As the prospect of serious negotiations between the Americans and Iranians comes closer, both Israel and Saudi Arabia become nervous. Their interests are not identical with those of the United States, and the prospect of a US-Iranian grand bargain is stressing American ties with both countries.Israel’s problem is primarily about the nuclear issue and secondarily about the non-nuclear elements of a possible US-Iranian agreement. The Israelis worry most of all that the US will accept a nuclear agreement that leaves Iran closer to a bomb than the Israelis would like to see them, sacrificing Israeli security interests as understood in Jerusalem in order to keep the US out of a war. That is their big worry and it appears that reassuring them on this score has been a major focus of US diplomacy. The Israelis also worry about the rise of Iranian power in their neighborhood, especially as it involves Hezbollah’s access to arms and support. It’s possible to imagine a US-Iranian grand bargain that is acceptable to Israel, but there will be challenges on both the nuclear and non-nuclear elements of the deal.The Saudis have much more at stake. They are, like the Israelis, nuclear hawks on the subject of Iran, and they will want the US to drive as hard a bargain as possible. But the Saudis are more interested in geography than in physics. They aren’t as interested in centrifuge counts as the Israelis are, but the possibility that the US would accept Iranian primacy across the Fertile Crescent in exchange for a nuclear deal is something close to a mortal threat. Saudi legitimacy at home and abroad rests on a claim to express and defend the true spirit of Sunni Islam. The sectarian conflict is an existential one for the Saudis, both because they have a restive Shi’a minority at home and because their domestic support and international prestige is linked to the prosperity of the Sunni cause in the struggle against what many Sunnis see as an imperial Shi’a surge. The fear that a newly empowered Iran would step up support for Shi’as in the Gulf monarchies keeps Saudi royals up at night, sweating and gnashing their teeth. If anything, the Saudis care more about Iraq, Syria and Lebanon than they do about Iran’s nuclear program; this makes them even more nervous and angry about US-Iranian negotiations than the Israelis.So here’s Obama’s problem. Not negotiating with Iran drives him toward the fateful decision he has tried to avoid since the first day of his presidency: he doesn’t want to be in the position of choosing between accepting an Iranian nuclear arsenal or launching a war. But negotiating with Iran throws the Middle East into upheaval and may stress his ties to his closest allies to the breaking point—with no guarantee that it will pay off in an agreement.For Iran, it’s an interesting and perhaps enjoyable position. Obama is in a box: negotiating with Iran and not negotiating with Iran both undermine his regional position.
In other Middle East news, the Syrian war continued to spread sectarian violence across the region this week; this year’s death toll in Iraq is pushing into record territory. Egypt had an especially bad day, after gunmen opened fire on a wedding ceremony, while Algerian troops discovered a massive stash of weapons along the Libyan border. Worryingly, Saudi Arabia is inching towards anti-US policy.A thick layer of toxic smog settled over the Chinese city of Harbin this week, kicking off the country’s air pollution season. Burning coal is responsible for much of the country’s smog, but new oil and gas deals with Russia could help Beijing diversify away from the dirty-burning resource. Farther south, India faces a much different kind of resource problem: an onion crisis. A rift between Indian big business and the sitting government was a boost for opposition candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi. In Pakistan, opposition leader Imran Khan got an early Christmas present with the release of new reports of CIA drone strikes—and the Pakistani government’s complicity in said strikes.There was plenty of news out of Europe this week. Reports of NSA cyber-snooping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel put the President in hot water once again over his administration’s intelligence gathering practices. Remember, this was the President who was supposed to reinvigorate America’s relationships with its European allies. France’s soccer clubs went Galt this week as they announced a boycott of the country’s proposed 75 percent tax rate. British euroskeptics might be pushing Scotland towards independence, while Britain’s political leadership continues to run back from the country’s misguided green policies. Moldova is considering cozying up to Europe as Russia’s influence continues to wane—Ukraine is also looking to shake off Russia’s influence with a slew of new domestic energy deals. Talks between the EU and Turkey might be back on track, while the EU establishment seems to be slowly turning against the euro.Domestically, the plan to offer a $10,000 Bachelor’s degree hit snags this week, though there was a bit of bright news in the world of higher education reform: the University of Wisconsin took a big step towards embracing the “stuff learned,” rather than “time served,” model. Encouragingly, tuition hike increases at public universities slowed down this year. There was also good news for charter schools in the form of a new report that showed sharp increases in test scores for charter school students.The hunt is on to find out who’s to blame in Obamacare’s troubled rollout in recent weeks. But the ACA’s problems extend beyond its website—it’s providing Missouri with more expensive health care with fewer choices and lower quality. Moreover, many of its purported benefits may be coming at the expense of the rural working class. But now that we seem to have found a consensus that the rollout has been a fiasco, pundits are increasingly pivoting towards solutions, both short and long term.[Image: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks while Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu listens during a meeting in the Oval Office, September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama was meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister to discuss the situation in Syria and Iran; courtesy Getty.]