international analysis and commentary

Iran, the regional balance and US retrenchment


History will not be kind when it sits in judgment of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Signs are everywhere of an American retreat from world crises. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. America’s regional allies look around and see nothing but vacuous rhetoric, broken promises, and empty threats. It is not just the half-hearted and short-term surge in Afghanistan that failed to stem the tide; or the precipitous exit from Iraq that exacerbated its descent into another sectarian abyss; it is America’s incoherent policy responses to crises in Egypt and Syria that have spread panic among America’s traditional allies – Israel and the Gulf States. And now there is a new dawn in Iran-US relations – which allies in the region find hard to swallow. It is as if, in one fell swoop, America threw its regional foreign policy under the bus, alongside its friends.

This is the lens through which America’s allies in the region now read America’s incredibly perplexing management of the Iranian nuclear file. There is little difference in threat perception between Israel and Saudi Arabia, or the other GCC countries, for that matter, when it comes to Iran. Much like Israel, the Sunni dynasties view Iran’s nuclear quest as a means to an end – a stepping stone to regional hegemony. For the smaller Gulf principalities, a hegemonic Iran is hard to live with. For Saudi Arabia and Israel, it is intolerable. That is why for both countries President Obama’s approach to the region is unconscionable; keeping them in the dark about his secret backchannel with Iran was deplorable; and signing the Joint Plan of Action alongside the other five world powers in Geneva was proof that America can no longer be relied on.

With the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, Gulf States will make do with diminished American power: some are too small to stand in the way of a resurgent Iran – but they also have a fragile social fabric and, in the cases of Kuwait and Bahrain, restless Shi’a communities whose grievances Iran could stir. Oman has always gotten along with Iran. Qatar, with all its misgivings about Iran and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, will never align itself to Saudi Arabia. The Emirates too, have their cloth cut for a middle course – too many Iranian expatriates live and do business in Dubai; the country’s infrastructure is too exposed to Iranian retaliations; the smaller emirates are acting too independently; and America is beyond the horizon. Abu Dhabi has already dispatched its foreign minister, in an unprecedented move, to visit Iran. Their way of telling America they do not trust it on Iran is to embrace the enemy – since friends in Washington have made it clear they won’t come to the rescue.

For Saudi Arabia, it is different (and Bahrain, for all intents and purposes, has ceased to have an independent foreign policy). Small principalities like Kuwait and the Emirates can keep a low profile while playing on all tables, in the hope that Iran will ignore them or show magnanimity. Saudi Arabia, with its huge landmass, its incomparable wealth and influence, and its role as the birthplace of Islam and the Sunni custodian of its holiest places, can neither hide its head in the sand nor try to be inconspicuous. For the Saudis, America’s wobbliness in the region, in the wake of Iran’s rising challenge, is a threat to the stability of the kingdom and the survival of its ruling family.

It is not just Iran and its nuclear quest. Saudi Arabia has been watching both Egypt and Syria for three years now, horrified at the incompetent and fickle response America has offered. In both cases, Saudi Arabia has increasingly taken matters into its own hands – it has bolstered military support to Syrian rebels and bankrolled the Egyptian countercoup against the Muslim Brotherhood. It has also explored new military deals with France. It has reminded the world that it has a nuclear insurance policy in Pakistan, which the Pakistani government – its nuclear program sustained by Saudi largesse – will no doubt honor. And it has begun to emit interesting noises through the government-controlled press and select agents of influence speaking to Western media to signal that its interests increasingly align with Israel. How could they not? Anyone making a threat assessment from Riyadh today would see crises all around and would be inclined to view Iran as the main culprit. The only country that brings no threat whatsoever – in fact, the only country prepared to do what increasingly the Saudis think is necessary – is Israel.

Israel appears to be on a similar wavelength. Beyond the smiles and constant public reassurances that bilateral US-Israel relations are rock solid, there is a sense of profound shock and anxiety among Israeli policymakers that the US has lost its compass.

Say what you wish about the interim nuclear deal signed last November in Geneva. For Israel, America has, for all intents and purposes, signaled that Iran’s enrichment program will not be dismantled, and that America’s biggest leverage – painful economic sanctions – has now been diminished before the goal of the policy was achieved in the first place.

Israel’s concerns about the impact of sanctions relief is fully warranted – Iran has not stopped cheating on procurement and its illicit financial activities; its concessions are fully reversible – and quickly. But sanctions relief – beyond its dollar value – will be hard to reverse, given its dramatic psychological impact on markets and the business sector.

Beyond that, Israel’s concern is that America will seek an agreement at all costs, at the expense of depriving Iran of the capability to build a nuclear weapon and its delivery means – and the dynamics by which the Arak heavy water reactor was left out of the initial deal negotiated by the US through the backchannel, and then force fed to the P5+1, is strong proof of that.

As for sanctions, President Obama claims credit for the toughest sanctions regime ever imposed against a country as the principal reason for dragging Iran to the negotiating table. However, the Obama administration has actively and at times vigorously resisted the introduction of new sanctions through legislation by the US Congress. The Israelis are well aware of this fact – which does not help repair confidence in the White House.

Finally, there is the issue of intelligence and red lines. America has proven to have little of the latter in Syria – and why should anyone believe it will therefore have something to show on Iran? The Saudis, in particular, have a grudge on this matter – not just because of Syria, but also because, when in October 2011 Iranian agents plotted to murder the Saudi Ambassador to the US in a crowded Washington restaurant, the US administration spent more time pretending this was the work of rogue regime elements than retaliating against Iran’s brazen actions. Why trust President Obama’s reiterations that “all options are on the table” when the culprits of that plot have never been punished, let alone named?

Looking at intelligence, the administration insists that Iran cannot possibly surprise the US intelligence community when it comes to its nuclear weapons program, but precedent begs to differ, and greatly so. In fact, there is not one single instance in the history of nuclear proliferation in which Western intelligence services were not surprised – Pakistan, India, North Korea and Libya being the most recent examples. In each case, the gap between what they thought they knew and what turned out to be the truth was considerable. Why would Iran be any different? America’s self-confidence smacks of arrogance – and it is further proof that regional allies can no longer trust America to do what is right when it comes to preventing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

That does not mean that diplomacy stands no chance – both Israel and Saudi Arabia will give President Obama ample time to explore his options with Iran. But America cannot expect that its regional allies will sit back and relax in the meantime. Instead, they may explore alternatives – including ones that bind them together. And if things go wrong, or do not go anywhere, there may come a time when they will act – if not against America’s will, certainly behind its back. That time may be soon – as early as the expiry of the six-month period of the interim deal, with a higher probability once the US mid-term elections have further diminished the President’s standing.

President Obama’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia in March may be his way to fix a broken relationship. Yet, unless the President clearly restores America’s credibility in the region, he will find that the agreements his emissaries sign in Geneva and Vienna will not be worth the paper they are printed on.