to international inspections, or on the prospects for changes in Iranian policy that could result from repealing the international economic sanctions.
There has also been some speculation about what would have happened if a nuclear deal had not been reached. Supporters of the agreement argue that maintaining the status quo wasn’t a viable option; critics insist that it would have been possible to come up with a “better deal.”
But there has been a certain subtext to this debate that both backers and opponents of the nuclear deal have refrained from discussing: the cost-effectiveness of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The Obama Administration is hoping that the agreement may create conditions under which the drive for growing U.S. military intervention in the region would be halted and allow for a strategic pause to assess U.S. policy in the region.
At the same time, the efforts by Israel and Saudi Arabia and their supporters in Washington to avert a deal with Tehran reflected not only a concern over a potential Iranian nuke.
Under the scenario envisioned by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Saudi leadership, a failure to reach a deal in Vienna would have forced the United States into a diplomatic and military cycle under which continuing anxiety over Iranian nuclear military program would have left it no choice but to green light an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.
Or in exchange for an Israeli agreement not to take a military action, the United States would have to increase the pressure on Tehran, which could lead at some point to a military confrontation between the Iranians and the Americans.
From the perspective of both the Israelis and the Saudis, the Islamic Republic could have the potential to play the role that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, when the that threat served to ally the interests of America’s client states in the Middle East with that of Washington. Radical Arab nationalism led by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt (in the case of Saudi Arabia) and Palestinian nationalism (in Israel’s case) could be depicted as Moscow’s proxies the Middle East, compelling Washington to side with Riyadh and Jerusalem.
If Iran is seen as the new ideological and strategic boogeyman, the Saudis could force the Washington to choose a side in the evolving conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. Any Saudi military move against groups or governments seen as allied with Tehran — like the Houtis in Yemen — would automatically trigger American backing.
Similarly, an American strategy that focuses on Iran as the main threat in the Middle East could help Israel draw Washington on its side. That would not only help preserve Israel’s nuclear monopoly but would also require American support for Israeli military action against perceived Iranian proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas. The entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict could then be marketed as a confrontation between Israel and Iran’s stooges in Palestine.
The Obama Administration refused to buy this Israeli-Saudi co-produced narrative not only because the role that the two governments assigned to it would have forced the U.S. into more costly intervention in the Middle East but also because something not-very-funny happened on the way to the nuclear talks with Iran. The Islamic State (IS) happened.
There is a certain irony that the promotion of a radical version of Sunni-Islam by Saudi Arabia and the collapse of Iraq as a result of a strategy advanced by self-proclaimed supporters of Israel in Washington, have helped give a rise to the IS in Mesopotamia and the Levant (although critics of the Obama Administration insist that if only Washington had armed the “moderate” Islamist groups in Syria, things would have turned out quite different).
In any case, the disintegration of Iraq and Syria and the threat that the IS is now posing to a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad and to a Iranian proxy in Damascus, challenged the narrative where Israel and Saudi Arabia play the role of the Good Guys fighting the Bad Guys (Iran) and required the adoption of a more nuanced U.S. strategy.
After all, a growing military tensions between the United States and Iran that could follow the collapse of the nuclear talks would have played into the hands of the IS by forcing Washington and Tehran — the two most powerful players confronting the murderous Arab-Sunni group — to divert diplomatic and military resources to confronting each other.
At the same time, Riyadh and Jerusalem that have been advocating a U.S. confrontation with Iran have yet to advance a strategy to defeat the IS. If anything, the Saudis are continuing provide assistance to radical Sunni groups in the region and are inflaming the Sunni-Shiite conflict, while Israel’s failure to reach a deal with the Palestinians continues to wreck U.S. strategy.
A breakdown in the talks in Vienna would have raised the costs of U.S. intervention in the Middle East to the stratosphere. Not only would the United States be drawn into a confrontation with Iran (and its proxies in the region) but it would have had to continue battling the IS, including by providing support to a regime in Baghdad that is allied with Tehran and by continuing to oppose the anti-IS regime in Damascus.
Contrary to the scenarios being drawn by critics of the Obama administration, Washington is not about to establish a strategic U.S.-Iran condominium in the Middle East. But even the prospects of some cooperation between Washington and Iran on IS and perhaps other issues allows the Americans to come up with a more cost-effective strategy in dealing with the IS, especially when it doesn’t have to divert more resources to confronting Iran.
The deal also provides incentives for regional players to take care of their interests and in a way that doesn’t require direct U.S. military intervention.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have warned that the Iran deal would allow Tehran to strengthen its economic and military power and emerge as a regional hegemon. But then the Israelis and Saudis would benefit now from a relatively long strategic pause until Iran would be able to acquire nuclear military capability during which they could try to ensure that the regional balance of power doesn’t shift in Tehran’s direction.
First, if all the talk about the common interests that Israel and the Arab-Sunni states now share in face of a growing Iranian threat is more than just the figment of imagination of arm-chair strategists, why aren’t the Israelis, Saudis, Egyptians — and perhaps the Turks — combining their enormous military and economic power — including Israel’s nuclear military capability and Saudi wealth — to deter Iran and its proxies in the region?
After all, if Iran poses an “existential” threat to Israel and to the Arab-Sunnis, perhaps the time has come for them to reach a deal on the Palestinian issue? Or is that again something that the Americans are obligated to deliver to them?
Indeed, an Arab-Israeli peace ceased to be a core U.S. interest. It’s in the interest of the Arab and the Israeli leaders to make peace and work together to secure a stable regional balance of power in face of the challenges posed by an assertive Iran. If they can’t do that, they should pay the price and not expect Washington to get them out of the mess they helped create.
From that perspective, the Iran deal may be the first step in a process that would allow Middle Easterners to finally start writing their own histories instead of expecting Washington to continue running the show for them.